Attacks against the ABC are undemocratic



It is quite plain that most Australians would like to keep their ABC independent and free. Media polls have been solidly consistent on this point.

As workers adjust the location of an ABC billboard on top of a building, Malcolm Turnbull instructs 'To the right!' Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasIt is the most trusted outlet for news and commentary, along with SBS. Despite cyclic onslaughts from politicians, and public hostility against institutions across the board, a solid majority of Australians still turn to the ABC when they want to understand what is going on.

In a post-budget poll conducted by the Australia Institute, 70 per cent of voters believe that a 'strong, independent ABC is critical to a healthy democracy'. Nearly 60 per cent disagree with the idea that it 'should get less funding and provide fewer online and streaming services, so that they don't undermine commercial media'. Majorities in all political parties want a long-term funding boost.

In other words, persistent attacks against the ABC can only be read as un-democratic and should be resisted. Australians do not have a problem with their taxes paying for ABC programs, including those they might not watch or hear, such as the ones broadcast in rural/regional areas. This speaks to the nature of public goods: collectivist, and oriented toward non-discriminatory service. How we feel or personally benefit from it is beside the point.

Sentimentality is not required to defend the ABC. One can be ambivalent or derisive toward it, yet still concede that people deserve access to information and cultural products that are not beholden to private, commercial, government or foreign interests.

It is precisely this detachment from power that leads Australians to trust the ABC. Losing it would leave them un-moored. Who benefits from that? And if people value the ABC and would rather keep it public, then who (or what) are its detractors speaking for?

There is political hay to be made in convincing the right that the ABC has a leftward bias. It is a strategy that counts on short memories. When Labor was in power, its members would routinely complain that, in being too stringent with government, the ABC was actively aiding the Coalition. This only suggests that the ABC does its job, no matter who is in charge.


"It is hard to parse the argument that a publicly funded broadcaster, a national flagship, should be curtailed out of consideration for media companies that have always generated revenue alongside it."


There is also an ideological push in play. As the ABC ventures further into digital platforms, per its charter, this is being increasingly framed as an unfair advantage in the media market.

It is hard to parse the argument that a publicly funded broadcaster, a national flagship, should be curtailed out of consideration for media companies that have always generated revenue alongside it. It is also hard to understand how a concession could be made that 'commercially unviable' rural/regional components should be preserved while holding the ABC in contempt for being commercially competitive.

What this all suggests is that privatisation (or threats of it) is, at least in part, unwarranted protectionism. The market is still the market, no matter what the ABC does. As journalist Emma Alberici points out, it does not divert revenue from commercial outlets at all — but it will if privatised. It would be an own goal.

No one is saying that the ABC is beyond critique; its public nature in fact raises the bar for scrutiny. People are free to criticise editorial misjudgments or factually incorrect pieces there — as they should with other networks, if fair play is indeed what is sought. But it does not follow that merely being unhappy with coverage is cause for chucking it altogether.

If the allocation of resources at the national broadcaster is in question, then that finds proper place at senate estimates hearings and other parliamentary processes, rather than tabloid columns or ideological tomes. For what it's worth, ABC managing directors have had no compunction shrinking or folding programs under recently strained budgets. (The pressure, however, has got to the point where current managing director Michelle Guthrie is deploying a Deloitte report on the billion-dollar economic contribution of the ABC.)

Under a worldview that calculates value in terms of revenue or profit, it probably does seem baffling and even preposterous that the ABC continues to operate without such drivers. But taxpayers aren't shareholders, and they mostly don't think like shareholders. Every altercation involving public goods — Medicare, for instance — has demonstrated that Australians have a keener sense of society than politicians give them credit for.

Anywhere we look where news and commentary are attached to corporate metrics or partisan agenda, information gets compromised, and by extension the capacity of citizens to discern what is at stake. They deserve truth, even when it does not generate profit other than itself.

