We’ve been here before with the government’s attacks on Emma Alberici and the ABC. It’s a replay of the Howard government’s assault on the ABC over its Iraq war coverage in 2003/04. There’s one key difference: the absence of the ABC chair from the debate.
Richard Alston’s catalogue of nearly 70 complaints about the ABC in May 2003 — which dragged out until Alston left politics — now looks absurd. Few conservatives can even bring themselves to defend the greatest policy mistake of recent decades anywhere in the world. We now know that the war was based on lives about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, that it would cost hundreds of thousands of Iraq lies, destabilise the entire region and dramatically empower Iran, lead to the formation of Islamic State and dramatically increase the level of terrorist attacks in the West. Even if the ABC coverage was as sneering as Alston claimed — which it certainly wasn’t, and found independently not to be — that would have been entirely justified by the tragedy that began unfolding from March 2003.
But back then, it was the pretext for an all-out attack backed by the government’s media cheerleaders at News Corp, and other commentators like Gerard Henderson and Henry Ergas. The actual coverage was only partly the pretext for the attack. Alston was furious when the ABC announced at budget estimates in 2003 that it was closing its ABC Kids digital channel, having failed to give Alston’s office a heads up. Of such minor slights are major wars made.
The target of the attack was Linda Mottram, presenter of AM, though other journalists like Peter Cave and John Shovelan were also targeted. This time around it’s Alberici, the subject of repeated complaints from the government and an hysterical campaign from not merely The Australian but the Financial Review. The approach of all three is very similar to the one employed by Alston — complain about every single possible thing, score a couple of trivial hits (Alberici said CSR still has a sugar division when it sold it in 2010!) or focus on genuine errors that Alberici had nothing to do with — like the sub-editing of her articles — and create the impression her entire work is flawed.
We don’t need to wait fifteen years to know that company tax cuts are a rotten idea — the evidence is already clear from the United States. But the more substantial difference is that, this time around, the ABC chair has been absent from the ABC’s response.
In 2003, the ABC immediately pushed back against the government’s attack, with managing director Russell Balding and chair Donald McDonald referring Alston’s complaints first to the ABC’s own in-house complaints-handling process and then the then-Australian Broadcasting Authority when Alston refused to accept the result. McDonald also steadfastly resisted the government’s attempts to impose a censor on the ABC or otherwise force it to account to the government for its coverage. Terse correspondence fired back and forth between the chair and Alston — this was in the days when ministers understood that they should only write to the chair of the ABC, not try to directly influence the managing director.
When McDonald was appointed to the ABC by his friend John Howard, ABC supporters were appalled. As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. McDonald took his role seriously, to the extent of sacrificing friendships with Liberal politicians to protect the ABC.
So, where’s current ABC chair Justin Milne, who just so happens to also be a friend of the current Liberal Prime Minister? The ABC’s response to the attacks on Alberici has been incoherent. At first it hung her out to dry, with Michelle Guthrie initially refusing to express confidence in her. After the government ripped $80 million out of its budget, someone at the ABC grew a spine and began defending Alberici. Yesterday it hit back at the latest attack on her by the government. But Milne himself has been entirely absent from the debate, not even appearing via media accounts of the kind that conveyed McDonald’s stout defence of the broadcaster in 2003.
Milne is a busy man, of course. He is a successful businessman. He is chair of accounting software company MYOB. MYOB’s Tim Reed has been a vocal supporter of the company tax cuts on the ABC. MYOB paid no corporate tax in 2015-16, according to the ABC. Curious.
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