Immediately after last Tuesday’s budget, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield announced that the ABC “will continue to be exempt from the government-wide efficiency dividend”.
However, he added that the Coalition government “will pause indexation of the ABC’s operational funding” across three years from July next year. This will result in a saving to the budget of $83.7 million across three years out of its annual handout of around $1 billion annually.
Now most businesses readily should be able to manage revenue declines of this kind. But the ABC overreacted, alleging that its independence was now at stake.
Managing director Michelle Guthrie sent out an email to staff shortly after Fifield’s media release, criticising the $83.7m cut. She added it “will be compounded by the decision to cease a further $43m to support quality news and current affair services”.
This statement was “completely false”, in Fifield’s words. No such decision has been made by the government and the existing funding in this area remains in place until mid-next year. Moreover, the ABC has yet to submit a proposal for the renewal of funding. The ABC has acknowledged, but not apologised for, the error.
It wasn’t a good start. Then, on Thursday, well-known presenter Jon Faine made the following statement on ABC Radio 774 in Melbourne: “The ABC cuts … that so caught our own management and our board completely by surprise seemed as much as anything part of deals with Pauline Hanson, who’s been calling for exactly those sorts of measures.”
In other words, Malcolm Turnbull and his Communications Minister took this decision as part of a deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.
Faine’s evidence? None at all.
As ABC television’s Insiders presenter Barrie Cassidy told Faine: “We don’t know whether Pauline Hanson influenced the government or not, or whether it was part of a deal.”
But this bit of reality did not quench Faine’s interest in detecting some kind of conspiracy. So he went on to suggest that the decision might have been made to please the “Murdoch media empire”. Again, no evidence was presented.
There is a simpler explanation. As successful business leaders of big and small companies understand, it pays to be courteous and professional towards customers. Especially if a business has a sole customer from which it obtains revenue.
Turnbull became communications minister after Tony Abbott was elected prime minister in September 2013.
No member of the Coalition was more supportive of the taxpayer-funded broadcaster than Turnbull. His attitude at the time was that most journalists are on the political left and that Coalition supporters had to expect that the ABC would reflect this fact.
At this time Turnbull wanted the ABC to make only one major reform; namely, to split the positions of managing director and editor-in-chief, which are held by Guthrie, her predecessor Mark Scott and those before him.
The ABC board rejected this sensible approach. It was not a smart move.
Step forward to September 2015, when Turnbull replaced Abbott as prime minister. Fifield, the new Communications Minister, was not a critic of the ABC in the tradition of former prime ministers Abbott and John Howard. But the evidence suggests that he grew increasingly frustrated by the arrogant manner in which his occasional complaints were treated and by the unwillingness of Guthrie to act as editor-in-chief.
Last Monday, Sky News’ The Bolt Report referred to a series of editorial and programming complaints made by Fifield to the ABC. The Communications Minister, as the guardian of taxpayers’ money in this instance, is entitled to raise issues of concern. Some were attended to professionally — but not others.
Take, for example, Fifield’s complaint about an episode of Tonightly with Tom Ballard (March 15) which airs on ABC Comedy. On March 20, Fifield complained about the use of the C-word with respect to Kevin Bailey, who was the Australian Conservatives candidate in the recent Batman by-election in Melbourne.
Fifield also complained about the use of the same four-letter word in a promotion for the Black Comedy show on the ABC Indigenous Facebook page, which is available to all online users (including children) 24 hours a day.
On March 22, Guthrie replied to Fifield and sent a follow-up letter on April 10. The second letter included a tightly printed nine page investigation report from ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs.
As the ABC’s 2017 annual report documents, this department rejects 93 per cent of the complaints it decides to hear.
So it came as no surprise when Guthrie advised Fifield that his complaint had been rejected by ABC bureaucrats.
Fifield responded with this biting criticism: “The ABC’s response does not demonstrate an understanding of community standards. Lampooning politicians is fair game, but hurling outright abuse at candidates for public office has no place on the national broadcaster. In addition, it hardly demonstrates impartiality when only one political party was singled out for this treatment.”
Fifield then added: “Rather than hiding behind multiple pages of defensive self-justification, it would reflect better on the ABC to simply acknowledge that in this case they got it wrong and apologise unreservedly.” The problem is that the ABC has an ingrained tradition of refraining from acknowledging errors or apologising for mistakes. It’s part of the ABC culture from the top down.
For example, ABC chairman Justin Milne and his predecessor James Spigelman have simply refused to address the fact that in 1975 Richard Downing, then the ABC’s chairman, declared: “In general, men will sleep with young boys.”
Meanwhile ABC producers and journalists have declined to cover the case of former ABC producer Jon Stephens, who pleaded guilty last year to sexually assaulting an ABC 14-year-old boy actor while on official ABC duties in 1981.
The ABC culture of defensive self-justification works with respect to viewers because they have no alternative means of redress. But recent developments suggest that it can be unwise to treat the government — the ABC’s sole customer that hands over taxpayers’ money — with contempt.