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ABC director of news Gaven Morris (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The Australian media has undergone unprecedented structural and ideological change over the past quarter-century. As it fractured and balkanised, so too did our political climate.

In an unvirtuous cycle, the more partisan, shrill and dishonest our media becomes, the more degraded and cretinous our political culture becomes.

Like a slowly boiling frog, Australians have come to accommodate the increasingly histrionic and truculent politicking news delivery style of News Corp publications and shows, just as Americans have accommodated Fox and Trump.

That News Corp should be spiralling down the alt-right media wormhole and repeating demented talking points of neo-Nazis is shocking but perhaps not particularly surprising.

What is disappointing is when a news director for the ABC — still the journalistic standard-bearer in this country — starts parroting News Corp’s criticisms and self-flagellating, as happened last week when Gaven Morris repeated the News Corp talking points that the ABC caters to “inner-city left-wing elites”.

That the ABC has remained the exemplar of high journalistic standards despite unceasing attacks on its funding and content is to its credit. But the ABC is not alone on the receiving end of orchestrated attacks by News Corp and conservatives. It is part of a broader ideological attack begun by former prime minister John Howard on universities, the arts, the ABC — the madrasahs of cultural discontent.

But whatever the origins of the attacks, the intention is to silence or alter the presentation of facts. Of news. Of our understanding of the world around us. What can we know about the world beyond our immediate experience if not through the media? And that Morris should be taking on such criticisms at a time when getting the right information is so critical to our survival — rather than delivering some missives of his own to bad media players — is disturbing, Stockholmesque.

Leaving aside that the ABC is the only media outlet that provides life and death reports every summer to regional Australia during bushfire season, has multiple shows dedicated to rural Australia, covers suburban football, and has produced highly popular shows — its ratings have gone through the roof in 2020 as the public has sought a trusted outlet for something approximating objectivity and the truth around bushfires and COVID-19.

Why would Morris suggest in 2020 of all years that the ABC is out of touch when clearly it is being tuned into like never before, and when it’s needed like never before?

News Corp used to complain the ABC wasn’t relevant enough, characterising it as a sink that the public pours money into with no return in the relevancy stakes. But as the figures picked up, the line of attack changed. Now the charge is the ABC is doing too well through platforms like iview and is being given an artificial leg up by the taxpayer against private operators.

A special place in the media landscape

We expect that from News Corp which doesn’t seem satisfied with its elephantine share of the media, but from the ABC itself?

Now no one is suggesting there isn’t room for improvement but the concern is that when the news director suggests its news focus is wrong, what exactly is he referring to?

If only a handful of qualified researchers said global warming, for instance, was important, that doesn’t make that wrong because they happen to inhabit or work in the inner city.

It’s not whether this happens to be the concern of people in the inner city (and beyond as political polling has shown again and again) it’s the facts that matter in news — verifiable facts delivered by experts, not the opinions of columnists with inches to fill and axes to grind.

In fact, while News Corp outlets are assiduously avoiding running stories on the science of global warming and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s doubly important that the national broadcaster leads this discussion, not vacate the field and its responsibilities.

Is race an inner-city concern? I’m sure in the outer south-eastern or north-western suburbs of Melbourne, or the western suburbs of Sydney, or in regional towns in northern Australia the question of race matters. It’s certainly being talked about non-stop by News Corp. It’s the stock-in-trade of One Nation.

It’s hard to imagine what these special and distinct news values of “inner-city elites” consist of and how they might be different from everyone else’s.

If Morris has difficulty defining what “inner-city elites” means, perhaps that’s because it’s a useless phrase. It’s a media McGuffin, a glib rhetorical device, a distraction, an epitaph hurled by enemies of the ABC to throw it off its mission and responsibility as a national broadcaster to tell the truth even if it makes some quarters uncomfortable.

Morris should be articulating the special place for a national broadcaster in the media landscape: a vehicle to hold power to account. The ABC should be the touchstone of Australian journalism and continue its tradition as an incubator and training ground for quality journalism.

How many other news organisations have benefited from the ABC’s cadetship program? How many exemplary journalists and unrivalled current affairs shows?

What the ABC needs now more than ever are leaders that defend the ABC, not do the bidding of its enemies.

David Latham is a registered political lobbyist and director of PR at Good Talent Media who dabbles in the world of culture from time to time.

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