ita buttrose
Ita Buttrose (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

2020 has ended badly for the ABC — so badly that it’s time to ask if chair Ita Buttrose is capable of halting the broadcaster’s slide. Right now it looks like she’s not. But is there anyone who could, given how the stars have aligned against the ABC this year?

Here’s a wrap of December so far:

  • Communications Minister Paul Fletcher demanded answers from the ABC board over Four Corners’ “Inside the Canberra Bubble” story, which reported on an alleged toxic culture with respect to women in the Liberal government. Fletcher upped the ante by tweeting his two-page complaint alleging bias in the report and questioning if it was in the public interest
  • Before the episode aired, government senators Sarah Henderson and Amanda Stoker interrogated the ABC’s managing director on its content during estimates hearings
  • Coalition Senator James McGrath led a Senate motion which ordered the ABC to release an internal review finding instances of alleged bias in the ABC’s 2019 election coverage
  • Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg demanded the ABC provide details of a content supply agreement with online publication The New Daily and questioned if the deal had an impact on the broadcaster’s independence.

Buttrose has reportedly accused the government of a pattern of political interference in her reply to Fletcher’s complaint. She also launched a strong objection to the Senate’s demand to produce the ABC’s internal review — but to no avail.

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Adding to the pain inflicted by politicians, broadcast media regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) this week found a Four Corners report on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan from 2019 breached impartiality rules. The ABC said it disagreed with the finding, pointing out that the government had failed to provide a spokesperson for an interview.

In the hands of its enemies, though, it is yet another stick to beat the broadcaster.

Can it get worse?

2020 has been the ABC’s annus horribilis when you also throw in the funding cuts which led to a mid-year exodus of experienced staff. And, yes, it can get worse.

As we’ve reported, the regulation of Australia’s media in effect gives a free pass to the rising power of News Corp’s Sky News. Perversely, while ACMA has applied the might of the government’s media laws to find Four Corners in breach of impartiality rules, Sky continues to spew out right-wing conspiracy theories and disinformation without the regulator lifting a finger, even though it has the power to instigate action.

There is no move from the government, either, to stiffen regulation or to have Sky abide by the subscription television code of practice when it comes to accuracy. The lack of action allows the Sky/Foxtel business model — built on extremist right-wing ranting — to flourish.

Further, News Corp’s influence is set to increase again early next year when its separate-but-linked NCA newswire service launches on the open market as a competitor to the independent and once-mighty AAP.

Might the future be more USA than AUS?

The US election and its aftermath have shown how the pandemic of disinformation has driven democracy to the brink.

Recent polls suggest 70% of Republicans believe Donald Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen, a presidential assault on the truth propelled by some of Murdoch’s Fox News hosts as well as far right channel Newsmax and social media.

The information ecosystem has become so fragile that governments only have three to four years to act before it is too late, according to Prue Clarke a one-time ABC journalist who helped establish the Sydney-based Judith Nielsen Institute for Journalism and who now works with international not-for-profit bodies funding journalism programs as part of democracy building efforts.

“The US election shows how close it has come,” Clarke told Crikey. “It pulled back from the brink but it is far from over.”

The United States has no public broadcasting organisation like the ABC. Its nearest equivalents are National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) which provides television programs. The US government provides only US$450 million to fund public broadcasting compared to Australia’s funding of around $1 billion for the ABC in a much smaller market.

Even so, for the past four years Trump, addicted to Fox News, has attempted to eliminate even that small level of public funding, though he has been thwarted by Congress. But it remains the instinct of authoritarian politicians.

In a pattern of behaviour depressingly similar to Australia’s conservative politicians, Trump questioned NPR’s meagre government funding after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was angered by a line of questioning from an NPR reporter.

Trump’s threat was in turn backed by conservative radio host and Fox personality Mark Levin. Channeling any number of News Corp and Sky News commentators lining up to slam the ABC, Levin tweeted, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the US. Plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat party propaganda operation.”

(In another echo of Morrison government priorities, Trump’s White House also moved to eliminate funding for federal agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The moves failed.)

In Australia the free marketeers of the Institute of Public Affairs has long urged the government to do away with the ABC altogether. What support it has among Coalition parliamentarians is hard to know.

Once dismissed as a fringe ideological cause, though, the idea of privatising the ABC or having the ABC accept advertising is now not so far-fetched for a government that may well retain power until 2025. By that time the Coalition will have been in charge of the ABC’s budget and board appointments for almost 25 out of 30 years.

What would the end of the ABC look like?

In the slow unravelling of the ABC, the broadcaster has already become something that it wasn’t. Where will it end?

As Crikey has reported, the ABC is far from the hotbed of lefties that exists in the imagination of some conservative politicians. The ABC produces far less current affairs content than even a decade ago. Yet the many accommodations to government demands are never enough for the Tony Abbotts of the world who question the ABC’s loyalty to Team Australia.

The ABC stands as one of the few public broadcasters in the world that is purely government-funded. Canada’s CBC and New Zealand’s TVNZ both accept advertising. The BBC remains an exception, funded by a television licence fee paid per household.

In the US, government funding makes up a tiny percentage of NPR’s budget, with the rest coming mainly as tax-deductible donations from individuals and foundations. It also accepts a small amount of advertising.

According to Clarke, who over nearly 20 years in the US worked as a journalist for the Washington Post and Newsweek and taught at New York City Graduate School of Journalism, the NPR model has produced a strong, independent form of journalism which is responsive to the interests of the public — a product of the direct funding relationship with listeners.

Clarke describes a country where mainstream media outlets including NPR, The Atlantic and, especially, The New York Times — for people on the left and centre of US politics — have produced stellar journalism during the Trump presidency while other outlets have fanned extreme truth-destroying agendas.

“What’s happening in the US is that one side — Biden voters – are living in what is likely the healthiest information ecosystem there has ever been anywhere, served by the best journalism that has ever been done,” Clarke said. “Trump voters live in a completely alternate reality fed by right wing media and social media disinformation campaigns.

“The mainstream Australian media is much weaker than America’s, and the social media disinformation campaigns are virulent,” she said. “I see Australia as potentially more vulnerable to an information pandemic than the USA.”

Whether or not the ABC could survive with a mix of government and private funding with tax deductibility is unclear. For one thing Australia does not have the same tradition of no-strings philanthropy as exists in the USA. And unlike Americans, Australians are already used to the idea that public interest journalism is a public good that they should pay for, albeit through taxes.

At this stage the Morrison government is happy to bring the ABC to its knees in the interests of promoting its own political fortunes. And there are plenty of its fellow travellers cheering it on. To that extent Buttrose — or whoever is chair of the ABC — stands little chance of stopping the tide.

But the government is also flirting with the destruction of an institution which plays the role of one of Australia’s few remaining public interest agencies, even if it does its job imperfectly at times.

Only a public backlash could halt the slide to destruction. But who would count on that now? 

Editor’s note: The ABC’s public relations department took exception to this article, releasing a statement to counter the notion the corporation has had a bad year. Read the full statement here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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