The ABC, under managing director and editor-in-chief Mark Scott, is seriously conflicted. Appearing before the Senate’s environment and communications legislation committee last Tuesday, Scott defended the public broadcaster’s decision to report top-secret material concerning apparent Australian surveillance of Indonesia in 2009 as ”absolutely in the public interest” and ”probably also in the national interest in the long term”.
He did so in spite of conceding that 7.30’s co-operation with The Guardian Australia’s decision to release material stolen by the American Edward Snowden (now residing in Russia) was ”embarrassing” to Australia and ”may cause some difficulties in the Australian-Indonesian relationship in the short-term”.
That’s Scott Version I. As ABC managing director, he sees the ABC’s role as telling stories – irrespective of whether they are embarrassing to the Australian government or damaging to Australians. But there is Scott Version II. As ABC managing director, he also sees the ABC’s role as projecting Australia’s ”soft diplomacy” in the Asia Pacific Region.
Commencing in 2009, Scott has given a number of lectures in which he has proclaimed the ABC’s role in Australian diplomacy. This was spelt out clearly in the 2009 Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture where Scott declared that ”soft power rests on the nation’s culture, values and policies” and indicated the ABC’s willingness to put Australia’s ”culture, values and policies on show”.
Interviewed by Eleanor Hall on The World Today at the time, Scott stated that ”the most effective way of advancing soft diplomacy is through the power of the media and we think there is a significant role the ABC can play in that”. He defined soft diplomacy as being ”all about reaching out to people not to governments and influencing them favourably towards yourself as they understand better your values, your culture and your way of life”.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. Or perhaps you can if you are the managing director of a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster which nobody really controls. In any event, Scott is on record as declaring not only that the role of the ABC in the Asia Pacific region is to influence people favourably but also that it is proper for the ABC to broadcast material which is embarrassing and which will cause damage.
The contradiction has been exacerbated by money, or rather, the perceived need for extra funding. Scott has publicly drawn attention to what he has referred to as the failed business model of sections of commercial media. This overlooks the fact that the ABC’s business model has been to petition the government for yet more taxpayer funding. Scott was successful in obtaining extra funding from the Labor government, despite the ballooning budget deficit.
One of Scott’s victories was to obtain for the ABC the Australia Network contract, although it has been well established the ABC lost the tender contest on two occasions to Sky News. The evidence suggests that Labor’s communications minister Stephen Conroy intervened in the tender process to the benefit of the ABC – an act which would surely have been disapproved of by ABC journalists if two private sector companies had been involved.
This was always an unwise decision, as some senior Labor figures acknowledged at the time. The ABC tends to criticise both the Coalition and Labor from the left. The prime minister most critical of the ABC was Bob Hawke. The ABC essentially runs a greens-left agenda. So it came as no surprise when Scott’s principal defender at the Senate estimates committee was Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.
When Kevin Rudd announced the Australia Network tender in November 2010, he said that it would present an ”Australia perspective to the world”. Last week, 7.30 worked with The Guardian Australia to reveal stolen documents alleging that Australia, under Rudd’s prime ministership, had interdicted the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
There is no compelling public or national interest in such a revelation. As well, its broadcast on the ABC’s Australia Network gave an unwarranted authenticity to the story in the Asia Pacific region, where it is not always recognised that governments do not run government-funded organisations.
In a speech to Asialink in August 2010, Scott defined the ABC’s soft diplomacy as ”helping to develop a positive reputation for a nation in other countries” along with ”foreign policy and trade objectives”. This comment is at odds with his defence of the ABC’s decision to run Snowden’s documents last week in co-operation with the London-based left-wing Guardian, which has no interest in promoting Australia in the Asia-Pacific or anywhere else.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.