On the morning after Sky News’ people’s forum on Wednesday, ABC Radio National presenter Patricia Karvelas expressed concern that the first leaders’ debate in this year’s federal election campaign had not been shown on free-to-air television.
She had in mind, in particular, the ABC. Karvelas made it clear that she spoke on behalf of some listeners.
In fact, the debate was readily accessible for many Australians. Sure, Sky News had exclusive TV broadcast rights to it. But it was screened free on the Sky News website, plus on its Facebook page and on the news.com.au website.
It also was available free of charge on Sky News Regional, which is broadcast on the Southern Cross Austereo network and selected WIN channels in regional Australia.
Karvelas made it clear that the ABC wanted to host a leaders’ debate – she did not say in what format. This may or may not occur depending on the outcome of discussions between the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster and Liberal and Labor party camps. The ultimate decision will rest with Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese.
There may well be a reluctance within the Liberal Party to agreeing to a leaders’ debate on the ABC where, traditionally, the practice is to commission journalists – not members of the public – to ask questions or make comments, with an ABC journalist in the presenter’s chair.
In fact, there is only a downside for Morrison if he appears on any form of an ABC-run leaders’ debate.
The ABC’s 7.30 program ran an extract from the debate before the Sky News coverage had ended. The segment consisted of presenter Leigh Sales interviewing 7.30 chief political correspondent Laura Tingle about how the debate had begun.
Now it’s not so long ago that Tingle put out a late-night tweet in which she accused the Coalition of “ideological bastardry”. So it’s pretty clear how she regards the government.
In view of this, it might have been expected that Tingle would recuse herself from the position of 7.30 chief political correspondent until the election campaign was over. But no – she is continuing her role irrespective of any damage to the ABC’s reputation due to the notion of what is termed apprehended bias.
Moreover, ABC management apparently sees no problem in its most senior political correspondent reporting on the election campaign despite her past public railing at the Coalition.
And then there’s the issue of the ABC’s reach. ABC management and journalists like to describe the public broadcaster as Australia’s most trusted news source. It’s just that viewers do not act in accordance with this mantra. On the influential TV nightly news bulletins, the ABC invariably comes in third behind Seven and Nine.
For the ABC’s pitch to be true, it has to be assumed that most Australian TV viewers are so foolish as to watch the news on networks that they trust less than the ABC.
In her most recent interview with Morrison, Sales asked the Prime Minister on several occasions whether he would appear on 7.30 twice during the election campaign. She received no such commitment.
On April 11, The Australian’s Diary column reported a senior government source as saying: “There are big numbers of swinging voters watching a show like Nine’s A Current Affair but the people watching 7.30 aren’t generally changing their vote, whether Liberal or Labor – they’re rusted on.” That’s a correct assessment.
The ABC cause is not necessarily assisted by its most vocal advocates, many of whom are hostile to political conservatives.
The most recent player in this regard is ABC Alumni, which is chaired by former ABC TV Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes. ABC Alumni has recently released a video, fronted by Holmes, titled Why the ABC cannot rely on the Coalition. The clip begins with Holmes, accompanied by ominous background music, accusing former Coalition communications minister Mitch Fifield of “telling a porky”. The alleged lie turned on a statement in 2018 by Fifield that the Coalition would not sell the ABC.
For all his lecturing about the need for journalistic standards, Holmes’s video is just fake news. Holmes’s claim turns on the fact that in 2018 the Liberal Party’s national council passed, without debate, a motion calling for the ABC to be privatised. Holmes described this entity as the Liberal Party’s “highest policymaking body”. It isn’t.
Anyone with a basic understanding of the Liberal Party knows it has always maintained that policy is determined by elected politicians and not by non-elected officials or party delegates.
It’s true some Liberal parliamentarians would like to privatise the ABC – just as it’s true that many strongly support a public broadcaster. Holmes made much of the fact that the Institute of Public Affairs favoured privatising the ABC. He believes the “IPA has close ties to the Liberal Party”. If he read IPA publications he would know the IPA is very critical of the Liberal Party along with some of its leaders in recent years.
In an article he wrote in The Age on April 5, 2016, Holmes conceded that Andrew Bolt and I had a point in our criticism of the ABC as a conservative-free zone. In that he acknowledged “the leftiness of ABC radio”, particularly with respect to ABC Radio National. This article has not been posted on the ABC Alumni website.
Holmes and his one-time comrades would be well advised to drop their attacks on the Liberal Party, accept that the main reason some Liberals avoid ABC engagements turns on its lack of political diversity, and concede that many one-time ABC viewers and listeners have moved camp to Sky News. Even though, in the capital cities, this requires the payment of a subscription fee.
The success of Wednesday’s people’s forum is one indicator of the declining influence of the ABC. This will not be resolved by the likes of Holmes attacking the Coalition.