Media Analysis

ABC's 'Murdochracy' creep no accident

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Supposing the Morrison Government wanted to turn successive failures to destroy the ABC's credibility into a success story, it could not do better than make significant Murdoch appointments to the ABC board, writes Paul Begley.

THE RECENT Australian Election saw the National Party not lose a single seat, retaining their ten seats but adding none. The Liberal Party, however, was laid waste despite the unwavering support of all mainstream commercial media networks: Nine Entertainment, Seven, Network 10Murdoch tabloids, The Australian — and the ABC.

It's been apparent for many years that the L-NP Coalition cannot reliably win government unless it remains a coalition and that view includes accepting the Nationals as a party whose voters will support any candidate the party endorses, regardless of quality. In support of that view, I give you Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud, the latter, arguably, a sober version of the former.

It has been widely observed that the ABC has in recent times become increasingly compliant when reporting L-NP perspectives which assume the status of default narratives. While the ABC is still seen by some in the community as being burdened by a lean to the Left, the opposite has increasingly become the reality, as noted by many observers before, during and since the 21 May Election.

That development could be put down to a desperate effort by those in charge of the broadcaster to temper its news coverage in order to protect it from government disfavour and heavy-handed budget cuts.

If that has been accomplished as an over-correction it would go towards explaining the preponderance of conservative opinion-makers appearing on ABC programs that include Q+A, The Drum and Insiders. It might also partly explain the increased reporting of news items framed within an L-NP lens. These developments could be part of the idea that the ABC was generally "cowed" by the Morrison Government — Communications Minister Paul Fletcher in particular.

That perspective has merit but it doesn’t explain everything, such as why the broadcaster has shown a reluctance on Election night and since to accept the defeat of the Morrison Government. Why hasn’t it breathed an institutional sigh of relief that it no longer needs to be cowed? Could it be that the broadcaster is suffering a type of corporate "Stockholm syndrome" and is displaying a counter-intuitive loyalty toward its recent persecutor?

Perhaps so, but I’m inclined to think there is a type of war being waged within the ABC, best exemplified by the showing – three weeks before the Election – of an exposé on Four Corners about Aspen Medical, a Liberal Party donor company.

The program showed in some detail how Aspen won – without competing for tender – in excess of a billion dollars of taxpayer contracts despite it not meeting key performance criteria. As a consequence, it performed very poorly on fulfilling contracts with bodies such as the Australian Defence Force (ADF). While the contracts have been very lucrative for Aspen, the company’s incompetence has allegedly cost lives and has led to it being cited in cases of international criminal money laundering.

The Aspen story added to the notion that the Morrison Government was steeped in corruption and would normally be a headline news story the following day, but the mainstream media didn’t mention it. That was not such a surprise given the commercial media’s blanket support for the Coalition, but the bigger surprise was the silence by ABC News, which didn’t amplify the story on its own outlets.

It did the same with a story in which Morrison answered a journalist’s question by calling her “Mr Speaker”. In fact, ABC News appeared to have doctored its own film footage to eliminate his puzzling "departure from reality". If it had been a “gaffe”, we were spared that knowledge.

It would be interesting to know what discussions about the Aspen Medical story might have taken place between ABC Executive Editor Craig McMurtrie, ABC Managing Director David Anderson and head of news, analysis and investigations Justin Stevens — and whether Anderson was under any pressure at board level not to amplify the story.

Whatever discussions might have occurred, the fact is, the silence from within was a statement in itself about the ABC, especially when looked at through a Four Corners lens which has covered stories in the past that upset the Coalition on issues such as the live animal trade and the sexual activities of Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.

In addition, what might ABC Director of Audiences Leisa Bacon have had to say about being silent on a story that a large part of its audience may well have wanted to see followed up?

The ABC audience is a great source of pride within the broadcaster because, unlike its commercial media outlets, it has scored very high on audience trust metrics for many decades — a fact which is a source of constant anguish among forces that want to see the ABC taken down a peg, sold to the private sector, or simply abolished.

The main public opponents of the ABC are the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and one of its patrons, Rupert Murdoch. The constant attacks on the broadcaster by Murdoch and the IPA for its supposed Left-leaning bias seem to have had virtually no effect on its public standing as a trustworthy media organisation.

However, what has become clear is that since the concerted attacks from the previous Coalition Government on the issue of "balance" – combined with cuts to its budget – complaints about the disproportionate prevalence of Right-wing voices on the network have increased. 

