IF the self-proclaimed Friends of the ABC really believe that the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is getting a hard time from the Abbott government, they would do well to have a look at the BBC and its critics.
Last week, some of the BBC’s in-house leftists let loose on David Cameron and his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. This followed the release of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s autumn statement, which indicated that there would have to be continuing budgetary restraint if the British budget were to be repaired.
That evening, BBC Two’s Newsnight presenter Evan Davis compared Britain’s short-term economic future with the Depression. According to Davis, “You have to go back to the Depression of the 1930s to find a crisis comparable to the one we are in; it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” The presenter’s words were stated as black-and-white footage was shown of workers rioting. Enough said.
The following morning, the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith launched into the Cameron government on the Today program. He described forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility as a “book of doom”. Warming to the task, Smith forecast “utterly terrifying” prospects for Britain as expenditure was “hacked back” to levels that prevailed eight decades ago.
But there was more. Smith declared that Osborne’s autumn statement would lead to the “land of Wigan Pier”. The reference was to George Orwell’s 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, which sought to describe life in northern England in the immediate aftermath of the Depression.
In Australia, cabinet ministers take different approaches to the ABC. Tony Abbott and those close to him regard sections of the public broadcaster as hostile to the Coalition but rarely raise the issue in public. Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, is not overly critical of the ABC’s reporting, except for its coverage of the National Broadband Network in the lead-up to the federal election last year.
But Turnbull is highly critical of what he regards as excessive back-office fat in the ABC’s management structure. As the Communications Minister has stated, pressure for the government to insist on efficiencies in the ABC has come from the departments of Treasury and Finance, which fail to see why the ABC has been exempt from efficiency audits that have applied to almost all other areas of the public service during the past decade.
In Britain the leading members of the Conservative Party are more direct in their criticism of the BBC. Osborne described the reference to Orwell’s Britain as “nonsense” and added that the BBC should “have learned from the last four years that its totally hyperbolic coverage of spending cuts has not been matched by what has actually happened”.
Cameron’s spokesman made it clear that the British Prime Minister supported Osborne’s critique. A senior government source was also quoted in The Telegraph as declaring that “there have been examples in the past of bias from the BBC but it’s when it slips into references to George Orwell and the idea of people living in penury that it becomes a real issue”.
As Steven Swinford reported recently in The Telegraph, some Conservative MPs are concerned that the BBC will back the Labour Party in the general election next year since the broadcaster is concerned the Cameron government, if returned, will cut the licence fee that is collected from BBC viewers and listeners.
The next review of the BBC’s charter will take place next year, to come into effect in 2016. Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has said that it was possible the licence fee could be cut and that when the 10-yearly review took place “nothing should be ruled out”.
Abbott and some of his senior ministers, including Eric Abetz and George Brandis, probably feel much the same way about the ABC as Cameron and Osborne do about its British counterpart. But their public comments are more constrained.
Likewise, Javid is more direct than Turnbull about reviewing the BBC’s functions and procedures. It’s just that the critique of the public broadcaster, from the conservative side of politics, is similar in both countries.
The similarities between British and Australian politics extend beyond the respective incumbent governments’ criticism of the public broadcaster. Labour Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, like Bill Shorten in Australia, gives the impression that growing government debt is not an immediate priority.
At the British election next May, the Conservative Party will distinguish itself from Labour on three central issues: namely, a clear commitment to return the budget to surplus, a promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and a pledge to introduce legislation whereby only English MPs will be able to vote on legislation that affects only England — as distinct from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Currently, Scottish MPs have a say over legislation affecting the English but the reverse does not apply since Scotland has a substantial degree of autonomy within the United Kingdom.
It’s an agenda that clearly separates the Conservatives from Labour. Moreover, the opinion polls suggest that David Cameron appears more prime ministerial than Miliband. Yet, like Abbott in Australia, Cameron has been hindered by the emergence of a populist party on the right of politics.
Cameron once referred to the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
Yet, as Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin report in their book Revolt on the Right(Routledge, 2014), Farage has certain “charismatic” qualities.
UKIP is likely to take more votes from the Conservatives than Labour in a first-past-the-post system that does not allow for the distribution of preferences.
The Scottish National Party, whose best-known identity is the politically able Alex Salmond, may win seats from Labour but is committed to not supporting the Conservatives. Cameron may be able to rely on the Liberal Democrats again, but the party’s vote seems in free fall. So a Labour government committed to additional borrowing, supported by the SNP, is at least a possibility — which would be the worst outcome for the British economy.
Australia has experienced three years of minority government. Britain could be heading for a similar experience.