ABC should lose international TV channel


Australia Network highlights collage

Those who understand the role of public service broadcasting in a democracy have dismissed as absurd Prime Minister Tony Abbott's accusation that the ABC is unpatriotic. 

Speaking to Ray Hadley on commercial radio station 2GB, Abbott criticised the ABC's coverage of news stories relating to Indonesian spying leaks and asylum seeker abuse claims. He said: 'A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone's side but Australia's.'

Even the Government's own Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the comment when speaking to Leigh Sales on 7.30. 

There is nothing in [the ABC Charter] that says that it should be nationalistic. The big issue, Leigh, is accuracy and balance and this is where you as a broadcaster and the ABC have got a very different role to, say, a talkback host on commercial radio 'cause you have to be — you are bound to be balanced and objective, accurate and fair.

Turnbull should make a fine Communications Minister if he is able to impress upon the Prime Minister this grasp of the essentials of public service broadcasting, which has nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. 

Far from it in fact. Being patriotic is about selling a nation's positive self-image within and beyond its borders. Like selling in general, it gives priority to persuasion and good feeling over truth and a balanced perspective. 

But it can be electorally rewarding for a government to have voters deluded into knowing only what is good about their nation and their government's performance. They are shielded from knowledge of ugly realities such as the country's shameful treatment of asylum seekers. Media manipulation is a successful strategy of leaders of pariah states such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who manages to remain relatively popular despite his appalling record of service to the people. 

If patriotism took hold of our public service media, we'd need to resort to foreign media to discover unpalatable truths about our country such as the living conditions of Indigenous Australians. Already we sometimes learn from foreign media hard truths about our nation that are ignored or glossed over by our own media. 

Unfortunately the ABC has muddied its own waters with its pursuit of the non-core activity of running the Government's Australia Network international television service. The network's role is described as 'soft diplomacy' on Australia's behalf, and its mission is precisely patriotism. There is no mention of truth, accuracy and balance on the 'about us' page of its website, because that's not the essence of what it's about. What matters most is the 'uniquely Australian perspective'.

So the Government could be doing the ABC a favour if it axes the Australia Network in the May Budget in line with media speculation during the past week. The ABC would be left to pursue unambiguously its mission of truth, accuracy and impartiality in reporting good and bad news about our nation and its government.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia Network, ABC, Mark Scott, public service broadca



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Existing comments

Ah but surely the better option would be for the ABC to be pursuing 'unambiguously its mission of truth, accuracy and impartiality' through the Australia Network as well as through Radio Australia and its domestic services? Especially when the alternative would be to have Murdoch and BSkyB doing the job. There was an interesting article on this matter in Inside Story several years ago, which can be accessed at’s-satellite-tv-service-head-skywards/
Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2014

"Being patriotic is about selling a nation's positive self-image within and beyond its borders." In my opinion this is precisely what patriotism is not "about". If we are to prevent patriotism and nationalism being used as exact synonyms we should be careful in their use; a good starting point would be Orwell's essay 'Notes on Nationalism'. I consider myself a patriot. I love the physical place called Australia and respect the people who have shaped and been shaped by it before me - my 'patrios'. But I have no affection for the political entity, the Australian nation, and what it does in my name. I am not nationalistic. Patriotism is conservative, defensive. Nationalism is aggressive and 'sells' itself. Something of the same mind-set probably explains ABC TV's relentless self-promotion. In this respect I would like to see the corporation become much less aggressive.
John Vernau | 31 January 2014

The ABC is viewed by many Australians as 'part of the family' - a public broadcaster to be relied upon. As such, the ABC needs to maintain the utmost integrity and impartiality in reporting and commenting on current affairs. The ABC also plays an important role in children's entertainment and drama. The government of the day has every right to expect the highest standards from ABC but does not have the right to interfere in editorial choices. I'd have every confidence in the Australian public to be discerning and watchful about ABC maintaining high standards.
Pam | 31 January 2014

Thanks, John Vernau for your mention of Orwell's distinction; I've been mentioning this to people recently, as the difference between patriotism and nationalism becomes increasingly blurred, and both somehow become more vaguely synonymous with the executive power itself. Patriotism is something which should only be called upon when the nation is under real threat. And even then, it is meaningless unless there is a genuinely shared sense of nationhood, worth defending; in these times of increasing inequality and bigotry, atomisation and indulgent self-absorption, there is real doubting its existence. If the ABC loses the Australia Network, it's likely Murdoch will have it, and in this case even mild 'patriotism' will be transformed into jingoism on behalf of the government, its cronies, and various reactionary forces.
Andrew McRae | 01 February 2014

Apparently for some 'truth' is always of the left. The ABC would be better received by many if it stopped constantly pandering to the leftist (Labor/Green) agenda. If it gained some reasonable balance in its current affairs commentary. If it stopped nuancing the 'news' with a leftist tone. And if it employed at least one conservative voice (or is that too much to ask) amongst a plethora of left wing presenters in prime time major news commentary and interviewing. Until it does all this the ABC will always be seen as a left biased organization in spite of the fact that it is funded by ALL taxpaying Australians 50% of whom vote for conservative parties.
deric davidson | 01 February 2014

deric davidson, in his predictable comments, forgets that during the last few years of the Labor government political events were invariably presented through the News Limited 'frame', in which most items were headlined by emphasis on the views of the LNP opposition. Usually, this meant that Labor initiatives or statements were prefaced by 'Abbott says...' or some such. The 'take' on political news was invariably adopted straight from the Murdoch press, online or otherwise. In addition, there is a continuing publicity given to the extreme right views of the IPA, whose members are trotted out daily in current affairs programs. Further, has deric davidson never heard of the 'Counterpoint' program on RN every Monday, these days presented by Amanda Vanstone? These criticisms of the ABC are hackneyed and have never been supported by studies of its news and current affairs coverage.
Andrew McRae | 02 February 2014

