NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is interviewed by ABC presenter Leigh Sales during the 2019 Corporate Club Australia business lunch (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

As the year draws to a close the Morrison government couldn’t be clearer about its media priorities. The Coalition has kept up its decades-long war on the ABC even though there is now barely a leftie to be found at the national broadcaster.

This week Communications Minister Paul Fletcher invoked the ABC’s code of practice to attack the Four Corners report on government ministers’ behaviour towards female staff, alleging the story was not in the public interest.

Fletcher’s end-of-year showdown with the ABC comes accompanied by tough talk from Canberra as the government finalises laws compelling Google and Facebook to share revenue with Australian media publishers. The question is: will that include the public broadcaster?

“You’d have a better chance of selling ice to Eskimos than convincing the party room to support the ABC at the moment,” one anonymous Liberal MP told Nine.

The eternal push against the ABC is presumably from the oft-quoted “small but powerful conservative grouping” within the federal government which has opposed such other popular initiatives as marriage equality, the push for a federal anti-corruption agency, and action on climate change. The public might be on side with these issues, but so what?

But in the case of the ABC, the Coalition’s reflexive hostility is barely rational.

In truth this “conservative grouping” is fighting an enemy that no longer exists. Maybe it did a quarter of a century ago when the Howard government got stuck into what it considered to be a hotbed of insurrection at the national broadcaster, but the cultural reengineering of the ABC is all but done.

Funding cuts have this year led to yet another exodus of experienced staff. The ABC’s board is stacked with Liberal appointments, with two more to be made before the end of the year. News Corp’s right-wing opinionators are dotted through the ABC’s panel discussion programs in the name of balance.

But less well known to the public is a trend for some of the ABC’s biggest names to also have outside engagements with organisations run by corporate Australia or linked to the government. The arrangement is permitted under the ABC’s rules which allow high profile staff to MC conferences, run panel discussions or host government and corporate events.

There is no public register of outside engagements, making it impossible for a viewer to check on any possible conflict for themselves. The ABC cites privacy reasons for this, and maintains that it has processes to guarantee there is no conflict of interest or threat to the ABC’s reputation.

A quick online search can yield an inexhaustive snapshot of the extra-curriculars that some ABC personalities have been getting up to.

Leigh Sales — host, 7.30

Sales been MC, speaker or interviewer at:

  • Corporate Club Australia’s annual business lunch, 2017 to 2019 (Sales conducted a chat-style interview with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for the NSW government entity)
  • The CEO Institute NSW summit
  • The Australian Governance Summit, run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors
  • Women In Mining West Australia annual summit — 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Annabel Crabb — presenter and chief political writer

Crabb has featured at:

  • The 2019 icare awards (Crabb hosted the awards night in the months before alleged corruption at icare, the scandal-ridden NSW government insurer, became known)
  • North Sydney Community Awards (organised by Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman)
  • Women In Mining West Australia summit (2017 and 2018, with Leigh Sales)
  • Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals
  • Coleman Greig Lawyers Women in Business Forum lunch.

Stan Grant — international affairs analyst

As first reported in Pearls and Irritations, Grant was a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Commonwealth agency which receives most of its funding from the Defence Department as well as sponsorship from global defence manufacturers.

Grant hosted an ASPI interview series at a time when he was also a “contributor” on global affairs with the ABC. Grant has since rejoined the ABC full time and is no longer listed as an ASPI senior fellow.

Andrew Greene — security and defence reporter

As again reported in Pearls and Irritations, Greene was a panellist at a conference organised by the Australian British Chamber of Commerce and defence manufacturer BAE Systems. He also appeared in a short BAE sponsored video carrying BAE branding.

Emma Alberici former chief economics correspondent

Prior to leaving the ABC, Alberici hosted events for (among others):

  • The federal government’s Export Finance Corporation
  • Quantum Financial Independent Wealth Management (an investor seminar)
  • The leaders summit at the Salesforce World Tour, Sydney (for leading C-Suite and senior executives)
  • The Telstra business women’s awards.

An ABC spokesperson said that senior management had to approve outside engagements and took into account the subject matter and whether or not the organisations were politically aligned or functioned as lobby groups. The amount of money, if any, is also taken into account. Anything over $5000 per engagement is considered a high risk to the “perception of independence”, as are “regular payments and ongoing relationships”, the corporation’s guidelines say.

According to the spokesperson the positives included “the public and community benefit” of experienced ABC staff facilitating public debate and the value for the ABC and individual staff members of participating in events.

Whether or not the ABC’s on-air staff are blurring professional lines — and if the public has a right to know about that — is a topic for another day.

The point is that, despite the odd critical piece of reporting, there is no evidence that the ABC of 2020 is a nest of left-wing, anti-business bias.

How could it be when its leading journalists are rubbing shoulders with Australia’s corporate elite and government agencies, often in the company of government ministers?

Despite this the Coalition continues to fight last century’s war. At the same time, a real threat to the health of the information ecosystem — Sky News’ pushing of wild and baseless conspiracy theories about the US election — is going unchecked.

Peter Fray

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