The latest push against the ABC may well just be another test flag, leaving it intact. Yet it is precious enough not to let down our guard.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, ABC



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Existing comments

Most Australians see the ABC as an icon, Fatima, just like "the green and gold" and the beach. Not everyone, however, supports the "green and gold" (Australia's national colours are actually royal blue and gold) and not everyone is a beach goer. However, those who are not regular supporters would vote in favour of "the green and gold", retaining our beaches and the ABC. The real poll is the one which records what media outlets the majority of Australians actually access. The ABC never tops TV or radio polls for either news or entertainment but Australians would never accept getting rid of it even if they do not personally access it in numbers that achieve a democratic majority. I also doubt that "altercations involving public goods indicate that Australians have a keen sense of society" - avoidance of paying tax and getting as much as possible for nothing from government is perhaps Australia's true national game and has been played since the 15 minutes of confrontation at Eureka Stockade- a keen sense of self, not of society.

ABC supporter | 20 June 2018  

I don't support privatising the ABC, and I do support increasing its funding, not cutting its funding! The current Government's cuts to the ABC have resulted in the loss of programmes such as 'Sunday Night with Paul Cleary ' and I would like such programmes restored. If some politicians on either side of politics can't handle well balanced critique of some of their policies, I think they should look for another job! I'm happy for some of my taxes to be used to fund the ABC, and I'm happy that I don't have to put up with numerous advertisements that I do have to put up with when watching or listening to other media enterprises.

Grant Allen | 20 June 2018  

This is a substantial and timely article about current attacks upon the ABC. The ideological case for privatising the ABC is spear-headed by IPA researchers, Davidson and Berg, who argue that good reasons for privatising the ABC 'include meeting consumer satisfaction, eliminating taxpayer subsidies, and to ensure competitive neutrality in media markets.' (Against Public Broadcasting, 2018). The ‘unfair advantage in the media market’ push that Fatima refers to is strongly supported by News Corp. What would be lost if the ABC was privatised? Fatima suggests “Losing it would leave them un-moored” and that the ABC “is precious enough not to let down our guard.” But what precisely does ‘un-moored’ and ‘precious’ mean? Public interest journalism, coverage of religion and indigenous affairs, ABC for Kids, even Q&A forums for national conversations, ABC networks of foreign correspondents, rural community programs: these are likely to go out the window. The ABC’s association with the Jack Irish series, ‘The Code’, ‘Janet King’ and currently ‘Mystery Road’ present striking images of Australian society and culture. A pertinent question many Australians might consider is whether the current spectrum of Australian media, particularly News Corp, would be able to fill the void left by the ABC’s demise?

PeterD | 20 June 2018  

I do not favour the privatisation of the ABC, though I do favour that of the SBS. Where does the democratic legitimacy of politically biased content on the ABC derive from? The broadcasters are not elected. They have no constituency. They answer to no-one. They have great cultural and political power. Any politician, however much they might not be my cup of tea, has democratic legitimacy. They have a constituency and are democratically accountable. The political bias of the ABC is at time massively overstated, and it is not all one way. Though it is real, and overall it tends in favour of the ALP and the Greens, if inconsistently. Criticism of the ABC is perfectly democratic and legitimate. The better reasons for opposing its privatisation relate to continuing provision of broadcasting to remote areas and for control of emergency broadcasting systems. Reasons relating to the cosmopolitan bourgeouisie not wanting its favourite broadcaster to lose state funding do not cut it.

Adrian | 21 June 2018  

The ABC is about the only intelligent TV and balanced news available, other than maybe SBS, who has also had their funding cut. Our children grew up watching the ABC and not commercial TV. They did complain, but they benefited from not being brainwashed by advertisements at a young age and also watching more educational programs. Our extended family and friends all love the ABC. The government won't sell our ABC, they will just suck the life out of it by lowering funding, until this great institution has lost the wonderful journalists and programs we have now. No one wants it privatised, least of all the competition. I also believe those who complain about the ABC being to the left, are so used to the Murdoch media and others who are so bias and right wing. And the ABC has topped some radio and TV programs.

Cate | 21 June 2018  

My biggest criticism of the ABC is that it errs on the side of conservatism rather than the other way. That said, without our ABC, our country would become less informed, our children would be fed sugary pap, First Nations would be seen as cartoon characters rather than the constructive, stereotype-smashing, independent-thinking, perspective-dwarfing, dimension-enlarging contributors to the national debate that they bring with admirable determination and persistence. In the current context of what seems to be another worldwide descent into divisive, persecutory, abusive, behaviour perpetrated by the rich and powerful on the disempowered poor, the concerted attack on the ABC will play a significant part.

