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A hostile government could be the ABC's best friend

  • 06 October 2014

With promised cuts to the ABC upon us, the Corporation’s friends and enemies are out in force. 

This week’s bad news for the ABC was the Government’s appointment to its Board of commercial media financial controller Peter Lewis, who conducted the recent efficiency review that is the precursor to the imminent cuts. That makes it more likely than ever that the forces of economic rationalism will control the destiny of one of Australia’s most important creative and intellectual institutions.

The good news is that Essential polling has revealed that a majority of Australians is worried about cuts to the ABC. So if the government is more driven by polls than ideology, it will go easy on the public broadcaster. As Crikey pointed out on Thursday, there’s not a lot a government can do about the ABC’s popularity and the reality that cutting its revenue would be electoral poison.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the integrity of the ABC is that its management might be tempted to also go easy on the Government, in the hope that a relatively cosy relationship might work for both, minimising both electoral fallout for the government and cuts for the ABC. 

There are already signs of this occurring, with ABC management compliant in foreshadowing cuts to programs it considers expensive and expendable, thereby shielding the minister from public criticism and from having to justify his government’s blood-letting. Management appears, here, to be playing a politically partisan role which is certainly not in the national interest.

There is always a danger that ABC management will, wittingly or unwittingly, do the government’s work for it in a number of ways, including some that appear to be in the best interest of all Australians. For example, there is the coming week’s Mental As program blitz that is designed to promote mental health awareness. 

It is all about healing individuals, overcoming stigma, and enhancing the well-being of all Australians. Hardly anything we would want to discourage. But there is the sense that the ABC is doing what is properly the task of a government funded agency, rather than a broadcaster that usually aims to include in its programs a healthy dose of skepticism that is not compatible with such campaigns or focused messaging. 

Of course an exception can and should be made for a cause such as mental health. However there’s a good chance this will create a precedent, and the government might lean on the