For anyone with a memory longer than five minutes, the current stoush between the ABC and the government over the latter’s funding seems almost ritualistic, with a different set of participants uttering the time-honoured, decades-old incantations. The ABC should “tackle back-office and administrative costs,” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently said, as if his department had given him the same talking points as those given to Richard Alston when the Howard government’s budget cuts forced the ABC to dump news programs 11 years ago: the ABC “should look first at back-of-office, structural spending,” Alston told the broadcaster back then, arguing that Australia’s participation in the Iraq War required budget cuts. Plus ca change …

But the repetition goes back further, further even than the first years of the Howard government, when a business figure (Bob Mansfield) was appointed to review the ABC as a prelude to budget cuts the Coalition had promised before the previous election it wouldn’t inflict. It goes back to the late 1980s, when the ABC and a Labor government clashed over both funding and the rationale for the broadcaster, then just a few years into life as an incorporated entity with a legislated charter.

Gareth Evans, one of several to hold the “super portfolio” of Transport and Communications, had the unenviable job of trying to hold back then-finance minister Peter Walsh and treasurer Paul Keating, both of whom wanted to slash the ABC, egged on by Bob Hawke, who had been deeply angered by a Four Corners program on his dear friend and businessman Peter Abeles.

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As related by Ken Inglis in his book Whose ABC?, that stoush gave birth to David Hill’s “8 cents a day” campaign, which enraged the government but proved enormously successful in making further ABC cuts politically unpalatable. Nor was Evans able to achieve his other goal, to commence a genuine debate over what exactly the ABC should be doing, despite an extensive review process by his own department led by future Australian Broadcasting Tribunal head Peter Westerway. The most controversial proposal from Evans’ review was for core and non-core ABC activities (plus a third category of activities that should be hived off entirely). As Inglis explains, news, current affairs, drama, children’s TV and education would become core charter activities, while light entertainment, sport, “family activities” and religious programming would become non-core programming. The idea was strongly opposed by the then-ABC board.

The failure of Evans’ effort is of more than historical interest: it represents the core problem facing a government seeking a genuine debate about the role of public broadcasting. Inevitably, the debate bogs down immediately in arguments about money and the hostility between the government of the day and the ABC.

As a result, the ABC has evolved without legislated direction from government. The only change the Howard government made to the ABC’s charter was to add the ludicrous “datacasting” format to its activities; instead, Howard and Co. preferred to simply stack the board with ideologues like Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle in an effort to combat the ABC’s perceived bias. Oddly, this simply reinforced the independent evolution of the ABC, because none of Howard’s reactionaries had an understanding of broadcasting or media from a management perspective, meaning ABC management and a succession of managing directors were in effect given a free hand to shape the ABC until a Labor government established a more independent, merit-based appointment process. And Turnbull, it appears, has also learnt from the Howard years, appointing former Seven executive Peter Lewis to the board.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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