Bev Henwood | 22 June 2018  

"It's quite plain that most Australians would like to keep their ABC Independent and Free". Fatima, this service is not free and it is not free to do what it wants. In addition, there are many of us that question its editorial slant and therefore its true independence. My 78 year old mother recently told me she gave up on the ABC for SBS news years ago. I retorted that I did not trust the news it presented because of the editorial slant. Then we went into a long discussion about the issues that Michelle Guthrie faces if she has lost the quality and the trust. The numbers you quote are in decline and the most precipitous decline they have ever suffered has been in the last two years. The ABC has a problem. I seek good journalism. We grew up in a household that read Fairfax because FXJ could fund their journalism from the online classified "rivers of gold". The delivery technology changed to digital and the result, to my mind, is that FXJ papers are now unreadable because of the poor journalistic content. I have changed my subscription to the New York Times. This keeps me updated with world news and provides global examples of economic and social policies implemented by all governments. THE NYT has more recently placed Damien Cave in Australia and provides a daily Australian letter. The ABC has become much less relevant because the barriers that surrounded the old playing field have digitized. Sell it. Force it to grow up and change as the rest of us are being forced to.

Patrick | 22 June 2018  

The main reason why there is a push to privatize the ABC is that most of its commentary attacks the centre right & far right positions. Gerard Henderson makes a valid point when he says that any criticism aired on the ABC of a Labor policy comes from the left. It would not hurt the ABC to encourage more conservative voices to be heard. They are a rarity. The price for not doing so is that it will get “reformed” without the ABC & its supporters input. There are plenty of recent examples of this happening. I make this comment as an ABC supporter & a usual critic of Mr Henderson’s views.

Tim | 22 June 2018  

ABC is biased like many other media outlets - they refuse to report on issues with regards to motherhood - mother and child - the destruction of families to fill the needs of infertile couples - it does not matter who is in government - ABC is biased reporting - failing women's voices - disrespecting women's serious issues - silencing women - refusing to report on the war against motherhood - mother and child - and refusing to listen to our voices when it comes to present inquiry into local adoptions - the Coalition has arranged - even Inquiry itself is disrespecting and silencing mothers voices demanding to be heard over a system that is failing families - the hearing today is an example of Coalition biased attitude - only listening to public servants, or government funded adoption organisations or the same voices of three academics who do not support motherhood - so yes the ABC is biased and many people in the real world are saying sell off the ABC - ABC supposed to be about equality and non discrimination - but it is not. Will Eureka Street media give WOMEN a voice or will they too act like ABC - biased - please contact me at any time - Spokesperson for Independent Regional Mothers - National Advocacy Group

Brenda Coughlan | 22 June 2018  

Hi Fatima, Well argued. I grew up with the ABC Radio as a kid in the bush in the 50's and 60's. Our primary school used ABC Schools programmes in classes, after our parents raised the funds to buy a radio for each classroom . If the ABC was privatized we would end up with back to back pop music like the commercial stations-no weather warnings, emergency/disaster broadcasts, no cultural programmes, no Country Hour no AM, PM or the World Today, no Radio National, No Classic FM. News would be non news or dare I write it, "Fake News" . When ABC TV came to my area in 1965, it was fantastic . Prior to that we only saw TV when visiting the relatives in Sydney .Commercialise the ABC TV? No Q&A, no 7.30 Report , No 4 Corners, No Kid's Channel etc etc. In a nut shell, the ABC really opened our eyes to the world. Any government silly enough to go down this path would be decimated at the Polls. So its a "death by a thousand cuts" by the current mob on the Hill.

Gavin O'Brien | 22 June 2018  

When I worked as a journalist rarely did I take sides. I kept my opinion out of the debate and different viewpoints from the various sides, often more than a two sided debate. I believe in some areas the ABC has exhibited a disgusting one-eyed viewpoint. I was angered by their less than "objective" emphasis on the child abuse scandal, which involves many organisations, not just the Catholic church. When reporting on the abuse issues the most common background was a picture of a window from that church. Another example was the same sex marriage debate - and this applies to Channel 10 as well -- there was a decided "for"viewpoint. I believe in objectivity in reporting.

