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Staff and unions need to take up the fight for the ABC

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The ABC Board, chaired by Ita Buttrose, has been stacked in the favour of Scott Morrison, making the fight against government cuts a difficult one (Image by Dan Jensen)

The ones who should be fighting the hardest to save the ABC are those whose jobs depend on it and the unions supposedly protecting them, writes Dr Martin Hirst.

LAST WEEK, I wrote up my arguments for saving the ABC. Despite my many ideological differences with the national broadcaster, I concluded that “yes, we should save it” from the brutal dismembering being inflicted by the Coalition on behalf of its media mates and Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) paymasters.

If we’re going to do something to save the ABC, we have to have a plan — strategy and tactics. Here I am laying out my ideas for what, when, why and how of a campaign to save the ABC.

First, strategy

Our strategy to save the ABC has to be twofold. First up, a short-term campaign to reverse the current government cuts and stop the attacks on ABC funding and staffing. This is necessary because each time there’s a small, incremental cut to the ABC’s budget – $80 million here, $35 million there – it becomes harder for the broadcaster to maintain all of its functions.

However, this is an exhausting annual effort that has to be reborn and ramped up each time there’s a fresh outrage. It also doesn’t address the elephant in the room which is the overt, constant and deliberate political interference in the ABC’s operations by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for Communication Paul Fletcher and any emboldened Liberal-National dribblejaws who feel like swinging a boot or fist into the face of the ABC over some perceived slight or bias.

The rot set in a long time ago, but there is no doubt that since the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison regime was installed in 2013, the political meddling has become systematic. It is so entrenched in the Morrison playbook that the Senate actually held hearings which documented a series of interventions by the Government, including the sacking of then Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, attempts to have journalists sacked and even trying to get Triple J’s Hottest 100 release date moved.

The committee’s report concluded that the ABC is at serious risk if the political interference was to continue:

“Should Australian Governments continue to undermine and erode the independence and integrity of the corporation, the ABC's status as a trusted institution will be significantly diminished.”

It’s no surprise that the committee was split on party lines with Labor and the Greens arguing that political interference was endemic across the broadcaster and the Coalition members denying there is any interference at all.

But, of course, lying is the modus operandi for Morrison’s mob and the meddling is now codified. Just months prior to the Senate report, Morrison used another “captain’s pick” to appoint Ita Buttrose as chairwoman of the ABC and ignored the selection committee created to advise on the recruitment process.

Whatever we do to protect the ABC and defend its independence has to include preventing the political undermining that has been a hallmark of the Coalition Government.

Amend the ABC Act

In the longer term it is going to require substantial legislative change to the ABC Act to effectively quarantine it from interference.

For example, the requirement in Section 8(2) that the ABC must act in accordance with government policy, and S.12(1) and (5) that mandates board appointments by the governor-general and approved by the Cabinet. This is how government ministers are able to manipulate the appointment process. The selection panel established by S.24 is only “advisory” and is regularly ignored.

The funding provision S.67–S.71 also need an overhaul because all control under this section is vested in the minister and there is no guaranteed level of funding at all.

Any campaigning to defend the ABC has to address these issues – and probably others – and both the Greens and the ALP need to step up to work on the necessary changes.

At the moment, the Greens policy is one line and it’s not enough:

‘Our public broadcasters ABC and SBS to continue to be leaders in the production of independent news, investigative journalism, analysis, entertainment and innovative programming, be free of advertising and be funded to achieve these ends.’

There’s a bit more detail in the ALP’s 2018 platform document, including a commitment to public broadcasting and adequate triennial funding for both the ABC and the SBS.

That’s a start, but without substantial reform of the ABC Act, there is no guarantee for the future of public broadcasting.

What to do in the here and now

The strategy to protect the ABC and secure both independence and funding guarantees is only worth pursuing if the organisation can be protected from the Government’s current onslaught. This won’t be easy.

ABC Friends has a long and proud history of supporting the independence of the ABC and demanding it is adequately funded. But it is a group of older people with little political clout. Unless there is a new generation willing to take up this fight – and soon – governments will continue to choke the ABC into political submission and starve it of funds.

The Morrison Government is ideologically dependent on the IPA for policy ideas and we know the IPA wants to ‘break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function’, alongside privatising the SBS and Australia Post.

The ABC Board is chaired by a crony loyal to Morrison and it’s stacked with pro-Coalition appointees. There’s no chance of any pushback against the cuts from the body charged with safeguarding the ABC.

ABC management is also hopelessly compromised. Not only is it stacked out with leftovers from the commercial networks, the current managing director is a conservative bean counter who is also beholden to the Morrison-approved board.

In the current climate, the only people inside the ABC with any skin in the game are the program-making staff themselves. The journalists, editors, producers, writers and support staff in the radio and television production units are in the frontline for retrenchment and for having their programs axed.

These are the people with the most to lose and, therefore, with nothing to lose if they fight back. There will be no campaign to save the ABC without the whole-hearted support of staff. This means the staff unions – the MEAA and the CPSU – have to step up and organise a fighting campaign.

That’s great in theory, but neither union has a record of actually doing much. There have been savage cuts to the ABC every year since 2014. The unions have had plenty of time to think of a strategy, so let’s see how they responded.

In 2014, in response to a cut of $300 million over three years, the MEAA issued a media release calling for ‘consultation’ that had to be ‘meaningful and must commence immediately’.

In 2016, when more cuts were imposed and more jobs lost, the MEAA called for ‘deeper consultation’ and ‘more, constructive open consultation’.

In 2017, in response to more job losses, the MEAA called on ABC management to ‘immediately explain’ the impact of the cuts.

Significantly, the union also asked a simple question:

“If the managing director of the ABC won’t champion the public broadcaster to government, who will?”

In 2018, in response to further cuts of $127 million imposed in the 2018 Budget, the MEAA issued a media statement calling them ‘a dangerous and irresponsible assault on public broadcasting’. However, the union refrained from asking anybody to do anything about the cuts.

In 2019, the MEAA made a submission to the Senate committee inquiry into political interference in the ABC, in which the union said:

‘No-one argues the ABC should not be subject to efficiency reviews.’

In 2020, the MEAA issued a media release which says the union ‘will be insisting that management adheres to the voluntary redundancy provisions contained in the staff enterprise agreement’.

In other words, at every turn, the MEAA has made soft noises and polite requests and at every turn, it has been ignored.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

I have been a member of the MEAA for over 40 years and I’m embarrassed by the weak responses it has given whenever the ABC has been savaged.

It’s time for the ABC unions to get serious and start organising a campaign of industrial action that involves taking programs off air and calling public meetings to build a solidarity campaign.

To rephrase the MEAA’s own unanswered question: If the unions representing ABC staff won’t fight to defend their jobs, who will?

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

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