The Prime Minister’s extraordinary attack on the ABC yesterday signals not merely that the national broadcaster is to be targeted by the Coalition but that the war on whistleblowers and journalism launched by the Obama administration is being prosecuted with renewed vigour by the Abbott government.

Speaking to Ray Hadley — “interview” would be the wrong word — Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared (oxymoronically), “you would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for our home team”. He complained that the ABC “appears to take everyone’s side but our own”, criticised the establishment of a fact-checking body within the ABC as a waste of money, agreed with Hadley that the ABC was “self-regulated” and returned to an issue that clearly vexes the Prime Minister:

“Well, I was very worried and concerned a few months back [it was actually mid-November] when the ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor. This gentlemen Snowden, or this individual Snowden, who has betrayed his country and in the process has badly, badly damaged other countries that are friends of the United States, and of course the ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said …”

Bear in mind that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull took the extraordinary and entirely improper step last year of ringing the managing director of the ABC to complain that the ABC had run the Snowden Indonesia story in conjunction with The Guardian – a mistake Turnbull again appears to have made in relation to the ABC’s asylum seeker burns story. After the Indonesian story, Abbott accused the ABC of, in effect, breaching its charter by “advertising” for The Guardian. When Katharine Murphy of The Guardian asked him why the ABC’s journalistic collaboration with News Corp and Fairfax wouldn’t also be advertising, a stumped Abbott refused to answer.

The claim that the ABC is breaching its charter — and using the loaded term “advertising” — is a serious one. And Abbott’s comments about the ABC needing to barrack for Australia as well as have a rigorous commitment to truth echo  Thatcherite criticisms of the BBC during the Falklands War, when that broadcaster was attacked for failing to cheer on British forces and instead was behaving “neutrally”. Remember also that the during the Iraq War debacle, Coalition senators attacked the ABC for refusing to use the possessive pronoun “ours” about Australian troops engaged in invading Iraq — again suggesting a lack of patriotism. There is nothing accidental about Abbott’s wording here. And it echoes his previous criticism of the ABC, which he accused last year of working with a “left-wing British newspaper”.

In addition to claiming the ABC was unAustralian and breaching its charter, Abbott also suggested the ABC was wasting money in setting up a fact-checking unit — a unit that caught the Coalition (and Labor) out in lies during the election campaign.

Breaching its charter, not being Australian enough, wasting money: this is the basis for the Coalition’s attack on the ABC, which will most likely begin with withdrawing the contract for the international television service the Howard government insisted the ABC run back in 2001.

The Abbott brains trust — led by Peta Credlin, who was then-communications minister Helen Coonan’s chief of staff and also Richard Alston’s broadcasting adviser — understands that stacking the ABC board won’t work in influencing the ABC. The Howard government put pretty much every right-winger except Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson on the ABC board, with no effect — all it meant was that ABC management had a freer hand because the likes of Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle didn’t understand the basics of broadcasting and thus couldn’t scrutinise management properly. There are five ABC board appointments falling vacant in this term of Parliament, but nearly all are in 2015 or on the eve of the next election.

“So that leaves only one option — cut the ABC’s funding — and to do that, the government need to make the case it’s out of control …”

So that leaves only one option — cut the ABC’s funding — and to do that, the government need to make the case it’s out of control and needs to be reined in. New Corp’s campaign against the ABC won’t be enough — its readers, especially at The Australian, which has led the campaign, are old conservatives who don’t need to be convinced that the ABC is Pravda. Abbott has to convince voters in the real world, and he seems to have settled on his line on it.

Abbott also agreed with Hadley’s suggestion that the ABC was “self-regulated”, compared with commercial broadcasters, which were “hammered” by the Australian Communications and Media Authority — a howling error. Sections 150-153 of the Broadcasting Services Act explain that in fact ACMA can investigate complaints about the ABC and SBS just like with commercial broadcasters, and can direct the ABC about ways of complying with its codes of practice, including broadcasting retractions and apologies, which the ABC has 30 days to comply with or face parliamentary scrutiny. Abbott plainly forgot that his then-colleague Richard Alston devoted considerable effort to using the then-ABA to pursue the ABC for its coverage of the Iraq War debacle.

Abbott also launched an out-of-the-blue attack on Edward Snowden, declaring him a traitor. I asked Abbott’s office on what basis he believed Snowden was a traitor, given the US Department of Justice hadn’t indicted Snowden for treason but for theft and unauthorised communication. No reply. Perhaps Abbott should speak to a few of his Republican colleagues in the United States, like congressmen Justin Amash and Tom McClintock, who have claimed Snowden is a whistleblower who revealed law-breaking by the Obama administration. Or he could ask the Republican National Committee, which recently resolved that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution … an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society, and this program represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy …”

The campaign to smear Snowden has been escalated of late, with allegations from senior national security figures in the US that he is working with the Russians (it used to be the Chinese, but never mind) and, overnight, noted perjurer James Clapper, US director of National Intelligence, referring to journalists who have worked with Snowden as “accomplices”. Both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Abbott have declared him a traitor even in the aftermath of the NSA review by a panel handpicked by Obama, which found no evidence that the NSA’s surveillance had thwarted a single terrorist attack, while Turnbull recently wrote about the “very profound damage” Snowden had inflicted on the US tech sector, as though they hadn’t in many cases collaborated with, and been funded by, the NSA.

Of course, Australia has its own spying outrage, with revelations last year that the Howard government used an intelligence agency, hiding behind an aid program, to bug the East Timorese Cabinet in order to advantage resources company Woodside — revelations Attorney-General George Brandis and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation then tried to suppress by raiding the former intelligence officer who blew the whistle on the scandal.

Who broke that story? Oh yeah, the ABC.

Related stories:

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now