John Morris | 22 June 2018  

I get the point of Fatima’s article but I can’t agree that criticism of the ABC is undemocratic. Taxpayers have a right to criticise public institutions and the ABC should be robust enough to accept that it won’t please everyone. Some of the critics however don’t seem to appreciate the difference between a state broadcaster that you might find toeing the party line in a totalitarian country, and a free public broadcaster like the ABC. The idea of left-wing bias is more perception than reality, relative to other media outlets such as News Limited. I think the ABC holds authority (political, economic, religious or social) to account and it is natural for authority to sometimes be uncomfortable with that. As Fatima noted, the ABC copped a lot of bagging when Labor was in power. Labor did not get a free ride, but I don’t recall the current critics being critical of that. I’ll take the Government at its word that it won’t sell the ABC but I do fear the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts”. A good public broadcaster holds a mirror to the Government and to society. We won’t always like what we see, but let’s not smash the mirror.

Brett | 22 June 2018  

There is, of course, nothing new about insecure political forces attempting to interfere in, influence the work of the national broadcaster, whether it be the ABC, the BBC or Canada's CBC. On 17th April 1945 the Sydney Morning Herald's leading editorial (titled How Much Freedom for the ABC?) declared: "The fight for the independence of the ABC will have to be carried on continuously. No 'charter', even if it be framed in the loftiest terms, will long be proof against Ministerial encroachments...." A detailed account of politically inspired attacks on the ABC would fill a very weighty tome. A strong management team and Board members who understand their responsibility are essential for the ABC's defense. When Prime Minister Menzies objected to a news commentary by political scientist Dr Peter Russo a filing cabinet in Talks Department offices in William St, Sydney was broken into late at night and a transcript of Russo's commentary was rushed to Canberra. Then ABC Chairman Dr James Darling was summoned to the Prime Minister's office. In the face of strong complaints from the US Embassy, conveyed by the PM who agreed with the criticism, Darling defended the broadcast and stood by his producers. Menzies who had appointed Darling as Chairman was dismayed to find he had appointed not a conservative - but a liberal

John Nicholson | 22 June 2018  

Hullo Patrick and Brenda: I can see the logic of your transition to the 'New York Times', Patrick. They are one of the few, great newspapers in the world still flourishing. As an example, they employ 50 people to moderate online discussions. Even the 'National Catholic Reporter' in the US has ceased discussion in online forums because of polarisation and nasty incivility occurring. The ABC Drum discussion was also closed down by Gavin Morris because polarised political, ideological and religious borders have become so hard - probably not the reason he gave. Jesuit publications, and 'Eureka Street' do a fantastic job in this area with difficult people[including myself]. Despite the logic in your transition, Patrick, I believe in the retention and strong funding of the ABC because its sense of an Australian community and culture can not be usurped and filtered through a foreign lens. I would say to Brenda that there are many wonderful women's voices on the ABC - Geraldine Dooge on RN Saturday extra, Life Matters, One-on-One and many others. The ABC, if this is what you have in mind, doesn't support harassment and confrontation of women at clinics having an abortion. Abortion is a sad experience and as a Catholic I don't support it either but there are many less confrontational ways to support desperate women who are making such sad decisions.

PeterD | 22 June 2018  

Dear Fatima, great article and I agree wholeheartedly with it in terms of the awfulness of the suggestion about privatisation of the ABC. However, I do observe that most of its commentariat and news anchors are biased towards the so-called, self-styled "progressive" ideologies, as are the universities (anti-Christian/pro-euthanasia/pro-abortion on demand/anti-establishment/anti-American etc etc), and it should be held to account for this. I think it could also spend its tax-payer (MY!) money in a more focused way...on those things especially that commercial outfits tend not to do ("serious" drama, classical music, serious commentary and analysis); little point in competing for "popular" trivial entertainment. More Reith please.

Eugene | 22 June 2018  

Brenda Coughlan: Re: "Will Eureka Street media give WOMEN a voice..." - not a decision for me as a commentator one way or the other. But I feel voices are probably better heard when a sentence (or, at least, a sequence of phrases before reaching a full-stop) does not extend to 186 words.

Richard | 23 June 2018  

Hullo Brenda: You see the ABC as failing women's voices. I wonder what you want it to do? What do you see as the ideal ABC coverage around motherhood, adoptions, domestic violence, divorce, abortion etc What about coverage of female clergy in Australia, for instance? Catholic Bishop John Crowley, recently retired Bishop of Middlesbrough, writes in the latest issue of ‘The Tablet’: "a growing number of theologians (of whom Fr O’Collins is but one distinguished example) who would want the Church to examine again in full and open discussion, the key theological premises regarding the exclusion of women from the priesthood upon which her longstanding teaching and tradition hinge." Are you advocating for women’s voices generally or more focused on issues around forced adoptions? So in terms of your views about the ABC, why not be more specific about what the ABC does well and what it doesn't.

