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Should we save our ABC?

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Shaun Micallef on ABC's Mad as Hell (Screenshot via iview.abc.net.au)

The national broadcaster has faced savage budget cuts every year since 2013. Its operations are now threatened by further cuts and at least 200 job losses. Dr Martin Hirst discusses whether it's too late to save the ABC.

THE ABC is facing an existential crisis brought about by over two decades of savage funding cuts that began under John Howard in 1996 and are continuing under Scott Morrison. The rot really started in 2014 with Tony Abbott.

On the eve of the 2013 Federal Election campaign, then Liberal leader Tony Abbott stared down the barrel of a television camera and promised (among other things) that there would be “no cuts” to the funding of public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS.

Abbott made that promise on 6 September 2013 and went on to win the next day’s election ballot. Seven months later, that pledge just became another broken Abbott promise. Of course, Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey didn’t see it that way.

What they were doing, according to officials who briefed the media, was merely applying an “efficiency dividend”. This terrific piece of Orwellian doublespeak means that the ABC had to find “savings” in order to give back to the government money it had been given previously.

So, yeah, they said, technically not a cut, but efficiency dividends cost the ABC an estimated $35 million that year alone. Malcolm Turnbull was Communications Minister in 2014 and as a result of an inquiry into the ABC by his department, he announced in November 2014 that the ABC budget would be cut by over $254 million over the five-year period 2014-2019. Turnbull cut another $18 million from the ABC’s news budget in 2016.

In the 2018 Budget, there was a cut of $84 million in funding to the ABC, which, according to then Treasurer Scott Morrison, was an act of government benevolence to help the national broadcaster to live within its means.

In short, the ABC is being starved to death — or at least into submission.

GetUp has recently released a report on how government cuts have affected the ABC since the Abbott Government came to power in 2013. It is not very pleasing reading. According to the report’s author, Emma Dawson, by 2022, when the current funding period runs out, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government will have stripped $732 million dollars out of the ABC.

Dawson writes in her summary:

The funding cuts have come in various measures, regularly and relentlessly, as, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government pursued a budget surplus by cutting government spending across all portfolios. The attack on the ABC commenced with the Coalition’s first budget, in May 2014.

The reality is that the ABC budget has been cut almost every year since at least 1997 under John Howard and probably since the late 1980s. This can confidently be said because, even if the dollar amount went up now and again in a particular budget year, price increases, wage increases and simply trying to keep up with audience demands for new, informative and entertaining content would render small budget increases meaningless. In comparable real dollar terms, the ABC’s budget today is over $350 million a year lower than it was in 1985-86.

In short, the ABC is being starved to death — or at least into submission.

Should we save the ABC?

When the most recent cuts were announced and ABC management said it was looking for 200 "voluntary" redundancies, many people voiced their outrage. But, quite frankly, very little has actually been done to put pressure on the Morrison Government or ABC bosses to reverse the cuts decision. Any real campaign to save the ABC has to start with ABC staff taking strong action and rallying public support. Friends of the ABC can’t save the national broadcaster.

To be honest, my first reaction on hearing of the latest cuts was. “This is too bad, but I don’t really care anymore.” I haven’t totally moved away from that initial reaction either, let me explain why.

I am curious about what we’d actually be saving if we were to save the ABC from these cuts.

I’d like to save Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell because I think it is the best political commentary on the ABC; but as for The Drum, 7.30, Insiders, News Breakfast or the evening news bulletin, I’m not sure they’re redeemable.

There are probably a few other programs worth saving. However, I know that there’s more to the ABC than my pet likes and dislikes. But what are the principles of the ABC that are worth defending?

Firstly, let's knock on the head any idea that the ABC is in anyway left-leaning or progressive. It is not.

The ABC appears to be progressive and left-liberal in attitude only because the commercial alternatives are so much more conservative. Yes, Background Briefing and Four Corners do a good investigative job and can be seen holding the powerful to account. But that is just doing their job.

I point-blank refuse to entertain the idea that the ABC’s main political discussion, reporting and commentary programs are anything like left of centre. Yes, they’re better than the often extreme right-wing crap on the commercial networks and "Sky After Dark".

Take, for example, Insiders, which has been justifiably criticised recently for not having a Black, Brown or Asian face on the program in – oh I don’t know – how long? How about ever?!

And when the producers and host David Speers are finally shamed into having an Indigenous woman on the panel, she was bracketed with two more News Corp drones. Insiders regularly hosts extreme right-wingers like Greg Sheridan and it is roundly criticised for its shameless pro-Morrison spin.

7:30 is no better and The Drum is regularly home to Institute of Public Affairs ABC-haters. Current affairs programming on ABC radio, particularly RN Breakfast, regularly gives Morrison ministers a free ride while putting the boot into the ALP and the Greens.

Is any of that worth saving?

Probably, because without any of the stuff I’m so critical of, the Australian media landscape would be even more of a political desert and even more skewed towards the conservative side of politics.

The ABC is worth saving – despite my savage criticism – precisely because it is not the commercial media. Without the ABC and SBS, there would be even less media diversity in Australia.

The ABC’s growing conservativism is also a defensive reaction to getting beaten up so often by the Coalition since 2013. Government ministers regularly take a swing at the ABC — they behave like abusive men towards women they claim to love and respect. The ABC is so used to being in this abusive relationship that it is powerless to leave — it anticipates the next smack and cowers in fear.

We need to get Aunty out of that abusive relationship. Guaranteed funding that the government can’t interfere with is a step in that direction.

Finally, we need to protect the ABC and defend it because privatising it is on the IPA’s “to do” list and they must be stopped at all costs.

As much as the ABC annoys me, I am committed to defending it and fighting for it to have an increased budget. The question is: How do we go about defending the ABC when it won’t defend itself?

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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