It was the ABC’s Annus Horribilis, but it could get worse.
Ita Buttrose (Image: AAP / Lukas Coch)
2020 went badly for ABC – so bad it’s time to ask if chairman Ita Buttrose is able to stop the station’s slide. At the moment it looks like she isn’t. But is there anyone who could, considering how the stars have aligned against the ABC this year?
Here is a conclusion from December so far:
Communications Secretary Paul Fletcher asked the ABC board for answers to the story of Four Corners “Inside the Canberra Bubble,” which reported an allegedly toxic culture towards women in the liberal government. Fletcher upped the ante by tweeting his two-way complaint alleging prejudice in the report and asking if this was in the public interest. Before the episode aired, government Senators Sarah Henderson and Amanda Stoker interviewed the ABC executive director during hearings on estimates citing a Senate motion instructing the ABC to publish an internal review on suspected bias cases in the reporting of the ABC’s 2019 elections. Senator Andrew Bragg asked ABC to provide details of a content delivery agreement with online publication The New Daily and asked if the deal had any impact on the broadcaster’s independence.
Buttrose has reportedly accused the government of a pattern of political interference in its response to Fletcher’s complaint. She also strongly objected to the Senate’s request to submit the ABC’s internal review – but to no avail.
In addition to the pain caused by politicians, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) this week found a Four Corners report on the 2019 Murray-Darling Basin Plan violating the rules of impartiality. The ABC said it disagreed with the finding, pointing out that the government had not provided a spokesperson for an interview.
However, in the hands of its enemies, it is another stick to hit the transmitter.
Can it get any worse?
2020 was the ABC’s Annus Horribilis, if you also bring in the funding cuts that led to the emigration of experienced employees in the middle of the year. And yes, it can get worse.
As we previously reported, regulation of the Australian media gives free rein to the emerging power of News Corp’s Sky News. While ACMA has used the power of government media laws to find Four Corners in violation of the rules of impartiality, Sky continues to spew right-wing conspiracy theories and disinformation without the regulator lifting a finger despite the power to bring about action.
Nor is there any move by the government to tighten regulation or get Sky to adhere to the Pay TV Code of Conduct when it comes to accuracy. The lack of action makes the Sky / Foxtel business model – which is based on right-wing extremist abuse – flourish.
In addition, News Corp’s influence will regain its influence early next year when its separate but linked NCA Newswire service launches in the open market as a competitor to the independent and once powerful AAP.
Could the future be more USA than AUS?
The US elections and their aftermath have shown how the disinformation pandemic has marginalized democracy.
According to recent polls, 70% of Republicans believe Donald Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen was a president’s attack on the truth, fueled by some of Murdoch’s Fox News presenters, as well as far-right newsmax and social media has been.
The information ecosystem has become so fragile that governments have only three to four years to act before it’s too late, according to Prue Clarke, a one-time ABC journalist who helped set up the Judith Nielsen Institute for Journalism in Sydney has and is now working with international nonprofits that fund journalism programs as part of democracy building efforts.
“The US elections show how close it has come,” Clarke told Crikey. “It’s retreated from the brink, but it’s far from over.”
The United States does not have a public service broadcaster like the ABC. The closest equivalents are National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which offer television programming. The US government is providing only $ 450 million to fund public service broadcasting, compared to Australia’s roughly $ 1 billion funding for ABC in a much smaller market.
Even so, Trump, who is dependent on Fox News, has tried for the past four years to get rid of even this little public funding, despite being thwarted by Congress. But it remains the instinct of authoritarian politicians.
In a pattern of behavior oppressively similar to Conservative politicians in Australia, Trump questioned NPR’s meager government funding after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was upset over a series of questions from an NPR reporter.
Trump’s threat, in turn, was supported by conservative radio host and Fox personality Mark Levin. Channeling any number of News Corp and Sky News commentators who lined up to pop the ABC, Levin tweeted, “Why is NPR still here? We have thousands of radio stations in the US. Plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big government and Democratic Party propaganda operation? “
(In yet another echo of the Morrison administration’s priorities, Trump’s White House also tried to cut funding for federal agencies, the National Foundation for the Arts, and the National Foundation for the Humanities. The moves failed.)
In Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs freelance marketers have long urged the government to abolish the ABC altogether. It is difficult to know what support it has among the coalition parliamentarians.
Formerly dismissed as a marginal ideological cause, the idea of privatizing the ABC or letting the ABC accept advertising is no longer that far-fetched for a government that may retain power until 2025. By that point, the coalition will have taken command of the ABC’s budget and board appointments for nearly 25 out of 30 years.
What would the end of the ABC look like?
In the slow decoding of the ABC, the transmitter has already become something it wasn’t. Where will it end?
As Crikey has reported, the ABC is far from the breeding ground of the left that exists in the minds of some conservative politicians. The ABC produces far less current content than it did a decade ago. But the many adjustments to the government’s demands are never enough for the Tony Abbotts of the world, who question ABC’s loyalty to Team Australia.
The ABC is one of the few public broadcasters in the world that is exclusively financed by the government. Canada’s CBC and New Zealand’s TVNZ both accept advertising. The BBC remains an exception, funded by a television license fee paid per household.
In the US, government funding is a tiny percentage of the NPR budget, with the rest coming mostly as tax-deductible donations from individuals and foundations. It also accepts a small amount of advertising.
According to Clarke, who has worked in the United States as a journalist for the Washington Post and Newsweek for over 20 years and has taught at the New York City Graduate School of Journalism, the NPR model has produced a strong, independent form of journalism based on interests the public – a product of the direct funding relationship with the audience.
Clarke describes a country where mainstream media outlets like NPR, The Atlantic, and especially the New York Times – for people on the left and at the center of US politics – produced outstanding journalism during the Trump presidency, while other media produced extreme ones Truth destruction have triggered agendas.
“What is happening in the US is that one side – the Biden voters – lives in what is possibly the healthiest information ecosystem that has ever existed, and that has been served by the best journalism ever done,” said Clarke. “Trump voters live in a completely alternate reality, fed by disinformation campaigns by right-wing media and social media.
“The mainstream Australian media is much weaker than America’s, and the social media disinformation campaigns are virulent,” she said. “I see Australia as potentially more prone to an information pandemic than the US.”
It is unclear whether or not the ABC could survive with a mix of government and private funding with tax deductibility. For one, Australia doesn’t have the same tradition of no-strings philanthropy as the United States. And unlike Americans, Australians are already used to the idea that public interest journalism is a public good that they should pay for, albeit through taxes.
At this stage, the Morrison administration is delighted to bring the ABC to its knees in order to further its own political fate. And there are many fellow travelers who cheer it on. In this respect, Buttrose – or whoever is chairman of the ABC – has little chance of stopping the flood.
But the government is also flirting with the destruction of an institution that plays the role of one of the few remaining agencies of public interest in Australia, even if it sometimes does its job imperfectly.
Only a public backlash could prevent the destruction. But who would expect it now?
Editor’s note: ABC’s public relations department made an exception to this article and issued a statement to counter the notion that the company had a bad year. Read the full statement here.
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