Australia’s National Broadcaster

Who will save Australia’s national broadcaster? It’s a question many are dying to know. The ABC is the Australian equivalent of the BBC and the last months has seen furious debate across wide sections of the community, as well as a government seemingly hell bent on stifling dissent on the taxpayer funded institution. Much of the press have focused on the scrapping of legendary Behind the News (an educational program aimed at teenagers), the cutting back of flagship current affairs resources from Foreign Correspondent and Four Corners, and the dropping of the cadet journalism program. All these are valid concerns, but the real lack of debate over what the ABC has actually become, in terms of news and current affairs, astounds me. Critics such as journalist Tim Blair support privatisation, while defenders such as Terry Lane, appear unwilling to seriously examine the decline in ABC quality over the last 10 years. Where are the friends of the ABC defending its right to independence, while simultaneously questioning many of the decisions made by management?

In early August, The Australian newspaper reported:

“A CUT of $5.4 million to the ABC’s news and current affairs budget has delivered a savage blow to its flagship, Four Corners, which will be forced to shorten its season, curtail its international coverage and rely more on buy-ins from foreign broadcasters. One journalist said it was the worst cut in a decade and the program’s coverage of international affairs would be severely compromised by a lack of overseas travel.”

For any self-respecting current affairs watcher, this was supposedly dire news. The ABC flagship had been mortally wounded, and Australians would be suffering in 2004 and beyond. Media coverage of the cuts was surprisingly minimal, however, perhaps due to news fatigue. But who was asking the tough questions? And who was reflecting on the changing nature of modern current affairs on the ABC? Far too few, if you ask me.

Four Corners is an Australian institution.

Over the years the TV program has broken numerous big stories, and contributed to the growth of our nation. The Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland into police corruption, as one example, would never have happened if not for the crusading reporting of Chris Masters in The Moonlight State in the 1980s. However, what kinds of investigations are happening now? 2003 has been a mixed year for the show. On the major event of the year, the war in Iraq, SBS TV’s current affairs Dateline has beaten the ABC to the stories, and the reason is simple. I’ll call it institutional conservatism.

SBS has a policy of pursuing progressive methods in newsgathering. They encourage, and on Dateline insist, the use of digital video (DV) cameras, allowing much greater access to countries, people and situations. When Four Corners sent journo Liz Jackson to Iraq at the start of the Iraq campaign to follow US troops into the country, she would have been travelling with at least two others, a sound recordist and cameraperson. When Dateline sent reporter Olivia Rousset into Iraq after the war to follow an Iraqi exile returning to his homeland, she was one person, free to move around at will and free to film situations without the hassle and cultural embarrassment of a camera crew trailing her every move.
Four Corners is often unbeatable on national matters, when dealing with issues such as the leadership crisis in ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission) or the abuse of children while in the care of the Salvation Army last century, both featured this year. But why does the program insist on not embracing more modern methods of reporting? I have heard arguments from the ABC that the broadcast quality of DV is no match for film quality, and will therefore not experiment with the new technology. True enough, but surely a publicly funded institution like the ABC should be at the forefront of innovation, not having to worry about commercial concerns or ratings? Or has the culture descended into taking fewer risks due to its bloated bureaucracy and fearful management?

There is now no question that the John Howard Federal Government is engaged in a campaign of emasculating the ABC. The most recent example of this was the 68-point dossier presented to ABC management by Communication Minister Senator Richard Alston, detailing a litany of complaints against the Radio National AM program and perceived anti-US coverage during Gulf War II. These were generally laughed out of court by most sections of the media (though certain areas of the Murdoch press were happy to sink the boot in, a similar tactic being employed in the UK Murdoch rags against the BBC. Murdoch wants relaxed media ownership in both countries, and in the US, and he knows the public sees the ABC and BBC as reliable and fair. This perception gets in the way of his total news dominance). Indeed, as Margo Kingston from The Sydney Morning Herald said in early July:

“The ABC is established under legislation, has legal obligations to fulfil – including balanced reporting – and the public has the right to complain and have complaints considered. Yet the commercial media is virtually unaccountable, despite its immense power and influence.”

