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If there is now no discernible difference between the news reporting of Fairfax, Murdoch and the ABC, asks Alan Austin — why should taxpayers fund one of them?

ABCNews

SIGNIFICANT MOVES towards privatising the ABC and SBS were made in May.

These included a Victorian Liberal Party state conference motion and persuasive essays by Peter van Onselen and Rebecca Weisser.

The case for the sell-off was also bolstered by the ABC itself.

The precise proposals of the Victorian Liberals remain sketchy as debate was deferred until the next conference. If they want to break the corporations into components and divest them separately, there would seem no longer any sound argument against flogging off news and current affairs.

Justification certainly remains for retaining Classic-FM, Radio National’s specialist programs and television, which nurtures talent, advances the arts or meets social or cultural needs.

We saw in May, however, that ABC news and current affairs present the same pro-Coalition coverage and non-coverage of national affairs as the corporate news media.

We know in advance that the Murdoch media will attack the Federal Government and boost the Tony Abbott-led Opposition in news reportage at almost every chance. We are increasingly observing the same at Fairfax since Gina Reinhart bought an influential interest.

It is now clear that ABC news and current affairs offer no alternative.

ABC News headlines relating to Tony Abbott’s budget reply speech in Parliament on May 16th included:

‘Abbott's budget reply delivers a perfect political score’
‘Abbott 'honest, competent' budget reply’
‘Abbott's budget reply has the sweet smell of success’
‘Abbott vows to tackle budget emergency’
‘Abbott: budget all about lost trust’
‘Opposition targets Swan over debt and deficit’
ABCAbbottCassidy
Forget policy, says veteran ABC political reporter Barrie Cassidy, Tony Abbott simply reeks of September success.

Virtually no discernible difference from the uncritical coverage of that speech by Fairfax and Murdoch. All three news organisations articulated in unison the main speaking points in the Liberal Party’s media release.

To underscore the lock-step, ABC News Radio’s afternoon program reported the speech shortly after it had concluded. For an expert comment, the presenter interviewed a Murdoch journalist. The five-minute report on the ABC’s PM programme that evening could not have been more laudatory of the Opposition leader had it been written by the Liberal Party’s ad agency.

Now, parallel analysis may arguably be reasonable if the speech by the Opposition leader was indeed honest, competent, trustworthy and contained creditable economic analysis.

But the opposite is the case. The speech was soon dismantled systematically by analysts outside the mainstream media.

These included Bernard Keane at Crikey, Alan Kohler at Business Spectator, Ben Eltham at New Matilda, Helen Hodgson at The International News Magazine and an observer in France at  Independent Australia.

The latter listed and analysed more than twelve statements which were hypocritical, misleading or outright lies. Eltham claimed Mr Abbott’s speech was “hardly a masterpiece of economic thinking” in which “you'll find a set of economic policies that will retard Australia's future economic wellbeing.” Keane noted the flagrant porkies with the euphemism “a gap between rhetoric and reality”. Kohler characterised the speech as “smoke and mirrors”.

Reactions from business were mixed, with the superannuation industry openly hostile.

Media
(Image courtesy Ron Tandberg / Fairfax Media.)

This was all repeated six days later with coverage of the Press Club speech by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. Again, a tawdry presentation riddled with economic gibberish and lies. And again the ABC stood and applauded alongside Murdoch, Fairfax and the Liberal Party – in news bulletins and current affairs. Again it was left to the alternative media to pull apart the economic nonsense and mendacity.

Should there be any doubt that ABC News has joined the Abbott-for-PM campaign, ponder the news value of this item. Or this. Or why Tony Abbott was chosen to deliver the ABC’s valedictory for Hazel Hawke.

Australia now has two broad categories of news reportage and analysis:

  1. The mainstream media operated by large corporations and dominated by Murdoch’s News Limited. This strand is seldom balanced in its news coverage, is quick to condemn anything achieved by Labor and cheers heartily at virtually everything the Abbott-led Coalition says.

  2. The alternative online media, which is prepared to criticise the Coalition where warranted and give credit where due to the Government.

So the question is: if there is no discernible difference between the reportage and analysis of Murdoch, Fairfax and the ABC – or for that matter the Institute of Public Affairs and the Liberal Party – then why is one funded by taxpayers?

In the early 1990s, ABC religious broadcasts journalists – who included this writer – used to prepare one item, and occasionally more, for Friday’s radio news bulletins. These invariably presented information not previously aired or published. That was a requirement. The newsroom’s charter then was stridently for independence. Frequently those stories appeared next day in the Saturday Age and, occasionally, beyond.

Today, in contrast, it is rare for any issue to be aired on ABC News that has not already appeared in newspapers.

The challenge is before those who want to retain publicly-funded news and current affairs to demonstrate that they can be independent and impartial. They were once. They are not now.

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