Senate Inquiry into Allegations of Political Interference in the ABC
The Inquiry published its report on 1 April. The following is an ABCF media release later that day:
ABC Friends Welcome Findings of Senate Inquiry
The Senate Inquiry into allegations of political interference in the ABC has just released its findings. The report warns:
While Australians have considerable trust in the ABC, this trust is not blind. Should Australian Governments continue to undermine and erode the independence and integrity of the corporation, the ABC's status as a trusted institution will be significantly diminished (4.90).
The committee was concerned that the manner of government control over ABC funding and timing of the flow of funding to the ABC might diminish the ABC’s real or perceived independence and that the government’s approach to Board appointments, in particular ‘Captain’s picks’, had damaged perceptions of independent ABC governance. It provided a series of recommendations to respond to these important concerns.
The seven-person committee was chaired by Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The committee comprised 3 ALP, 2 Coalition, 1 Green and 1 Independent (Tim Storer). The Coalition members submitted a short dissenting report stating that no evidence was found of any political interference.
National President of ABC Friends, Margaret Reynolds, gave evidence to the Inquiry and stressed Friends concerns that the current government had inflicted very significant damage on the ABC. Since the advent of the Abbott government in 2013, there have been major cuts to ABC funding, with a number of organisations counting more than $600m in cuts from 2014. More than a thousand jobs have been lost, approximately a quarter of the workforce. Many programs have been lost or cut. These reflect a direct and dire impact of government on the ABC. The report referred to the organisation’s workforce as ‘besieged’ and considered the influence on employees’ willingness to work on programs unfavourable to the government. Would there be a ‘pre-emptive buckle’? Would employees self-censor to avoid government retribution?
The committee recommended that:
--- The much loved and respected public broadcaster should have adequate and stable funding to conduct its legislated functions now and into the future (4.33).
The committee canvassed the tensions that had led to the sacking of the ABC’s Managing Director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation soon after of then Chair, Justin Milne. There was concern that the Chair had appeared to see his role as a ‘conduit’ between the government and the organisation and that this might lead to messages from the leadership that the ABC should take care not to distress its ‘banker’. The committee recorded its view that:
Editorial independence is a measure of transparency and accountability. The --- ABC's governance framework must safeguard the corporation's independence in order to achieve these important outcomes, and to prevent actual or perceived political interference. While the ABC has confidence in its editorial framework, the committee heard that politicians have attempted informally to influence the ABC (see chapter three) and, in 2018, the former ABC Chair informally prosecuted the Australian Government's agenda in his interactions with the ABC Leadership Team. In the circumstances, the committee considers that the ABC's editorial framework should be reviewed to ensure that it establishes clear policies and procedures for ABC staff who interact with politicians and/or their offices. This should include a strong statement on the importance of maintaining the corporation's independence at all levels within the ABC (4.71-73).
ABC Friends believes that Australians want to see a well-funded, strong and independent ABC. This report and its recommendations assist in overcoming some of the damaging and draining challenges that the ABC has faced. We urge the government to take them seriously and act to ensure that Australians can enjoy high quality public broadcasting. In this era of fake news and manipulation, this has never been more important.
ABCF NSW&ACT Campaign Preparations
This was my report for the 15 March National Committee:
ABC Friends NSW&ACT are working hard on their ‘Save the ABC’ campaign for the 2019 federal election. The campaign will target as many marginal seats as possible. All NSW and ACT Branches are planning a range of activities including:
- Engagement with key candidates via a survey and where possible through meetings with candidates, to assess their stand on ABC funding and independence
- Developing and distributing materials at market stalls and at community events; these will highlight the damage being done to the public broadcaster by current and previous government’s cuts and attacks. Voters will be urged to ‘Vote for the candidate you trust with our ABC’.
- Contacting other groups who are going to be active in supporting the ABC during the election, and trying to engage the media to amplify our messages around the need to Save the ABC
- Preparing How to Vote cards, and organising volunteers to distribute these during the polling period
- Attending key candidate forums to ask questions about the ABC’s future
- Promoting the campaign through social media and public events
- Preparing advertising around the campaign.
The key seats we hope to cover in NSW will be:
Page and Richmond (Northern Rivers branch); Cowper, Dobell and Robertson (Central Coast Branch); Armidale (New England Branch); Eden-Monaro, Gilmore and Canberra (ACT Branch) ; Lindsay and Macquarie (Blue Mountains); Wentworth, Reid, Banks and some actions in Warringah (Sydney Branch).
NSW Friends should watch out for email blasts as we get closer to the election. We will be sending information to all NSW Friends and asking for help. Please get in touch with us if you would like to participate in our activities and if you have any useful contacts in the targeted seats.
NSW Friends should also watch out for our new NSW campaign Facebook page - it will keep you informed about what’s happening and things you can do. Please like us and share the stories and information with all your friends, family and contacts!
2019 Federal Budget and the ABC
The Budget was handed down on the 2nd April. Some observations:
The Treasurer made much of the claim that the ‘Budget is back in the black’. It’s not there yet. The declared surplus is a projection for the next financial year. Various international and domestic hazards must be safely negotiated before any surplus accrues. International concerns include slowing of the Chinese economy, the disruption to world markets linked to Brexit and uncertainties linked to US trade policy. Domestic risks include flat wage growth, flat consumption and the impact of falling house prices in Melbourne and Sydney.
The Budget did not revisit the projected $84m cuts to the ABC, to take effect over the next three financial years. The good news for the ABC was that the government signalled that it would provide $44m, over the next three financial years, for Enhanced News Gathering. This has been funded for the last six years.
The ABC will receive $3.1b over the next three financial years; 2019/20-2021/22. This represents $1.05b pa. Total Federal Government Expenditure (FGE-social security, welfare, health, education, defence etc) is $501b for 2019/20. Government funding for the ABC is therefore 0.2% of FGE. There has been a steady decline in ABC funding as a proportion of FGE. In 1980, it was 0.6%. It is of serious concern that the federal government provides such very low funding for public broadcasting, especially in this era of news distortion, manipulation and more general media disruption.
The Opposition Leader in his Budget Reply speech indicated that an incoming Labor government would not proceed with the $84m projected cuts and that his government would provide an extra $10m for regional news and emergency broadcasting, on top of the $44m linked to Enhance News Gathering. He closed his remarks by including the ABC as one of the totemic areas for Labor’s attention, along with ‘renewables, climate change, equality for women and equality for everyone’.
I will be presenting two sessions for Sydney’s WEA:
Monday, 20 May, 12.15-1.15pm: The Fight for the ABC
Saturday, 15 June, 1-4pm: The Importance of Public Broadcasting in an Era of Fake News.
Both are at the WEA’s campus, 72 Bathurst St, Sydney (by the Town Hall). The first session costs $20 and the second, $75. Tel: 9264-2781; www.weasydney.com.au