Hi deric, have you ever listed to Amanda Vanstone's Counterpoint on ABC RN? Monday 4pm, repeated Friday 1pm. On line at It's a quality program from a seriously conservative point of view, intellectually rigorous, and streets ahead of what Bolt and Jones serve up. Vanstone has really lifted the quality and credibility of that program from the mediocrity of the previous presenters. As a host and interviewer, I'd put her well ahead of Phillip Adams. I listen to both of them!
Ginger Meggs | 02 February 2014

No one wants a propaganda machine for a national media institution. Propaganda can be of many forms though. A sense that a national media institution must never show support for a Government policy is just as much propaganda as when politicians attempt to manipulate the media institution into showing biased support for any policy. To say that the national broadcaster should be fearless in its pursuit of the truth but then limit that fearlessness to criticism only and not to worthy praise, is a worse form of propaganda, censorship and a betrayal of democracy. For, who will compose the criteria for 'fearless reporting' but a select few who decide how to examine, what questions to ask and what direction to take the interview in. A very big difference from offering knowledge and facts and encouraging wide discussion and conversations on a national scale. It's very interesting to observe Leigh Sales on the 7:30 Report follow her 'script' in questioning and interrupting those she interviews. The interviewee never has a copy of the questions in front of them to refer to. Eddie Maguire at least allows his entertaining "trick cats and dogs" to see the questions!
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 03 February 2014

Yes deric, I agree. Although I suspect the problem is one of the ABC's Public (i.e.Civil) Service culture. Have you noticed the self-promotion lately "without bias or agenda"?? If the ABC were truly without bias or agenda, they wouldn't have to spin that they were! To me, and many others I speak with that also listen to the ABC, it's become necessary to apply our own filter to what we are hearing. Which, of course, completely negates what it seems the ABC editorial team are trying to achieve. Back off, it's getting counterproductive!
Ian | 03 February 2014

Ginger Meggs and John Vernau make great points regarding the ABC’s domestic and international missions. Patriotism, and its close ally nationalism, are particular forms of the age-old and widely prevalent human characteristic of wishing to belong or adhere to a group culture or identity. In practice, they can frequently become dangerously dysfunctional when the values and behaviours of the associated national culture are inconsistent with the high standards of moral, compassionate and ethical behaviour that most people would consider to be “good” - values which include freedom of expression, democracy, equity, fairness and equality before the law. Abbott is attempting to exploit and manipulate the patriotic tendencies of society via the ABC in order to promote immoral and socially unsustainable values. This is reprehensible and dysfunctional leadership, probably best summed up by Samuel Johnson’s words “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. I presently write while on a brief trip to Houston Texas – the “warrior-patriot” state - and fear this may represent where some of Australia’s current pollies are leading us.
Richard Heggie | 03 February 2014

YES! Such perspicacity! Michael Mullins, you have hit the nail on its head. If ONLY the Australia Network contract had gone somewhere OTHER than to Rupert Murdoch, this awkward conflict of purpose never would have arisen.
Bob | 03 February 2014

I laugh when I see that Australia Network is supposed to be representing Australia through 'soft diplomacy' and 'presenting a unique Australian perspective'. From the user's point of view, that means having to watch The Block and MKR plus a plethora of police shows most of which are of questionable quality. I suppose Home and Away does present a uniquely Australian perspective, so unique, you only get it on the Northern beaches of Sydney. The News service is presented currently by a reader who stumbles over every second word and has a sickening grin on her face whenever she is reporting human disasters. The News regularly gets bumped in favour of the latest "reality" TV show. In my 5 years in Indonesia, it has variously been on at 7 pm, 7.30 pm and 8 pm. When I complain to AN, I get an anodyne response about programming complications.
ErikH | 03 February 2014

Samuel Johnson's comment seems appropriate: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel".
Owen | 03 February 2014

Regional perspectives of Australia are at least partially formed by programming content of the Australia Network international television service. Michael's recommendation is all about protecting the integrity of the ABC. However the quality of program content must also be considered. Judging from what we already see of content from the Murdoch and Sky channels, if they take over the Australia Network, we can expect viewers of Australia's international television service will be subject to a mixture of banality, superficial nationalism and conservative slant on news and current affairs. I think, Michael, that Australia is better served if we leave the ABC in control and let them balance the difference in wording between their domestic and international charters.
Ian Fraser | 03 February 2014

al-Jazeera is owned by the Qatari government; is al-Jazeera an arm of the Qatari government's 'soft diplomacy' programme?
David Arthur | 03 February 2014

If patriotism is simply defined as caring a country’s image and reputation, Tony Abbot could be a perfect mouthpiece for Communism. In Vietnam –one of the last few remaining communist countries- being patriotic is loving socialism.
Toan Nguyen | 03 February 2014

I'm not sure what your point is David; would you explain please. There are many government owned broadcasters but they are not all the same. Voice of America, for example, is government owned and there to promote government thinking and as such, its 'news' service is always open to question. The BBC Overseas Service is government owned, but not there to promote government thinking. DW is, I think, in the same class. I would hope that any service presented by either ABC or SBS on any platform would NOT be required to promote government. policy.
Name | 03 February 2014

up here in northern Mindanao, we expats used to enjoy Channel 62 Australia+, up till early December. Now we do without Carols in the Domain, the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, and the NYE fireworks. Thanks a lot, Tony.
walter p komarnicki | 05 January 2015


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