PeterD | 23 June 2018  

By no means everything the ABC reports on can be described as ‘left wing’: much of its investigative journalism can be considered as politically neutral, and in fact what government regulatory and other agencies ought to be doing themselves – but aren’t. That is an integral function of a free press in a democracy. It is indicative of the poor standard of journalism in this country that there is so little of this that the ABC needs to be targeted for doing its job, and of the impoverished and philosophically confused level of what passes for public debate in this country that a fundamental activity of democracy, which all of us in some degree actually want, should be so undermined. Fascist and totalitarian regimes destroy free journalism: democracies are not supposed to. What does it mean to be ‘left wing’? It doesn’t mean wanting a totalitarian government or a revolution. It doesn’t mean what ‘Marxist’ meant half a century ago. It does mean demanding and expecting of a society that prides itself on egalitarianism and a ‘fair go’ that every last Australian should actually have a ‘fair go’. In reality, way more than one eighth of the entire population is very far from having ‘a fair go’, it’s getting worse, not better, and nobody hears most on the ‘right’ standing up for them. This country also signed a little-known document in 1948 that makes a lot of what both sides of politics have been responsible for a breach of numerous human rights. Why is it ‘left wing’, and therefore by implication pejorative, to demand that those rights be respected, when this country is supposed to uphold them? Dos that mean that if you don’t identify as ‘left wing’, you don’t care about human rights or anybody except yourself? There is also a bigger picture: the global economy is failing to deliver equal opportunities for everybody, which means that more and more people are going to be worse off, our safety nets and public services are going to get worse, and the only thing that is going to improve this situation is if the ‘right’ accepts a more equitable redistribution of wealth and deals with the weaknesses in our economy. But the ‘right’ is not even paying any attention to what is happening around the world, it is not engaging with global debates about the economy and the erosion of democracy by capitalism, it is behaving as if none of this concerns them. It has had decades to manage the economy in a way that benefits everybody, but it has only let things drift – despite the status quo undermining even aspects of our society that the ‘right’ thinks it is defending. Wanting a roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your back, a hospital bed when you’re sick, a good education, protection of civil liberties, family services, and a decent job to pay for it all is not ‘left wing’: it’s a human right, and it is an integral part of the entire history of democracy to be able to defend that and to hold those responsible for denying it to you but not to themselves to account. There should be a lot more of it! To put it another way: revolutions are historically caused by inequity and injustice.

Dr Stephen Lake | 23 June 2018  

I do not trust any commercial enterprise to tell me the truth - but I do anticipate it will be fostering fear and divisiveness - our commercial product/presentation is better that theirs! In order to make a profit. Serving vested interests. Big Biz! Go to I say - out there in commercial land. But not where I am - listening for sense and knowledge - telling our national stories (The ABC and SBS - serving us all - English-speaking and others more immediately from elsewhere of non-English speaking backgrounds - urban or rural - classical music or the latest contemporary forms - interviews and documentaries and drive-time and disaster coverage - you name it - the ABC/SBS has it covered - but not the commercials - all for making a profit! For the Packer gambling empire or the foreigner Murdoch and his clan!

Jim KABLE | 24 June 2018  

I agree that the ABC has been under dire attacks throughout the period of the Abbott and Turnbull governments. Already the news and current affairs services have been cut (eg Lateline) or severely dumbed down. One of the problems is that conservative politicians support some very inhumane and unfair policies, but do not want them to be revealed by the media. After the combined US/UK/French strike against Syria earlier this year, I was saddened to see that the ABC and SBS TV news only presented the US propaganda. To get an alternative view and more , one had to visit alternative websites. The ABC has for years provided reliable, independent and balanced news and current affairs programs. It has also provided educational, entertainment and discussion programs. Australians in remote areas of the country have to rely solely on the ABC for these services. We all need to demand that funding to the ABC is restored so that it can again provide us with high quality programs. The suggestion that Aunty should be privatised is an attempt to hide the bad things governments do and to keep us in the dark.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 June 2018  

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