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Death by a thousands cuts for ABC current affairs

While distrust of the ABC existed all through the 1980s, events in the 1993 election campaign are cited by some Liberal supporters as the source of the current hatred. O’Brien’s moderation of the final debate between John Hewson and Paul Keating was perceived by the Liberal Party as biased, some Liberals putting the view that the odds were against Hewson with him being attacked by both Keating and O’Brien. The Liberal’s refusal in the 1996 election to take part in any debate with O’Brien as moderator was payback for 1993, as the Prime Ministerial debates were turned into a pawn of inter-network rivalry.

Now blaming O’Brien for the Coalition’s 1993 defeat overlooks several key points. First, it overlooks completely the possibility that the Coalition’s Fightback! platform might have played some part in losing the ‘unloseable’ election. (Some have described Fightback as the longest suicide note in political history, a terribly unoriginal epithet, this description having originally applied to the British Labor Party’s 1983 election manifesto which included unilateral nuclear disarmament and further socialization of the economy.)

Second, blaming O’Brien completely overlooks that two of the most damaging interviews were conducted on A Current Affair by Michael Willesee, one where Hewson was stumped explaining the GST on a birthday cake, and the second a debate between Hewson and Keating where Willesee completely lost control and resulted in Keating monstering Hewson.

Thirdly, it is always amazing that Liberal Party overstate the importance of the ABC in forming public opinion. The sort of disinterested selfish voters who decide Australian elections don’t watch the ABC. If they have any interest in news analysis, it is the softer fluff of A Current Affair. But as some in the Liberal Party say, the importance of the ABC is that it broadcasts to a Conservative audience. “They are broadcasting to our people,” some Liberals say. The ABC’s audience is overwhelmingly made up of older voters, with its preponderance of conservative voters. As bias is often in the eye of the beholder, even if the ABC is scrupulously fair, many of its viewers will still see an anti-coalition bias.

So when the Howard government came to office, many expected that in true John the Baptist style, the head of Kerry O’Brien would have been delivered to the government on a platter. After several years of stacking the board, you would have expected by now that O’Brien would be gone and The 7:30 Report either abolished or switched back to being state-based.

Well, there are several problems with this. First, after starving the ABC of funds, it would be impossible to re-introduce a state-based 7:30 Report. It would be just too expensive. And as far as getting rid of O’Brien, it would be just too politically difficult, too obvious. Anyway, Howard has probably neutralised O’Brien in interviews, O’Brien always losing because his body language clearly shows a greater dislike of Howard than almost any other politician that he interviews, Liberal or Labor. Why do you think Howard always finishes his interviews with a polite “Always a pleasure Kerry”. Interviews on The 7:30 Report are not his political problem.

What the government hates is the coverage the program gives to regional issues. Whether it be the sale of Telstra, market de-regulations, banks or the withdrawal of government services, what the Howard government hates is that their spin is not getting out to the bush. The government much prefers the soft interview of the regional media to the sort of analysis applied by The 7:30 Report.

But there are other ways to neutralise the ABC without the politically difficult problem of shifting O’Brien. The simplest is to shift resources to regional broadcasting, with more programs being produced by regional producers. Why do you think the government has tried to tie its new funding to programs in regional areas? Which is where Jonathan Shier’s announcement last week of new programs is revealing.

Appearing before a Senate estimates committee, Shier was always going to come under pressure about a shortage of new programming since he took over the reigns of office. So what better to do than announce a few new programs. Two of these new programs are revealing of the other ways that can be used to skin the cat of concern about ABC news and current affairs.

If Shier has a concern about ratings, then the two new news and current affairs offerings will do little to fix his problem. One program is a new Sunday morning current affairs program, Agenda, a timelsot that will be lucky to rate an asterisk. The second is Australia Talks, a local version of the BBC program Question Time and a cousin of Auntie’s long gone Monday Conference. In the UK, Question Time is on very late at night, so it is hardly a big rater.

But just why is the ABC wanting to do a Sunday morning current affairs program? This is the only time in the week when the commercial networks bother to do in-depth current affairs and interviews. While Nine does well with AB-demographic advertising for the Sunday program, for all three networks the programs are really loss leaders, putting on some in-depth analysis at a time when it won’t affect the really important issue in broadcasting, evening ratings.

So why should the ABC bother to compete? All it does is increase from three to four the number of outlets for politicians to be interviewed and set the political agenda for the high rating Sunday evening news bulletins. Why does the ABC bother at all? It is the only network that offers evening current affairs, and with a shortage of resources, why not concentrate on that strength? Unless of course, you want to starve the other programs of resources. You don’t have to be too much of a conspiracy theorist to see the new program as a way of shifting real news and current affairs analysis out of prime time.

And then there is the regional Australia Talks program. If you don’t like the tough questions of journalists, and you don’t like questioning controlled by city-based ‘elites’, what better way to fix the problem than to create a program where an audience in rural and regional Australia gets to ask the questions.

None of this is to say that good journalists like Pru Goward and Barrie Cassidy can’t do a solid job with a Sunday morning program, or that the public shoudn’t get a forum like Australia Talks. It’s just you have to see some other agenda running here at a time when ABC news and current affairs is squeezed of resources.

The 7:30 Report has its problems. For network programmers wanting to increase their ratings, it is a bit turgid and dry for its timeslot. Perhaps it should be replaced by a program later in the evening, at a timeslot when its current ratings would be considered more acceptable.

But the latest announcements look like producing death for the 7:30 Report by a thousand cuts. Let it whither on the vine, then no one will notice it when it is cut to be replaced by repeats of some old British program. And then what are we left with? A Sunday program, no one except political junkies will watch, and a forum program bowling up donkey-drops that can easily be defended or hit away to the boundary.

Very short sighted for a political party that by early next year will more than likely be out of government in Canberra and in all six states. Just at a time when the Coalition will be wanting a media outlet interested in analysing the actions of government, they’ll have been responsible for ending current affairs on television.

But then, both sides have been playing that game for years by sucking up to Packer and Murdoch. Bugger the national interest or what might happen in a couple of years. Worry about who’s writing tomorrows headlines. If people want vision, they can see an optometrist and stop bothering us.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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