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Compounding Abbott's ABC lies: Cut the bullshit, Malcolm

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Thousands of ABC supporters and staff rallied in Sydney's Town Hall Square on Saturday (22 November 2014) over Abbott Government funding cuts. Public journalism advocate and 20-year ABC veteran Quentin Dempster delivered this following stirring address.

I acknowledge we stand on Aboriginal land. Always was … always will be.

Friends,

Thanks for turning out for the ABC and SBS today. Those of us who are about to be industrially executed are buoyed by your solidarity.

I thank the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Friends of the ABC, GetUp!, Jonathan Holmes and our professional colleagues, friends and allies throughout the Australian media industry — including commercial television and radio; the now many online news, conversation and analysis websites; the print media including Fairfax … and our closet supporters in News Ltd. I thank you all for your moral support.

Putting aside rivalry, all thinking content creators, journalists and program makers know what is at stake here.

On Monday executives from the human resources department of the ABC (if you were a tabloidist you’d call them ‘hit squads’) will start to administer targeted redundancy notices. It is at that point the real agenda and its motivations should become apparent. We will see for sure the ABC abandon localism on TV current affairs with the loss of the 7.30 Friday shows — New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Audiences in the one newspaper capitals will be left to endure the dogmatic simplicities of the Murdoch Press. We will see Lateline, which over 25 years, has held government to account and exposed the abuse of political and corporate power and institutional child sexual abuse, stripped of much of its field reporting capacity.

From early intelligence, it appears those programs on radio which require a depth of analysis, specialisation and preparation in production will be targeted. Classic FM faces an uncertain future with loss of staff and outside broadcasts in the short term. Radio news bulletins will be cut from ten to five minutes, giving audiences just the headlines ... not much more than the headlines … less substantive coverage of what is really going on, particularly at the local level.

A news executive will fly around the world to sack many of our wonderful support staff and close some foreign bureaux completely. The ABC wants more foreign correspondents to move to what’s called video journalism where the reporter has to shoot, light, sound-record and video edit his or her own material as a cost cutting exercise. Camera crews on foreign shoots for instantaneous news, live crosses and longer form current affairs are vital in the editorial collaborative process and for physical safety in sometimes very dangerous situations. The quality of the ABC’s international reporting which has helped make the broadcaster so distinctive and trusted is so sure to suffer. The ABC will be more reliant on syndicated agency material. The engagement of Australians with the world through the eyes of our in situ correspondents will also suffer as those who remain will increasingly be instructed to chase ambulances and natural disasters for a bigger visual bang in the 24 hour news cycle.

Thanks to Christopher Pyne, a panicked constituent politician and disloyal Cabinet minister from South Australia, for highlighting what we have long known. Through successive budget cuts and a management resourcing priority to win the digital race, the ABC is Sydney-centric. The loss of the ABC’s Adelaide TV production house, the last remaining regional TV producer outside Sydney and Melbourne - with the loss of more than 100 jobs — is a cultural and local tragedy.

What is about to happen on Monday comes after the mindless vandalism to Australia’s engagement with Asia and the Pacific through the termination of the Australia Network contract.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who I acknowledge has done some determined diplomatic work to bring Vladimir Putin and Russia to account over the MH17 atrocity, (Julie Bishop has assisted in our efforts to liberate journalist Peter Greste from prison in Cairo. I gratefully acknowledge that). But Foreign Minister Bishop has exposed the shallowness of her thinking when she terminated the Australia Network contract.

She cited the ABC’s display of editorial independence apparently over its coverage of the ‘burnt hands’ case and the ABC/Guardian exposure of the Australian Signals Directorate’s bugging of the mobile phones of the Indonesian president and his wife as a motivating influence in her decision to terminate the contract. 

She wanted Australia Network to be a propaganda arm of the Australian Government, in spite of the already agreed objective with DFAT to project Australia as a robust liberal democracy capable of questioning domestic authority, reporting human rights abuse and political dissent wherever it occurred.

The ABC and Australia has lost 70 of our Asia Pacific News Centre international program makers, in situ correspondents and the chance to wire this country into Asia as never before through specially-made quality, ethical news, business, sport and entertainment programs to reach the region’s estimated 3.3 billion mobile phones users. Radio Australia has been distressingly reduced to ‘rip and read’.

Please note that Julie Bishop terminated the contract at the nagging insistence of the Murdoch Press. I can only hope she eventually realises what she has done through the exercise of her ministerial discretion.

I must mention what is happening at SBS.

Dateline has been gutted of its reporting strength and reportedly is to be made lighter if and when it returns to air next year. Dateline has been a most courageous and cost effective contributor in public broadcasting and investigative and exposure journalism world wide. To make it ‘lighter’ in an age of geopolitical tensions, terror, corruption and inhumanity is … laughable. I appeal to Michael Ebeid and the SBS Board to think deeply before they do further damage to the hard won reputation of SBS as an editorially independent service to a now polyglot Australia.

The Government wants to amend the SBS Act to allow SBS to increase its prime time advertising from five to ten minutes per hour. This will further dislocate audience loyalty for SBS with the already aggravating in-program advertising interruptions. Audiences trying to engage with Jenny Brockie’s excellent Insight, Dateline, their documentaries and movies are unnecessarily provoked each time. This destructive dynamic, for whatever millions it will add to revenue in the short term, can only erode taxpayer support for SBS over time. In an age of fear and terror Australia needs SBS as a counter measure, delivering a sense of inclusion through multi-lingual services to our rapidly increasing migrant population including this country’s 600,000 muslims.

The noted casuist Malcolm Turnbull has said the incoming prime minister’s pre-election statement that there would be no cuts to ABC or SBS has to be taken in the context of his and Joe Hockey’s prior warning about efficiency at the broadcasters.

Tony Abbott said unequivocally and unconditionally:

“No cuts to the ABC or SBS."

A casuist is a person, especially a theologian, who attempts to resolve moral dilemmas by careful distinction but ultimately false reasoning.

In the Australian vernacular, that means: "Bullshit". Malcolm Turnbull is a bullshit artist. 

I remember him once promising never to tell a lie to the Australian people.

Let me recalibrate this ... Malcolm Turnbull is a bullshit artist … who has now compounded Tony Abbott’s lie.

I appeal to members of the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party to think carefully about the power play now apparent in what is a Rupert Murdoch-directed ideological attack on the public broadcasters of this country. If you get into bed with Murdoch in the hope of tactical advantage in the adversarial game of politics you will sell your souls. When the tide turns, he will dump you in the gutter and laugh at your gullibility. Memoirs from fallen political leaders, double-crossed business partners and pubs full of sacked editors attest to his ruthlessness, unethical culture and expediency. 

The ABC was created in 1932 by the A.J. Lyons Coalition Government, its creation actively supported by Robert Gordon Menzies, then a Victorian MP.

SBS was created in 1979 by the Malcolm Fraser Liberal/National Coalition Government largely because the ABC was then seen as deficient in providing multi-lingual services for millions of new comers.

I appeal to all political parties, including the Murdoch-intimidated and recalcitrant Australian Labor Party, to now re-write their media policies to secure a mainstream role for ABC and SBS as editorially and creatively independent, non-commercial public broadcasters or cybercasters through the digital revolution. No matter how many free trade agreements Australia signs in a now global economy, it is vital for the institutional strength of our democracy within the sovereign state of Australia that a taxpayer funded public broadcasting system remains committed to audiences … as citizens in a democracy and not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers.

There are forces at work in this country out to destroy the ABC and SBS, and our unique public broadcasting system.

We must not let this happen.

We must never get tired.

This speech was originally published on the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance website.

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