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The ABC has continued its defence of itself with a speech by chair Justin Milne at the Australian Chamber of Commerce today.

It’s Milne’s first substantial comment on prolonged attacks on the broadcaster since he wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax six weeks ago about how much trust the ABC has among Australians. Echoing many of the same ideas, the speech today repeated again figures that 81 per cent of Australians say they trust the ABC.

And while he criticised commercial media interests (“supported by some on the political fringe”) for suggesting the ABC shouldn’t operate on digital platforms, he still has not addressed the attacks and threats coming from the government itself.

Instead, he addressed commercial media complaints about whether the ABC should be allowed to operate outside its previous chartered technologies: linear broadcast radio and television. He said the argument from private competitors was “simplistic, facile and entirely self-serving”.

“Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist,” he said. “As we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.

“Around the world, trust in all kinds of institutions is under challenge. Partisanship is on the rise, debate is becoming polarised, and event reported facts cannot always be trusted … it is (the) slavish endeavour to be accurate, truthful and impartial which entirely distinguishes the ABC from commercial media.”

Milne also cited the contribution the ABC makes to Australia that cannot be found in commercial media: specialist programming, and TV programs such as Brides of Christ and You Can’t Ask That. “If not the ABC, then who else will provide Australians with services no matter where they live? If not us, who else will define Australian culture in a world of global platforms and content?” he said.

The ABC has been under increasing pressure over recent months. It’s faced a barrage of complaints from government ministers about its journalism since early this year, slashed its budget in May, a year out from the triennial funding cycle, and has ordered an ACCC competitive neutrality inquiry as part of negotiations with One Nation.

Milne, managing director Michelle Guthrie and the board have been remarkably quiet, given the strength of the attacks, as Crikey noted last month. It’s been disquieting for staff, as publicly voiced by ABC Melbourne presenter Jon Faine.

In mid-June, Guthrie gave a speech to the Melbourne Press Club to defend the ABC — her first substantial response to the sustained pressure on her organisation. 

The speech comes as supporters’ group ABC Friends works on rallies around the country in support of the ABC. The first was held in Sydney on Sunday, with more scheduled this week for Melbourne and Brisbane.

Peter Fray

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