jonathan holmes
Former Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes.

It is a brave man who will stand up in front of a group of “Friends of the ABC” and call for more right-wing voices on the national broadcaster.

Addressing the 60-strong audience for the launch of his book On Aunty at Gleebooks last night, Jonathan Holmes went further, asking, “where is the right-wing Phillip Adams on the ABC?” To this lot, it was like suggesting a Rolf Harris concert in a primary school. If I was going to slaughter a few sacred cows of Australian media, I certainly wouldn’t be doing it in Glebe, an inner-west suburb where even the pets are vegans.

As the air was sucked out of the room, the retired journalist went further, picking up his slender tome to read out a passage.

In the week that Guthrie was ousted and Milne resigned, [News Ltd] editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, posed a series of questions to those who claim the ABC is impartial:

‘Didn’t the ABC display a strong preference for same-sex marriage?… Doesn’t it favour strong action on climate change and criticise governments for not being sufficiently ambitious? Doesn’t it project support for renewables and faster efforts to phase out fossil fuels? Wasn’t the ABC distinctly unsympathetic to the policy of corporate tax cuts? Wasn’t it hostile towards reform of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and unsympathetic to free speech arguments?

It’s an interesting point; one which has long been debated within the walls of the ABC. Finding an intelligent conservative voice is the Holy Grail of Australian journalism. Basically, if you could avoid endorsing Nazis and sound slightly more articulate than the nincompoops on Sky, you’d have a job for life.

The problem is, aren’t all or most of the issues in Kelly’s statement the core beliefs of the majority of the Australian public?

Respected pollster and researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley, in her recent Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation, says that the average Australian is much more progressive than their political representative.

“Thanks to compulsory voting, there is no silent majority in Australia. There is an un-silent majority, whose views are plain to discern,” she said.

Her decades-long, qualitative research shows that Australians support same-sex marriage (as evidenced by the postal survey), immediate action on climate change, more funding for the ABC and reform of electoral donations, along with many other “progressive” issues. Would changing the political tenor of the ABC mean it was more representative of the Australian population or would it simply be appeasing the Liberal Party’s “base”?

The biggest issue for the ABC, Holmes said, was digital disruption. In his essay, he says that the audience for broadcast television is plummeting; in the past 10 years, the ABC’s 7pm news has lost 40% of its audience and the average age of its viewers has increased by 10 years, to about 70.

He also said that in 2018 the ABC had received a record number of formal complaints from the government, all of which trigger a formal process which ties up huge amounts of time and resources.

So the question is, should the ABC present more conservative views on its broadcast channels and risk losing more of its audience? Or could it diversify its offerings to attract new viewers and presumably, the support of conservative governments?

In his introduction to the launch, president of the Friends of the ABC Ed Davis said that the organisation had campaigned heavily in the Wentworth byelection, which resulted in a historic 18% swing against the Liberal Party. Conservative politicians like Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison were the “Friends” greatest recruiters, he said.

“Every time they attack the ABC, people ring us up and say, ‘where can we send you money?”

What do you make of Holmes’ comments? Write to [email protected].