Government attacks on the ABC reveal conflict over Australia’s future

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and ABC chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici (screenshots via YouTube).

The fresh attack on the ABC by the Australian Government, through its $84-million budget cut, has been followed up with a second punch against the high-profile journalist Emma Alberici.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield says a new complaint by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, comes against a background of ABC-baiting that strikes up mutual interest between radical-right politics and conservative media.

REPEATED USE of the ABC’s complaints procedure might be seen as a democratic way to go — if the complainants were not leaders of a federal government ready to back its animosity by cutting off money.

"Get" Emma Alberici?

There's also the growing suspicion: is there now some concerted move to “get” this broadcaster as a scalp, as a warning to the ABC and its supporters that worse might follow?  

The first “transgression” was Emma Alberici’s analytical article, published online in February, on two aspects of the sensitive issue of tax holidays for big business: 'There’s no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay it'.

The Government complained nine errors of fact had been identified; the ABC, after internal fights over the issue, conceded and imposed heavy editing.

The worrying issue was this attitude:

  • the Government would like news to be uncritical and friendly publicity;
  • it will hit out at media that does not oblige; and
  • it may mate-up with other media that join in the criticism, setting out to be its mouthpiece — for something in return.

Now, the second formal complaint, from Malcolm Turnbull and also his Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, has added to concerns about the attitude being taken toward the national broadcaster and toward free media.

Picked up by Fairfax media, it concerns a television report on 6 May by Emma Alberici as the ABC chief economics correspondent, on Government support for research and innovation. 

The perceived offence is its quoting of authoritative estimates that budget chopping over the last five years has seen $11.8 billion taken from innovation and higher education.

The complaint has again been made on the basis of listed errors of fact, but the ABC is saying this time it has made a review and has decided to stand by the story.

Punishing media?

The ABC does permit many indiscretions on air that show a poor sense of balance, little tact, no idea of "pulling your head in" to protect the organisation’s reputation for probity and keep it safe from intruders.

That is hardly the case with the two Alberici reports, both reasoned and analytical.

In terms of government and media relations, the Alberici episode points up these concerns:

  • readiness of the Government to march in step with commercial media interests campaigning against the ABC;
  • concerns that it will move from complaints against the independent broadcaster to punishment of it; and,
  • in broader terms for Australia, that would mean becoming less democratic and more despotic.

Dangerous and irresponsible changes

With the $84 million taken from ABC in the Budget, once again, the journalism profession has been stirred to defend the idea of free and independent media, getting up a campaign against the cuts — and obvious consequences those cuts indicate for the future.

'Dangerous and irresponsible', said the journalists’ union and professional association, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), calling for participants to join an online letter writing drive, to the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

Not that the journalistic obligation to fairly give the facts, or the drive to work on some newsworthy conflict would be overlooked in day-by-day news coverage.

The ABC itself told the story blandly enough about how it was getting worked over.

The Turnbull Government got a fair run with its defence.

Not the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who’s been looking confused and may be prone to high blood pressure for a fairly young bloke, but his intellectual father, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, put up a “what’s-all-the-fuss-about?” form of defence.

The ABC still gets $3.2 billion dollars over the three years of the cuts, he pointed out, and as an "efficiency dividend" the $84 million compared well with similar constraints in other public agencies.

Toeing the Government line?

The Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, entered the fight, saying the money grabbing had some deeper significance.

"Because the ABC occasionally asks questions of the government they're going to wind back $83 million," he said, adding it was done at the behest of the radical right wing of the government — the ABC being one of its "pet hates".

The hatred he sees is intolerance of competing views and interpretations, especially on the extreme right wing side, egged on by the supporters of the Government in the mass media.

The availability of media ready to act as semi-official outlets of the State brings up the question of whether Australians would want media services limited to a government line — a pale shadow of straight-jacketed services found in Beijing or Moscow and any number of dictatorial zones.

Sell, demolish, "vanish" the ABC?

It must give comfort to the ginger group at work organising numbers to control the Liberal Party organisation in Victoria and New South Wales and evidently looking to take over federally in the event of defeat in next year’s Federal election — but they might hope for more.

If only the ABC might be somehow removed from the scene, then ideas about having non-partisan news would take a blow and be reduced to only small operators.

It would be back to the days before the start of the ABC in the 1930s and the independent ABC news service in 1947, two developments popular with Australian people but bitterly opposed by the dominant newspaper companies — opposition unchanged to this day.

It was – and is – mostly commercial protectionism, newspapers demanding protection from any and every new medium, though it contains this undemocratic spin-off: politicise the fight so competition might be removed. 

The lobbying from this quarter against the ABC is overt and the Government’s cutting of the ABC's budget is a nod – actually a big nod-nod-nod – in its direction.

Ideologues and strong feelings

The radical right-wing spoken of also is well known. On the front line is Abetz, Abbott, Dutton, Joyce and not many women, except for Pauline Hanson further out on the fringe — otherwise, too small a pool of women Liberal MPs to draw from?

With this group, we have uncommonly strong commitment, emotion, motivation — the kind of ideological drive that would not mind ruling unchallenged, just to get all the social and cultural settings in place.

They are being given a good taste of what it might be like, to be an unchallenged Vladimir Putin or a Xi Jinping, by getting pretty much the run of the reactionary talk-back shows and the News Corp press. For example, that famed backbench identity Tony Abbott talking forever on 2GB.

Is that proposition – free kicks in the media and no other voices – tempting for minority political hacks with very strong views?

Writing to the Government

Getting back to the journalists and the campaign on budget cuts, a write-in campaign, there is fear in the wind that Australia might change and give up on open forums to bolster democratic life — starting with the ABC.

A few of the points that might be addressed to Mitch Fifield this week, as he, no doubt, settles down to attentively read through his morning mail:

  • The ABC contributes massively to media diversity and the range of forums we need for democratic government, while also keeping up diverse and innovative services at many levels that are vital to the cultural life of the country.
  • As Minister, should he be obeying anti-competitive demands for protection from the ABC, by commercial media that offer much rubbish in their own products, and have no interest in providing the valued and valuable services produced by the ABC?
  • He might note the heavy usage of the ABC by the public, the way people value it and appreciate what it does, at both national and global levels, and in the regions and communities.
  • The ABC serves as the national broadcaster in times when the community comes together — natural disasters, Anzac Day, major sports over the decades, Parliament, farm programs and on and on. In times of great change, we might need that more than ever.
  • If he were to persist with the campaign to destroy the ABC, how will he come to be judged by the people of Australia, now and in years to follow?

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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