“Stop the dumbing down of the ABC,” is a headline that hints at a very defensible anxiety. But it’s also one you and I might use as a guide to a history of a more general “dumbing down”. Which is to say, the frequent claim that the ABC has been dumbed down has itself been dumbed right down. Once, there were sharp minds to dissect the truly dull. Now, our best hope is for a butter-knife precision.
Guardian media writer Amanda Meade is not a bad butcher. But her recent “death by a thousand cuts” take on ABC’s Radio National could do with some honing. Just as this week’s Sydney Morning Herald comment on “dumbing down” uses the measure of time to make its central case, so does the Graun’s: the day will bring us fewer minutes of current affairs and news analysis, ergo the ABC is dumb.
Perhaps if these private-sector reporters were not now required to produce so much content in so few hours, they could stop the clock and consider that the ABC could retain its old current affairs schedule and still be super dumb. As my memory has it, the end of Lateline is no significant loss. I cannot recall an instant in which I watched that thing and saw the problems of the nation or the world illuminated anew.
If I want paternalistic and pompous — and sometimes I do — I have The Guardian or the Oz. It was reasonable to demand independence not just from commercial interests, but from these private sector positions in a program like Lateline. Hosts and producers might have considered their work “balanced”, but the equilibrium we’re talking about was one entirely determined between external powers; our major political parties and a private press, which largely aligns itself with one or the other, set the terms for “balanced” analysis.
Perhaps in the unthinking effort to safeguard its own existence, ABC news presentation has doubled down in recent years on this inane attempt at balance. (Of course, not all are guided by two dreary positions, but let’s not publicly honour those who move beyond the “ten minutes of opposition bashing; ten minutes of government bashing” habit out of fear that they’ll be axed.) Leigh Sales offering equal sass to leaders might be “empowering” to some viewers, but to many more of us, I propose, it just seems unsatisfying and, well, dumb. We — all of us in the West — see major parties fall apart and feel our traditional allegiances change so rapidly, even Rundle is yet to draw us his conclusive political map. We live in a reality the ABC seems largely unable to describe.
Perhaps managing director Michelle Guthrie is a neoliberal monster, committed and conspiring to drain any troubling idea from her organisation and replace it with empty centrist rot. Perhaps she’s not, and, even if she were, perhaps her work is already done. Have you heard Fran Kelly? This is the fearless voice of progressive Australia we must move to protect? I mean, she’s not terrible, but nor is she ever surprising. As for Q&A. This is not, as is claimed by the ABC, “democracy in action”. It’s inertia through major party division, or it’s a jelly-wrestling match by whose endurance a few mediocre columnists win a better per-word rate.
And, PM. Mark Colvin had one of the best biz voices, a great wealth of experience. It is a great innocence, though, to remember the program entirely in these terms. News was framed here in a way that appeared objective, probably even to the people who produced it. But it rarely offered insight that we listeners could not already claim to have.
This is not to discredit the skill and the forbearance of program-makers — although, Sarah Ferguson retains my award for her Clinton interview as Australian hagiographer of the year. It is simply, and briefly, to suggest that the ABC is dumb, potentially becoming dumberer, for a range of complex reasons. To ask this institution, or any complex institution, to simply “stop” dumbing down is like asking a traffic jam to fucking move. Feels good to let off steam. Achieves nothing.
Although, the dumbing down of the “ABC is dumbing down” tradition does achieve something: it reminds us how dumb our critique has become.
The most recent of our ABC-dumb-down pieces praises the former “broad mix of local and international issues” and worries for the future “slippery slope”. Compare this with perhaps our earliest ABC-dumb-down essay, The Cultural Cringe. In 1950, writer A.A. Phillips was able to illuminate the way in which the broadcaster eclipsed the reality of a nation by tying it to the myth of empire. And seeming very clever, all the while.
In 2017, writers are unable to see their own servitude to great power, let alone describe those problems at the ABC. We must, somehow, resume this work of truly describing moments of descent. Otherwise, we’re just dumbing down.