Zaky Mallah’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program has once again put the national broadcaster in the government’s sights. But is the controversy anything new? We take a look at the last 45 years of the ABC’s history and its running battle with politicians from along the political spectrum … OK, mostly from one side of it. 

The 1970s

As we pointed out last Friday, government ministers lambasting the ABC over its choice of guests is nothing particularly new. When 24-year-old draft-dodger Michael Matteson appeared on the ABC’s current affairs program This Day Tonight in 1971, it sparked a conservative backlash the likes of we hadn’t seen until, well, last week. But more on that later.

Gough Whitlam made the first move in a decades-long Labor-Coalition tit-for-tat by introducing a staff-elected position on the ABC board in 1975. The position was abolished by the Fraser government, and then reinstated by Bob Hawke’s government in 1986. Continuing the pattern, John Howard moved to once again abolish the position after a 2003 report into corporate governance of the public sector found representational appointments often “fail to produce independent and objective views”. Howard succeeded in removing the position in 2006, only for the Labor government to reintroduce it in 2012. Tony Abbott has yet to show any genuine interest in scrapping the position again, but history suggests it won’t be too long before he does.

The decade also brought the Inquiry into Australian Broadcasting, also known as the Green inquiry, which recommended the first review of the ABC in nearly 50 years. The Fraser government announced the princely sum of $80,000 would be set aside for the Department of Post and Communications to conduct the review, which would be released in 1981. The review would “not only identify current problems but, hopefully, will offer solutions to maintain the ABC as an essential part of the Australian broadcasting system in the years ahead”, said the government. Labor, for its part, claimed Fraser was being stingy and called on him to cough up more cash for the review.

The 1980s

Headed by Alexander Dix, the resulting six-volume review was presented to Parliament in 1982, and its 273 recommendations were largely ignored by the Fraser government. Taking office in 1983, Labor prime minister Bob Hawke began adopting some of Dix’s recommendations, leading to a decentralisation of programming departments, a restatement of the ABC Charter, and a more entrepreneurial approach to its activities.

Finding that the ABC was “slow moving, overgrown, complacent, and uncertain of the direction in which it is heading”, Dix wanted a more vigorous ABC that would deliver bold dramas, in-depth news coverage, and a distinctive choice from the commercials. He recommended axing the orchestras, cutting sports coverage, and concentrating on in-depth news and current affairs. Dix believed the ABC was still too stuffy and Anglocentric, and had failed to recognise the increasingly diverse, multicultural and pluralist society that was emerging in the 1980s. As Gay Hawkins wrote in Culture in Australia: Policies, Publics and Programs, the increasingly commercial flavour of the ABC’s programming emerging under managing director David Hill in the late 1980s can be traced back to the Dix report.

The Dix review also flagged issues with independence, noting that many Australians felt the government appointment of commissioners “[left] the ABC open to political pressure”. The next decade, as we’ll soon see, would only serve to highlight this trend. 

The 1990s

Showing that accusations of bias in the ABC do not come just from the conservative side, in 1991 Hawke was critical of the 7.30 Report’s coverage of the First Gulf War. He was principally unhappy with the views of a Middle East expert appearing on the show, whose analysis he labelled “loaded, biased, and disgraceful”. Then-minister for communications Kim Beazley called for the ABC to be more publicly accountable for complaints about bias. As a result of the kerfuffle, the ABC would soon introduce an Independent Complaints Review Panel, which ABC historian Ken Inglis calls “a monument to ministerial pressure”. 

John Howard commissioned the next major government review of the ABC soon after taking office in 1996. A far more political document than the Dix inquiry, the 53-page review was completed in just 18 weeks by Bob Mansfield — a successful businessman with no experience in public broadcasting. The Mansfield review recommended changes to the ABC charter, more outsourcing of television productions, and the cessation of international broadcasting, but agreed with the Dix inquiry that advertising shouldn’t be used to raise revenues. Howard would slash the ABC budget by 12% to $468 million in 1997-98, significantly less than the circa $500 million recommended by Mansfield.

