ABC Under Attack-Situation Normal
These are very challenging times for the ABC. As outlined in the ABC’s 2017 Annual Report, funding for the ABC has declined by 28% from 1985/6 to 2017/8. In recent years, the 2014 federal budget, introduced by then Treasurer Joe Hockey, cut with particular savagery into ABC funding. The 2017 budget resulted in a cut to base ABC funding of $55.2m per annum, with a further cut of $12.2m required in 2018/9 (ABC 2017 Annual Report, vol. 1, pp. 83-4). Ranald Macdonald has aptly described the threat of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to the ABC. The issue of restoring funding to the ABC, at least to 2013 levels, is critical to ensure that the ABC can fulfil its Charter obligations to deliver, "innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard".
Government cuts to ABC funding have been accompanied by at times bizarre and ferocious attacks by senior government figures and others. In 2014, then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott accused the ABC of being ‘un-Australian’, of lacking a ‘rigorous commitment to the truth’ and lacking ‘basic affection for the home team’ (SMH, 29 January 2014). It appeared a blatant attempt to influence the reporting of News and Current Affairs on the ABC. Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz described the ABC as a ‘lefty love-in’ and indicated his hope that Michelle Guthrie, as new ABC Managing Director, would sort this out (Examiner, 21 December, 2015) and Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, has been an unrelenting critic of the ABC. He showed his delight at the ABC’s decision to axe Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s program after a Facebook post by her in relation to Anzac Day. ‘One down and many to go’, Dutton told 2GB’s Ray Hadley (SMH, 26 May, 2017).
Leader of One Nation, Pauline Hanson has maintained her rage at the ABC, in particular over the 4 Corners program, which revealed One Nation's ‘brutal backroom politics’ and questionable decisions in relation to payments for campaign activities (4 Corners, Please Explain, 3 April, 2017). An appalling outcome has been an apparent pact between the federal government and One Nation, with One Nation delivering its support to pass assorted government bills in the Senate in return for government support for One Nation vengeance on the ABC, in the form of proposed draconian cuts to ABC funding and measures to undermine its operation. As yet, Labor, Greens and enough other Senate crossbenchers appear committed to preventing this but it is surely a deeply worrying sign of what might happen if a future alliance of conservative parties and One Nation ruled the roost.
The last year has seen other camps outspoken and outrageous in their attacks on the ABC. The most obvious example was Roger Franklin’s comment in Quadrant lamenting that the awful bombing at the Manchester Arena in May 2017 had not occurred at the ABC’s building in Ultimo. In his cross-hairs was Q and A: ‘ Unlike those young girls in Manchester, their lives snuffed out before they could begin, none of the panel’s likely casualties would have represented the slightest reduction in humanity’s intelligence, decency, empathy or honesty’. Initial ‘well said’ responses by the usual line up of ABC critics were overwhelmed by a tide of anger at Franklin’s terrible language and imagery. Quadrant’s editor apologised and Australia was told that Franklin had been ‘counselled’. It all looked too little, too late. And, of course, the Murdoch media have kept up their daily barrage at the ABC, antagonised by its reach and deeply trusted place in Australian society.
A further challenge for the ABC is to be found in seismic changes in broadcasting technology, often referred to as ‘digital disruption’. This has seen the ABC committed to investing in technology and organisational change to ensure that it continues to reach a very wide proportion of the population as people change their means of accessing ABC programs. As Michelle Guthrie pointed out to the Friends’ National Conference on 6th October, global giants have emerged with a massive impact on broadcasting: for instance, Google (market capitalisation, US$660 billion); Facebook (US$500b) and Netflix (US$70b). She contrasted this with the estimated combined worth of Australia’s three major free-to-air media organisations at Australian $2.1b!
The role of the Friends is as vital as ever. There is an ever-present need to press government and opposition political parties for adequate funding for the ABC. The Friends must maintain their determination to confront attempts to censor the ABC and must continue their insistence that Australia is served by high quality public broadcasting, which informs, educates and entertains. We are all the poorer when the ABC is diminished.