What we will lose if we destroy the public broadcaster
The ABC is under threat, with the cuts announced in the budget likely to be the tip of the iceberg. ABC journalist and public broadcasting advocate Quentin Dempster warns Coalition MPs to be careful what they wish for: a Murdoch monopoly won't be all they hoped.
First up: targeted redundancies within the 108 full-time and part-time staff employed to service the ABC’s now-terminated Australia Network contract. ABC managing director Mark Scott was handed a letter giving 90 days’ notice of the termination of the contract from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on budget night, May 13.
The mindless destruction for the national interest, with no announced alternative from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has indicated to public broadcasters the ideological hostility to public broadcasting from within elements of the Australian Liberal Party.
Bishop gave an insight into her resentment of the ABC’s editorial independence in international broadcasting in a speech she delivered to Chatham House in London on March 4:
“My question is whether or not there is an inherent conflict in having the ABC contracted to deliver Australian government messages into the region. We’ve had conflict writ large when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers and the issue of the Snowden allegations. The ABC is a news organisation and perfectly entitled to report how it wishes into the region on those two contentious issues. But under a soft-power diplomacy contract, it’s meant to be delivering a positive image of Australia into the region.”
The BBC has been a beacon in liberal democratic broadcasting, including coverage of highly contentious issues to its worldwide audiences. Audiences everywhere see political dissent within the United Kingdom confronting and sometimes embarrassing UK authority. Rather than damaging UK foreign policy, it has been a resonating bonus for democratic ideals and separation-of-powers institutional strength within national borders.
That was the ABC’s ambition for international broadcasting in the region, particularly the developing democracy of Indonesia and engagement with China. The ABC is a vital link to the outside world for the peoples of the Pacific, and its English-language educational services are a hit.
With 3.3 billion mobile phone users in Asia, the ABC has the quality and ethical content to wire Australia into Asia as never before. Bishop has delivered a hammer blow to the momentum the taxpayer investment was building. She wants Australian government propaganda; such is the shallowness of her thinking.
Now the ABC board under chairman James Spigelman is having to determine the future of its international broadcasting, including the still-relevant Radio Australia, without the benefit of funds derived through the Australia Network contract.
The board is expected to make a commitment to press on, particularly with the re-broadcast partnerships built up over the last 10 years. But inevitably there will be downsizing, including targeted redundancy from among the 43 skilled production and reporting staff from the Asia-Pacific news centre in Melbourne.
The board is expected to re-shape the entire ABC in the coming weeks under cover of the cuts announced in the budget. Alleged “friend” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put the boot in to the ABC in recent speeches about “efficiency”, with the coercive lever that the 1% cut is but a “down payment”. Further targeted and voluntary redundancies of public broadcasters are coming with an expectation that Scott will seize the opportunity to further casualise and nationalise the ABC’s now declining 4600 full-time equivalent workforce. With more than half the ABC staff working in Sydney, the ABC is already Sydney-centric. While lip service will be paid to regionalism and localism, these structures are expensive and therefore dispensable in any reprioritised ABC to reflect Scott’s ambition that its future will be in concentrated digital services — text, audio and video.
And what of SBS? There’s still no chairman of this public broadcaster following the unceremonious dumping of Joseph Skrzynski at the reported insistence of the Prime Minister in March. It is leaderless and also now faces a downsizing and reshaping. The failure of the Abbott government to find a chairman is further evidence of ideological hostility. An ABC-SBS merger would destroy SBS at a time when its multilingual services are needed more than ever. Removing the five-minutes-per-hour cap on SBS TV advertising will make SBS Australia’s fourth free-to-air fully commercial channel. Wonder what the board of Channel Ten thinks about that?
Memo to Liberal Party MPs: don’t fall for Murdoch press propaganda however much you think it helps you in the adversarial game of Australian politics. The ABC was created by the Lyons Coalition government in 1932, supported by one R. G. Menzies, then a Victorian MP. The ABC is part of the institutional strength and robustness of Australian democracy. Get into bed with Murdoch and you sell your souls.