Writing about the need to reform the ABC is profoundly depressing. You can draw attention to its failure to provide balance in its coverage of current affairs, its perpetual axe-grinding for its own approved causes and its ridiculing of anyone with a different opinion from the official line. You can highlight the refusal of the organisation to admit it might have been wrong, as it plainly was wrong in repeating baseless allegations against the Navy. You can highlight the appalling way that it denigrates individuals who dare to criticise it, like the journalist it claimed has sex with dogs. You can be outraged at the behaviour of the lynch mob on Q&A as it lets loose on some innocent individual who will not go along with the current hysteria being promoted. You can make all of these points and more and yet, hanging over the whole debate like a dank fog, is the probability that nothing will be done about it.
The ABC is now so big and has such unchallengeable power over public debate that it is virtually untouchable. It has unlimited finance that keeps increasing, for governments are too scared to make inroads into its budget. It is free from the commercial restraints on its competitors, has driven some of them out of business and is seriously threatening others. It has assumed a right to hand down decrees on any political or social subject and abuse anyone who disagrees. Its claim that its salaries and contracts are above scrutiny, even by the parliament, has taken chutzpah to a breathtaking and unprecedented level. But perhaps that is the point about the ABC now, that it is too late for change or reform and that what is needed is something far more radical.
The only solution of any practical value today is the one that should already have been adopted: sell it. Are things really that bad? Let’s be honest and admit there are areas of information and entertainment that are above reproach, that the ABC we used to know has performed well and earned and deserved the trust and affection that many Australians hold for it.
But the problem is that it has abused that trust, lost a lot of the affection, gone far beyond its proper role and become preoccupied with its own causes. Clearly, concern about the ABC has arisen and increased in recent years because of its political, social and current affairs coverage, where its hallmark has become an endemic lack of objectivity and balance. There are so many examples it is difficult to know where to start.
Take last Friday night’s News Exchange, a TV wrap-up of the week’s current affairs. The first item was the torture allegedly perpetrated by the Navy, by that time a major issue where opinions were divided and tempers were running high. It called out for the presentation of competing views. But on the ABC’s analysis of this issue, there were only two contributors, the spokesman from the virulent refugee pressure group that is always given top billing on this issue and the Greens’ Senator Hanson-Young. How could it conceivably be said that this was a balance of competing views? Next item on the same programme was the proposal for excavating soil for the Abbott Point coal terminal; the single contributor was Labor MP Kelvin Thomson who was let loose to abuse the Prime Minister. Again, how could it be said by any fair-minded observer that this was balance? And so it went on, on that programme as it does on so many others. The commentary on every controversial issue comes regularly from the ALP and the Greens or, more precisely, the Greens and the ALP, for the ABC is now the Greens at prayer. Hence, news items are now regularly introduced with: ‘The Greens have opposed the government’s decision…’ as if this were the news.
Recent years have also seen new ways of keeping virtually all current affairs to the same ideological line. First, there is the highly contrived choice of people interviewed to guarantee the line to be pushed; only those with known and approved views are allowed and only approved progressives are allowed on current affairs programs as their hosts. A further guarantee of ideological purity is the ludicrous practice of one ABC employee interviewing another to deliver a clearly rehearsed and consistent line. Free promotion of books, films, theatre and writers’ festivals under the guise of serious criticism is given by interviewing authors and producers, but only if their work is in support on one of the current, approved quartet of good causes: the wonders of same-sex marriage, the evil doings of the CIA, climate change and, of course, refugees and their right to sail to Australia unimpeded and in unlimited numbers. All obvious and undeniable.
If we had a clean slate, would we breathe life into a new behemoth and allow it to grow unchecked? No. But we can have a new and good public broadcaster by cleaning the slate, keeping the new organisation to the hard news and entertainment that commercial media cannot or will not provide and with power in the parliament to keep it on the rails. Then the ABC will serve all the people, as it should.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 February 2014 Aus