The public broadcaster does an incredible job of holding the political middle ground. That’s exactly why the Bolts and Albrechtsons of the world hate it so much, writes Ben Eltham.
The ABC and SBS are to have their funding slashed.
The decision is yet another broken promise for Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But it’s hardly surprising.
To those who’ve followed the Abbott government since its election last September, this move was utterly predictable. Right from their first month in office, when the conservative hate figure of Tim Flannery was ceremoniously sacked, Abbott and his cabinet have made the punishment of perceived enemies the number one priority.
The ABC has always been one of the most hated enemies of the right.
Even if the decision is not surprising, the ham-fisted way in which the government has announced it has been. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull can’t exactly say he’s cutting the public broadcasters because conservatives don’t like them. So he’s trying to claim that the funding cuts are merely about reining in the federal government’s deficit.
“In every portfolio, across every spending program, we’ve had to look closely at what we do and how we do it,” he said yesterday. “This is what productivity is all about—getting the same, or ideally, a bigger bang for a smaller buck.”
The productivity argument is pretty threadbare. The ABC and SBS deliver a suite of services far in excess of what their commercial rivals produce. They do it on much lower wages and with much leaner production values.
Nor will the cuts do much for the budget. Taking a few hundred million from the ABC and SBS will achieve little to repair the ballooning Commonwealth deficit, expected to top $30 billion this financial year. They will, however, lead to hundreds of redundancies and significant cuts to programming across both networks.
Even more bizarre was Turnbull’s twisted syntax as he tried to explain why the cuts were not a broken promise.
In election week last year, Tony Abbott famously pledged “no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”
And yet yesterday, Turnbull was trying to argue that he didn’t really mean it.
Pointing out that both he and Joe Hockey had signalled that the broadcasters “could not expect to be exempt” from cuts, he then said that “unless you believe that Mr Abbott, was, in that one line, intending to contradict and overrule the very careful statements of intention made by Mr Hockey and myself, his remarks can only be understood in the same context, which left open savings of a kind which would not diminish the effective resources the ABC and SBS had available to produce content.”
In other words: Tony Abbott was lying.
In fact, the cuts announced yesterday add up to nearly 8 per cent a year, according to the ABC’s Mark Scott. That’s because the headline figure of 5 per cent were in addition to already announced cuts from the budget – the termination of the Australia Network worth around 2 per cent and a 1 per cent efficiency dividend. No one thinks the ABC can keep doing everything it does currently on 8 per cent less every year.
In any case, these cuts are not about saving money. They are about appeasing the hardline right wingers in the conservative think tanks, and on the Coalition back bench.
The ABC has become a figure of hate for the opinonistas of the right, not because it is particularly left wing, but precisely because it is so centrist.
If your view of the world is based entirely on what you can see from the troll caverns of the right wing shock jocks, it’s not surprising you’ll be angry with a public broadcaster that engages with the 55 per cent of Australians who vote for Labor and the Greens.
The ABC’s news coverage is scrupulously balanced, which means that the views of the Labor opposition are given roughly equal treatment to those of the Coalition government. Concepts of social justice and social democracy do get a look in, as do free market economics and the principles of smaller government. The ABC covers concepts like climate change as the mainstream science that they are. This enrages denialists on the right, who would like the broadcaster to treat fringe conspiracies with every bit as much deference as robust, peer-reviewed science.
In fact, the very reason the right is so keen to assault the ABC is that it is so successful (we should spare a thought for SBS here, which seems to be basically collateral damage in this latest round of the cure war).
Private media companies, where the majority of the ABC’s critics work, are collectively struggling with the contemporary media market. Their advertising base has collapsed, and their consumers are not as keen to pay as they used to be. This makes the ABC, with its guaranteed revenue stream from the taxpayer, a genuine threat.
Why do we have public media organisations in the first place? The answers go back to the 1920s and 30s, when, in Britain and Australia, national governments set up large, taxpayer-funded national broadcasters for the first time.
In Britain, as in Australia, a vibrant commercial media already existed, both in print and in the emerging technology of radio. But radio waves were scarce property: broadcasters could scramble each other, and some form of spectrum regulation was required.
More importantly, governments felt that the compelling immediacy of radio made it too dangerous a force to be left entirely to the private sector. As the famous German philosopher Jurgen Habermas observed, public opinion plays a crucial role in democracy. And if opinion is shaped by the media, who owns that media is a critical question.
What emerged in Britain and Australia was a mixed model of media regulation in which a powerful public broadcaster existed alongside commercial competitors. These public media companies would exist for different reasons and serve different constituencies to the for-profit enterprises of the free market.
So was born the model of “public service broadcasting:” arms-length public media organisations, independent of the governments that funded them, whose mission it was, in the immortal words of the BBC’s John Reith, “to inform, educate and entertain.”
Supporters of the free market have never accepted the legitimacy of public sector broadcasting. Ever since the ABC was created, it has been bitterly opposed by private interests. As the IPA’s John Roskam wrote last year, “a state-owned media company has no place in a free society.”
The problem for the right is that voters love public broadcasting. The Reithian dream has proved wildly successful, well beyond the imagination of the early pioneers.
Public broadcasters are among the most admired, popular and trusted institutions of all – often far more respected than parliaments or even the courts. The ABC is the most trusted news source in Australia by a wide margin. The BBC is the most trusted news source in the world.
Indeed, the publics’ trust of public service broadcasting seems to be increasing in the contemporary media environment. Websites and online news sources remain among the least trusted of news sources, but newspapers and commercial broadcasters are losing ground too.
This deep reservoir of trust poses a real problem for those, particularly on the right of politics, who dislike public service media. Because the ABC is so popular, because it hews so closely to the centre of the Australian political discussion, its critics have been forced to develop new tactics in their quest for its destruction.
This, roughly, explains why the Murdoch media and its fellow travellers in the Coalition are so obsessed by the ABC’s perceived bias. Despite all the evidence which shows that the ABC is remarkably unbiased, they persist with the criticism because they know it provides a pretext for attacking it as an institution.
It was no surprise to see a chorus of applause for the funding cuts on the front cover of today’s Australian.
But just because Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen hate the ABC doesn’t mean ordinary voters do. In fact, almost the opposite is true. As Education Minister Christopher Pyne seems to realise, attacking public broadcasting is unpopular.
That’s why the funding cuts are so characteristic of this government. Tony Abbott prefers to punish enemies than to appease voters. No wonder the opinion polls are so dire.