The regular presence of conservative voices has seen audiences switch off in numbers and complain about the quality of its coverage. Instances that come readily to mind are the regular appearances of James Campbell from the Herald Sun on Insiders, Nationals backbench Senator Matt Canavan on Afternoon Briefing and Chris Kenny from Sky News, a recent panel guest on Q+A. Kenny is an obsessive proponent of calls to abolish the ABC.

Audience complaints are about the disproportionate number and quality of the voices and issues associated with stenographer-journalism, which allows nonsense and bare-faced lies to be given oxygen and accepted as fact by gullible people.

If mainstream media outlets, such as the ABC, amplify a voice, they invest credibility in that voice. Accordingly, they have an obligation to either refuse to report a blatantly false assertion or to contest it as soon as it's made. This is not to suggest that credible conservative views should be precluded from being heard on the ABC.

The disapproving voices of formerly loyal ABC audience members are having the effect – by venting their displeasure widely via independent platforms and social media outlets – of achieving the result that head-on L-NP assaults and budget cuts were failing to achieve. Audience trust is simply being surrendered by overloading programs with Right-wing voices that share Murdoch's world views. The crude messages that sell mass-circulation tabloid newspapers are the very messages that ensure a loss of ABC audience trust, which is being eroded day by day.

A significant loss of trust will gradually diminish the value of the corporation, including its dollar value, were it to be put on the market. Hence any move to break up, sell or abolish the ABC would meet with less resistance than it otherwise would be, were it to have retained the trust it formerly enjoyed.

To the view that all this may have come about by chance, a reminder of two salient facts. The first is that Rupert Murdoch has long held a desire to destroy the ABC in Australia and that is not a secret.

The second is that the Morrison Government saw fit to make significant Murdoch appointments to the ABC board during its four years in office. Morrison himself appointed Ita Buttrose as the ABC chair in 2019. Buttrose is an Australian icon but she is also a former editor of Murdoch’s The Daily Telegraph, Morrison’s go-to newspaper.

In May 2021, then Communications Minister Paul Fletcher appointed Peter Tonagh to replace retiring ABC Deputy Chair Kirstin Ferguson. A former executive with News Corp and Foxtel for 14 years, Tonagh also took a key leadership role in Morrison’s efficiency review of the ABC and SBS in 2018. Efficiency reviews tend to be a euphemism for cutting staff under the guise of improving productivity.

Without suggesting any blatant wrongdoing, if a government wanted to turn successive failures to destroy the credibility of the ABC into a success story, it could not do better than appoint for a five-year term Peter Tonagh to a board that resembles a Trojan Horse.

It would not be looking for a 100 per cent success result immediately, because parts of the ABC are intractable and cannot be easily turned around (Four Corners being a case in point). But should he want to do so, Tonagh knows where to find weak spots to whom attractive propositions might be offered.

Tonagh's knowledge of the external media landscape also means he would know to whom it would be useful to make offers to join the ABC. They would not necessarily need to be Murdoch loyalists but would come with mindsets from having worked in a Murdoch world, or at least a world influenced by Murdoch. The likes of David Speers from Sky News come to mind, as does Andrew Probyn from the West Australian.

An attraction of this model is that it has worked in other settings, education being one. By appealing to aspirational parents, starving public schools of funding and reallocating billions of dollars to private schools, the model ensures that public schools fail because parents willingly walk to the government-subsidised "private school" sector.

This model ran into a hiccup with Australia Post when recalcitrant chief executive Christine Holgate bucked the unstated mission and turned a struggling organisation into a success story, after which Scott Morrison summarily sacked her on a flimsy pretext.

Another attraction of the model is that the newly elected Albanese Government has a great deal on its plate and little appetite for taking on Murdoch, despite the constant urging of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull to instigate a Murdoch royal commission.

It’s early days, but incoming Communications Minister Michelle Rowland may decide to give the issue priority, though she will need to convince her cabinet colleagues, mindful that taking action on Murdoch will likely involve "bloodletting".

The Australian has already accused the new Government of being open to 'debt and deficit' misadventures. Murdoch outlets retired that phrase in 2014 to enable treasurers Hockey, Morrison and Frydenberg to engage unfettered in profligate borrowing and reckless spending that took the national debt over a short period from $191 billion under Wayne Swan in 2011 to $542 billion before the pandemic in 2019.

Minister Rowland would have to make it clear that some of the blood on the floor will be that of the new Government, but the final outcome could be a net gain when doing nothing will become a festering sore that Murdoch will be keen to ensure results in a one-term Albanese Government.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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