The taxpayer-funded public broadcaster spends a lot of time talking about itself. So it came as no surprise on Monday when ABC News reported that it had received a new label on Twitter branding the broadcaster as “government-funded media”.
According to the ABC, the Twitter label is meant to provide additional context for accounts heavily engaged in geopolitics and diplomacy. This reflects Twitter under the new management of Elon Musk. The BBC, which is funded by a licence fee enforced by law with respect to those who watch or listen to its products, has had its Musk-era description changed to “publicly funded”.
Fair enough – since the public broadcaster in Britain does not receive its overwhelming funding direct from the government. But the ABC does. Nevertheless, a spokesperson has stated it is “liaising with Twitter regarding changes to account verification and labels”.
Strange when you think about it. For it was only a few weeks ago that Sophie Elsworth reported in The Australian that ABC Alumni chair Jonathan Holmes along with ABC Friends national president Cassandra Parkinson had met Communications Minister Michelle Rowland with a view to discussing the Albanese government’s funding commitments to the public broadcaster.
It is reported that after the meeting, the heads of the two ABC advocacy groups wrote to Jim Chalmers requesting “that, at the very least, the current levels of ABC funding will be maintained in real terms over the course of the coming five-year agreements”.
Clearly, the likes of Holmes and Parkinson know from whence the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is funded. They did not choose to beg outside the ABC’s inner-city headquarters in Sydney and Melbourne.
And they did not bother to go door to door in Australia’s suburbs and regional areas asking for handouts to continue to fund the careers of such ABC “stars” as Sarah Ferguson, Michael Rowland and Louise Milligan.
There is an old joke about the armed robber who, asked why he targeted the banks, declared “because that’s where the money is”. The ABC advocacy groups approach the federal government for funding because that is where the money comes from. Via Australia’s taxpayers, who – unlike the Brits – have no choice but to support the ABC.
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 16, 2014 in an article titled “The ABC is vital to Australian democracy”, Fiona Stanley asked this leading question: “Have you noticed that journalists critical of the ABC have started to call it the taxpayer-funded ABC?”
But it is taxpayer-funded. Consequently, it follows that the ABC is government-funded since it is government that collects revenue from taxpayers that it passes on to the ABC.
The correct reference to the Australian public broadcaster as government or taxpayer-funded serves as a reminder of its obligations. Some strident members of the ABC fan club invariably put out the fake news that it is in danger of being privatised by a Coalition government. This will never happen.
For starters, the ABC has the support of many regional and rural members and senators from the Liberal Party and the Nationals. Not because they believe it is fair and balanced but because they use it to communicate to their media-lite electorates and on account of the fact the ABC serves a useful purpose at times of droughts, fires and floods.
In any event, it is most unlikely a Coalition government could get legislation to defund or privatise the ABC through the Senate. And neither the Labor Party nor the Greens have any intention of moving against the ABC.
Sure, when Labor governments are in office, the ABC invariably criticises the ALP from the left. But it never supports the Coalition – except, on occasions, when it is led by a Malcolm Turnbull-style Liberal.
The real task for the ABC board and senior management is to avoid further reputational damage at a time of falling ratings – especially across news and current affairs programs. The ABC is a conservative-free zone without one conservative presenter, or producer, or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.
It’s not surprising, then, that the ABC has been deserted by many of its one-time traditional conservative audiences. They have not been replaced by a substantial new young audience. There are many demands on government – in such areas as housing and defence, and more besides. In view of this, the ABC needs all the support it can get to sustain its current annual level of funding (about $1bn) in real terms.
In recent times, the ABC has scaled down its habit of denying and refusing to correct errors. To this extent, the establishment of independent inquiries into programs on the 1979 Luna Park fire in Sydney, the murder of Sydney identity Juanita Nielsen and the news report on an Alice Springs meeting this year concerning violence in the town (this by the newly appointed Ombudsman) is a positive sign.
However, the evident lack of balance in reporting – some call it bias – continues. A few examples illustrate the point. Appearing on Q&A on April 10, former BBC journalist Andrew Neil drew attention to the fact all five Australians on the panel supported the voice but not one opposed it. And yet the ABC claimed the panel was diverse.
Then, this week, the ABC failed to immediately report the appalling behaviour of leftist Indigenous independent senator Lidia Thorpe, formerly of the Greens, in verbally abusing some men outside a strip club in inner-city Melbourne. It is impossible to imagine the ABC would have looked the other way if a Coalition or Labor politician had acted in such a manner.
And then there was ABC Radio National Breakfast presenter Patricia Karvelas’s interview with Nationals politician Barnaby Joyce on Tuesday. Karvelas continually interrupted Joyce – and even interjected “No, no, no” on several occasions. It was as unprofessional as that.
With the valid criticism of many ABC news and current affairs programs, along with its declining audience, the ABC has much more to focus on than how it is described on Twitter.