It was no surprise to see Paul Keating on ABC television last Tuesday accusing the Coalition government of “ideological contempt”. The former Labor Party prime minister makes occasional entrances into the public debate and when he does, the language is invariably lively and memorable.
What was surprising turned on the fact Keating was defending the ABC from what he claimed was an attempt by the Morrison government to “fracture” the public broadcaster.
At issue was the suggestion by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to ABC managing director David Anderson that the ABC should consider the consolidation of its capital city property portfolio.
In a letter dated March 2, Fletcher wrote that any such consolidation would present “an opportunity to transition to new purpose-built facilities and to secure the corporation’s long-term future”.
No sites were named in Fletcher’s letter. But clearly the minister has in mind the ABC’s headquarters in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Ultimo and the Victorian headquarters at Southbank just over the Yarra River from the Melbourne CBD.
It is most unlikely that the ABC will sell either property since the current city properties suit the public broadcaster’s managers and journalists alike. However, as Fletcher has pointed out, Nine has sold its Willoughby premises in Sydney and is moving to leased premises in North Sydney. And Seven has consolidated its facilities in Sydney.
Unlike the ABC, Nine and Seven do not receive $1bn from the taxpayer each year. Yet only recently the ABC managing director, along with the corporation’s chairwoman, Ita Buttrose, met Scott Morrison and Fletcher in Canberra with a view to receiving extra money for its emerging broadcasting service.
Anderson also has sought a pause on the freezing of the indexation of funding, which the ABC says will amount to $84m across three years. This is not a significant number for an annual budget of more than $1bn. Most private media companies have to handle such constraints in a period of declining advertising revenue.
Keating told Patricia Karvelas that “Ultimo in Sydney and Southbank in Melbourne stand as sentinels to the notion that in a free and open political society, unvarnished information is central to the nation’s lifeblood”.
He also said capitalising the ABC in these two suburbs was part of a plan by the Hawke-Keating government in the late 1980s and early 90s to “protect” the public broadcaster.
This is not how I remember it. The Australian prime minister most critical of the ABC during their term in office was not John Howard or Tony Abbott. It was Labor’s Bob Hawke during the first Gulf War in 1991. The issue is well covered in KS Inglis’s Whose ABC? (2006).
I recall one phone conversation with Keating in the lead-up to the 1996 election when he railed against the ABC in general and Four Corners in particular.
During his prime ministership, Keating did not regard the ABC as putting out unvarnished information central to the nation’s lifeblood.
Strange but true, the criticism of the ABC by the likes of Hawke, Keating, Howard and Abbott was much the same. They regarded their governments and parties as being criticised by many ABC types from the left.
Today the appropriate term would be green-left, which criticises both social democratic and conservative parties from the left.
The ABC remains a conservative-free zone without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent TV, radio or online outlets. Which does not mean that all ABC journalists are on the left. It just means there are no prominent conservatives in the organisation while there are many supporters of left-wing causes.
The ABC’s current financial pitch to the Morrison government is for another $5m to cover its emergency broadcasting. But this includes the cost of news coverage of such emergencies as well.
However, virtually all commercial media companies spent additional funds during the bushfires — and they do not expect the federal government to cover such costs.
In the current economic climate — with pressure on the federal budget because of the COVID-19 outbreak and, to a lesser extent, the bushfires — the ABC’s pitch for more funds will be a difficult task. It will not be made easier by the attitude of some leading ABC journalists to the Coalition.
Fletcher is highly qualified in the area of communications and he is no ideologue. If the Communications Minister sees benefit to the ABC consolidating its property holdings, that is what he believes. It is a business, not an ideological, view.
However, ABC management shows no signs of seeking to ease any tensions by insisting its journalists act professionally towards the Morrison government — from which any additional general or special funding will have to come. A few examples illustrate the point.
On Tuesday, 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales interviewed the Prime Minister. Australia’s elected leader was interrupted on many occasions as he attempted to explain the government’s economic policy. Sales berated Morrison in declaring “you’ve done nothing on IR, nothing on superannuation, nothing on GST reform, nothing big on company tax reform (and) no target for emissions reduction beyond 2030”.
This overlooked the fact that at the end of last year, the economy was in relatively good shape and none of her economic proposals would be likely to get through the Senate.
Then on Thursday AM presenter Sabra Lane cut off Josh Frydenberg when he was answering her first question. The Treasurer was making the important point that Australia was entering “this economic challenge from a position of strength”. His clear aim was to discourage any economic panic. But Lane interrupted with a “we don’t want the spin” put-down. In fact, it wasn’t spin.
In the end taxpayers are responsible for funding the ABC. Every time an ABC journalist acts unprofessionally towards a senior minister in any government it diminishes support for the public broadcaster from within a section of the taxpaying community.
There is no evidence that Fletcher has ideological contempt for the ABC. But some ABC journalists exhibit contempt for the government.