THE contemporary ABC has only ever had one strong supporter within Tony Abbott’s cabinet — Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull holds the view that the ABC was biased against the Coalition in its reporting of the National Broadband Network in the lead-up to last year’s election.
But, apart from this issue, Turnbull has no ongoing concern about political balance at the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
This is not the view of many members of the Abbott cabinet, including the Prime Minister himself. They regard many ABC programs as embracing a green-left position, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. This group notes that ABC types tend to criticise both the Coalition and Labor from the left.
In this context it is worth remembering that the strongest criticism of the ABC in recent decades came not from the Liberal Party’s John Howard but from the Labor Party’s Bob Hawke. This is documented in KS Inglis’s book Whose ABC?
The majority position within the Abbott cabinet on the ABC reflects the views of many supporters of the Liberal Party and the Nationals.
According to the ACNielsen poll published in Fairfax Media newspapers in February, 46 per cent of Coalition voters believed that ABC news and current affairs was biased against the Coalition. Only Greens voters were in the “Our ABC” camp, with 80 per cent support for the view that the public broadcaster was fair and balanced.
According to Newspoll, also in February, 35 per cent of Coalition voters believed that the ABC was biased against the Coalition.
The findings of ACNielsen and Newspoll were supported by Fairfax’s ReachTEL poll, also conducted in February.
These are big numbers that Mark Scott, the ABC’s managing director and editor-in-chief, simply refuses to address. Yet they help to explain the attitude to the ABC of many Coalition MPs and supporters.
In view of this, it would be politically smart for ABC management to humour and, where possible, support the Communications Minister. Especially since Turnbull’s prime gripe about the public broadcaster is that it could use taxpayers’ funds more efficiently and effectively.
This explains why Peter Lewis, until recently chief financial officer of Seven West Media, was appointed to assist with the Department of Communication’s efficiency study into the ABC and SBS. And why Lewis has been appointed, from a shortlist chosen independently of the government, to a vacancy on the ABC board.
The Communications Minister is the best informed among his cabinet colleagues about how the media works as a business.
Scott would have been well advised to follow Turnbull’s advice about the need for the public broadcaster to make back-office cuts while preserving programming — as commercial media outlets (including Seven West) have had to do.
Instead, Scott has run the oh-so-familiar tactic and threatened to cut ABC programming, initially — shock horror — children’s favourite Peppa Pig and laterLateline. It’s a kind of faux-cultural blackmail that seldom works.
This led to a strong rebuke from Turnbull, in a statement released on October 1. He described Scott’s approach as “the easiest and laziest way” to save money. And the minister made the hard point that “the Coalition inherited a massive debt and deficit from the Labor Party” and that he and his colleagues were “duty-bound to repair the federal budget”.
Turnbull’s position is that the ABC, with an annual budget allocation of more than $1 billion, cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from spending cuts across government.
In this instance, Scott decided to throw the switch to foolish valour rather than discretion. In an extraordinarily insouciant speech at the University of Melbourne on October 13, the ABC managing director effectively stated that the public broadcaster was without fault.
Scott said that he knew “the minister is a fan of the ABC, a keen listener and viewer, and certainly an ubiquitous presence on the platforms”. Well, of course. The ABC is the public broadcaster and Turnbull is one of the most important figures in Australia. Scott went on to state that, in all likelihood, the ABC’s only option “will be to cut content dramatically”.
More recently, the ABC has chosen to antagonise the Coalition government further by outbidding SBS for rights to broadcast the Asia Cup football competition in January.
As revealed in The Weekend Australian last Saturday, Turnbull has criticised the ABC for ignoring a recommendation of the Communications Department’s efficiency study that the ABC and SBS should co-operate rather than compete with each other.
So it has come to this. Scott, presumably with the backing of the ABC’s board, has decided to take on the public broadcaster’s only real friend in the Abbott government. Scott has even issued a warning about the political costs to the Coalition at the 2016 election from reducing ABC funding.
But the next election is two years away and the ABC’s managing director’s contract will expire before then.
Scott’s insouciance will not resolve the public broadcaster’s immediate problems.
The ABC likes talking about the ABC. So it came as no surprise when presenter Tony Jones called the final question on this topic during last Monday’s Q&A. The query turned on how “we can ensure that the ABC fulfils its obligation to be balanced”. Jones threw the question to panellist Rowan Dean, editor of The Spectator Australia.
Dean commented that “there aren’t any recognised conservative presenters on the ABC’s major shows”. Whereupon Jones nominated Tom Switzer and Amanda Vanstone.
The former has not reached a formal agreement with the ABC about presenting any program and the latter says that she is not a conservative.
Moreover, even if both Switzer and Vanstone have gigs on Radio National, neither will preside over a major program.
This stands in contrast with Sky News. The channel is generally regarded as right-of-centre and employs only a small fraction of the ABC’s total staff.
However, Sky News has two left-of-centre presenters fronting key programs, namely former Labor ministers Graham Richardson and Kristina Keneally.
After almost a decade as ABC editor-in-chief, Scott has not appointed one conservative presenter, producer or editor to any of the public broadcaster’s prominent outlets.
Yet, when the recipient of a soft interview with Jon Faine on ABC Radio 702 on October 14, Scott once again defended the fact that the ABC is a conservative-free zone when it comes to presenters. It’s not smart management.