(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

The increased likelihood of a May federal election means a pre-election budget. And that means the Morrison government will need to come clean on a tricky question: how much money should it give — or not give — the ABC in the three-year deal starting in July.

It illustrates the rhyming nature of politics, given this week’s announcement by the UK government to freeze the annual £159 television licence fee which funds the BBC until at least the next election, with a threat to end the licence fee altogether in 2027. 

With British inflation running at 5% and production costs soaring due to competition with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the freeze is expected to significantly reduce programming produced by the BBC, particularly the sort of high-end drama that the ABC relies upon to fill out its free-to-air schedule.

The result for Australia? More low-cost Antiques Roadshow repeats, less high-end British drama. And, as the BBC covers the shortfall with co-production deals with the streamers, expect to have to turn to Netflix or Stan to watch future shows in Australia.

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Just as BoJo rhymes with ScoMo, the British cut rhymes with the freeze on ABC funding in Australia’s 2018 budget announcement for the current three-year funding deal which forced the ABC to cut costs by about $87 million and slash over 200 jobs — mainly from news — in mid-2020.

Now it’s Morrison’s turn to clap back. That three-year deal ends this coming June 30. The future estimates in last year’s budget were based on the assumption that the government would restore inflation-based increases in funding, but would axe the $14 million boost the ABC currently receives for regional services. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has also said that the government won’t seek to offset the funding the ABC has received from Google and Facebook under the news media bargaining code.

But all those fine words were pencilled back when the government was in its COVID-era spendy Team Australia phase, before its rolling squabbles with the ABC over its reporting, particularly over harassment and abuse in the federal Parliament.

ABC funding is the prototypical wedge issue for the Liberals. On the one side, it’s got the gut ‘em and burn ‘em ideological hard-liners on the right, vocally promoted by the United Australia Party and One Nation. On the other, there’s the “doctors’ wives” in leafy suburban enclaves being lured away by “Voices of” independents.

And then there’s the handful of bitter backbenchers burnt by ABC coverage of their extra-curricular activities. Oh, and the Murdochs.

The Morrison default has been to pander to the culture warriors of the right. Josh Frydenberg seems eager to pivot to the financial responsibility of austerity. The Murdoch family have hated public broadcasters since Sir Keith was confronted with the ABC 90 years ago this year.

According to Daily Mail reporting from Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel, Rupert Murdoch “dandled Mr Johnson’s son Wilfred on his knee at Chequers as he made the case for scrapping the licence fee-funded broadcaster”. (A joke, she said when it became public.)

If the company is lobbying their UK political friends over the BBC, there’s little doubt they’re talking to their Australian allies.

News Corp has been in open war with the ABC following August’s Four Corners special “Fox and the Big Lie”, promoted as “How Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News promoted Donald Trump’s propaganda and helped destabilise democracy in America”.

The company’s Australian papers published 45 separate stories rebutting the first program (“The ABC’s big lie and the madness of Four Corners” bannered the usually restrained front page of The Australian). It filed a detailed complaint with the ABC and has now gone over its head to formally complain to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

After the ABC’s complaints division said it would not uphold any of Fox’s claims about the program in November, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg announced an inquiry into the process. 

Ita Buttrose, Morrison’s pick as ABC chair, exploded: “This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism.”

Later that month, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench voted to overturn Bragg’s inquiry.

Labor has pledged to restore the Morrison cuts and to provide greater financial security with a five-year inflation-adjusted funding deal. 

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the Ardern government is seeking to strengthen public broadcasting by merging Radio and Television New Zealand (which were split up when TVNZ was commercialised in the 1980s) as a single not-for-profit entity.