Tonight is the ABC’s annual soiree in Canberra, when the ABC management team and the public broadcaster’s leading presenters and producers socialise with politicians in Parliament House. The ABCteam will be led by its chairman, Maurice Newman, who was criticised for his speech last Wednesday in which he called on the ABC to “re-energise the spirit of inquiry”.

Newman’s speech was considered and reasonable. He made the obvious point “there should be no public perception that there is such a thing as an ‘ABC view’. ” He added that “we must be neither believers nor atheists but agnostics who acknowledge people have a right to make up their own minds”. He suggested climate change provided an example where the media had engaged in “group-think where contrary views have

not been tolerated and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked”.

According to reports in The Australian, Newman’s speech angered the ABC1 Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes, who has set himself up as an arbiter of taste on matters media and whose program allows for no on-air debate. It’s all about Holmes handing down his (unappealable) judgments each Monday night. In its two decades, Media Watch has had seven presenters, all of whom have been on the left.

In an interview with PM, Newman said “the ABC has probably been more balanced than most of the mainstream media” in its handling of the climate change debate. Nevertheless, his implied criticism of the ABC was warranted.

The Australian media columnist Errol Simper is a long-time supporter of the public broadcaster. Yet he acknowledged yesterday “it seemed, particularly in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, that the bulk of ABC television and radio presenters were all in thrall to the weather alarmists”.

Newman’s public intervention in the climate change debate came late – well after the failure of the Copenhagen conference and following the Coalition’s decision to oppose the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. Moreover, there is no evidence the ABC chairman has influenced ABC programming on climate change or any other issue. The fact is, the ABC is fortunate to have Newman as chairman.

In 1975 Newman invited the American free market advocate Milton Friedman to Australia. The visit was a considerable success. At the time Newman was an advocate of low taxation and spending cuts. Today he is responsible for the ABC’s business plan – which essentially means taking a return flight to Canberra and asking for a taxpayer-funded handout.

Newman has done well for the ABC. It scored its best outcome in more than two decades in the federal budget last year. In fact the ABC seems to have an abundance of funds. It has been able to fund its planned 24-hour news channel out of its existing budget along with several new digital radio stations.

As Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey earlier this year, in its 2003 submission the ABC argued it would need an extra $35 million a year to fund a 24-hour TV news channel. By 2010 it could do all this without any extra call on the taxpayer. Keane said this “raises questions about how seriously the ABC’s funding bids should be treated”.

Alas, we will never know. Despite signing up to the Right To Know Coalition, the ABC refuses to release details of its funding submissions – along with much other information.

Writing on the ABC’s website The Drum two weeks ago, its managing director, Mark Scott, criticised the “inflexibility” of the commercial media’s “business models”. It is true that, due to financial difficulties and new technology, much of the commercial media is doing it tough.

It is little wonder the ABC’s apparent tactic of using bucketloads of taxpayers’ funds to move into new areas has been criticised by APN News and Media’s Brendan Hopkins, Fairfax Media’s Brian McCarthy and by various News Limited spokesmen.

In recent times the BBC, which is funded by a compulsory licence fee, has reduced some of its media activities and contemplated the possibility the licence fee will be reduced by the British government. In Australia the ABC has taken quite a different tack.

In a speech last year Mark Scott advocated an increased role for the public broadcaster as an agent for the delivery of Australia’s “soft power” as a form of “soft diplomacy”. According to Scott, it is the ABC which is capable of putting Australia’s “culture, values and policies on show”. But is it? After almost

four years as managing director, Scott has still not found one conservative or right-of-centre personality to present any of the ABC’s most influential programs.

The only program that consciously employs such commentators – ABC1’s Insiders – was an initiative during Jonathan Shier’s time as managing director. The ABC does not like hearing this. But there is more diversity on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News than can be found on most ABC programs. Such left-of-centre commentators as Alan Colmes, Kirsten Powers, Joe Trippi and Juan Williams are regular Fox commentators. What’s more, the Fox program News Watch hears the views of two conservatives and two liberals (in the American sense of the term) each week. There is no debate on Media Watch.

Newman is correct in drawing the ABC’s attention to the need of a spirit of genuine inquiry. This will not occur until the ABC becomes genuinely pluralistic and junks fashionable group-think. Let’s drink to that tonight.