The politicisation of the ABC’s management reached new heights in the 1990s, with Labor accused of stacking the board with trade unionists and party members, and Howard appointing a who’s who of conservative figures once the Coalition took power in 1996. Howard quickly appointed personal friend and Liberal ally Donald McDonald as chairman, then made Liberal powerbroker Michael Kruger a board member. The controversial appointments continued: former Liberal MP Ross McLean; former IPA regular Ron Brunton; conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen; and right-wing historian Keith Windschuttle. A 2001 Senate committee inquiry into the appointment of ABC board members catalogued the laundry list of political appointments made over the preceding decades.

Richard Carleton’s famous “blood on your hands” interview with Bob Hawke on ABC’s Nationwide in February 1983

The 2000s

The 2000s brought another Gulf War and more accusations of bias, this time from Liberal MP Richard Alston. He wrote a letter in 2003 to then-managing director of the ABC Russell Balding, suggesting radio program AM was consistently biased and anti-American in its coverage of the war in Iraq. While an initial internal review found no evidence of bias, a later review upheld 17 of Alston’s 68 complaints and found four items breached the ABC code by failing to avoid emotive language or editorialisation. But despite all the publicity created by Alston’s jihad on the ABC, just 291 of the 44,000 complaints lodged with the ABC in 2002-03 related to unbalanced coverage of the war.

Four reviews of the ABC’s role and performance were conducted between 2002 and 2006, two by the government’s own Audit Office, one by consulting firm KPMG, and another by the Macquarie Bank. Only one, which looked at digital broadcasting, was made public by the Howard government. The KPMG report, parts of which were leaked to Crikey almost 10 years ago, revealed the ABC was suffering from a “structural funding deficiency” and needed an extra $126 million over three years just to continue its operations. It also found the ABC was a “broadly efficient organisation” — which, after years of budget cuts, it rather had to be. Howard did increase funding in his next budget, but the increase fell far short of the levels suggested by the report. In 2014, former ABC chief of corporate planning and governance Geoff Heriot revealed some key details from the secret reports in an essay for Swinburne University.

The 2010s

The Abbott government has been after the ABC from the get-go, using allegations of bias, anti-Australian sentiment, and alleged breaches of its own charter to attack the ABC before announcing funding cuts in the 2014 budget. Abbott’s views became clear when the ABC reported — via American whistleblower Edward Snowden — that Australian spy agencies had tapped the mobile phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. Abbott suggested the broadcaster seemed to “delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor” while instinctively taking “everyone’s side but Australia’s”.

His comments came as the ABC had just reported allegations that Australian navy personnel had burned the hands of asylum seekers, prompting former defence minister David Johnston to call for an investigation into the ABC’s reporting. “If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform and investigation of the ABC, this is it,” he said. The ABC released a statement regretting some aspects of its coverage, but standing by its decision to air the report.

Recent self-audits have cleared ABC journalists of systemic bias, although Sarah Ferguson was found to have breached guidelines during a budget-night interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey. The internal review suggested Ferguson’s language was emotive, and likely to cause the audience to believe Hockey was not being treated with sufficient respect. Former 7.30 host Kerry O’Brien defended Ferguson’s interview and criticised the review, writing in Crikey, “the ABC board risks creating a climate of self-censorship, sanitisation and timidity”.

More recently it’s been the ABC’s Q&A in the spotlight, with Abbott labelling the program a “lefty lynch mob” and again questioning whose “side” the ABC was on after former terror suspect Zaky Mallah was allowed to ask a question live on air.

“What our national broadcaster has done is give a platform to a convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser,” Abbott said. “They have given this individual, this disgraceful individual, a platform, and in so doing I believe the national broadcaster has badly let us down.” Meanwhile, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an external review into Q&A, and Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has asked his colleagues to boycott the show. The ABC released a statement saying Mallah’s appearance would also be — surprise, surprise — reviewed internally.

Oh, and the last six years have also seen the Future Directions report, the Convergence Review, two separate Senate inquiries into regional television and news services, plus another efficiency review. So there you have it. If we’ve learned one thing, it might be this: the ABC has probably been reviewed more times over the years than Cats.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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