The Alston comments have had an effect though. They have put the ABC on the back foot, constantly needing to defend their positions on issues of national importance. A few months ago, in an internal letter from Senator Alston to ABC Managing Director Russell Balding, Alston said:

“The analysis of the AM program clearly demonstrates at the very least, a high degree of scepticism of almost anything said by the US military and the US administration, and at worst a serious anti-American bias”.

The effects of these kinds of attacks on the ABC are obvious. There is a cowering institution, fearful of losing even more funding, less likely to take risks, and more likely to avoid criticism by operating in a controversy free zone. The recent suspension of Stephen Crittenden from Radio National’s Religion Report, supposedly because of an innocuous article he wrote on Islam in The Sydney Morning Herald, shows a management team afraid of dissent. Of course, this is also the result of a body financially reliant on a government of the day. Surely there is an argument to be made for the ABC taking on limited advertising. SBS has done just that, and its charter and direction have not been adversely affected by this decision. Ideally, taxpayers would solely fund the ABC, but unfortunately we no longer live in that kind of world.

Another development bringing suspicion on the current ABC way of thinking is the abandoning of the journalism cadetship program. Rarely has a decision been so shortsighted. And rarely has a decision been so telling of ABC culture. Jeff McMullen, former ABC cadet and 60 Minutes reporter, recently said:

“Newspapers and commercial radio stations respect the ABC’s role as a training ground because in the market-place, cadetships began to disappear years ago. In broadcast journalism it’s the ABC cadet system that enshrines the profession’s code of ethics and it’s taken mighty seriously.

A very dedicated corps of fiercely independent journalists understands that Truth is the Holy Grail. If you are working for ABC News, getting the story right is always more important than being first.

Chequebook journalism is forbidden. Attempts at political or corporate interference are staunchly defended. The ABC’s lawyers are often busy but I am certain I am among many experienced journalists trained under that cadet system who have gone through their entire challenging careers without ever losing a single defamation case. The reason? We were taught how to be fair, and how to work within the legal and ethical guidelines.

Ask the great performers Mike Carlton and Stuart Littlemore, fine documentary makers David Bradbury and Bob Connolly, or recall the work of outstanding foreign correspondents like the late Paul Lyneham and Roger Allebone, and it is clear that an ABC News cadetship gave so many a wonderful start in this profession.

Most repaid the taxpayers’ investment with many years of service to this country.
After almost two decades as an ABC correspondent and another 16 as a Sixty Minutes reporter, I am certain that broadcast journalism will suffer unless these foundation stones of the public broadcaster are restored. The quality of the ABC will be diminished if this very old and tiresome ideological war continues.

It has been so long since the ABC enjoyed the wholehearted respect and support of the Federal Government. That signals a mutual failure and again the public are the losers.
Even the Prime Minister surely depends on the ABC for real news coverage and his children when younger would have benefited from the education programs now being dropped.”
Truer words have not been spoken. The very future of innovative, progressive journalism is at stake because ABC management say they can’t afford $500,000 for the cadetship program. I frankly don’t believe them, and would suggest it was either a decision to infuriate the public and push them into action, or more likely an inability to see longer than the short-term. Shame, Russel Balding, shame.

In early June, Robert Manne from LaTrobe University in Melbourne, wrote these wise words:
“The most important role of the media is to question the truthfulness of governments. Never has the need for a fearless and independent Australian media been more vital. Never has a more calculated assault on the independence of the ABC been mounted than in the past week. Never has the public defence of the ABC mattered more.”

Australia is currently experiencing a culture war. Right wing commentators, the Howard Government, and shock jocks have effectively shouted their way into the debate, and won. The dumbing down of the ABC, through its horribly parochial 7pm nightly news bulletins as but one example, shows an organisation desperately looking for relevance in the early 21st century. Innovation is now a dirty word. Risk-taking is off the agenda. The ABC should be supported in the strongest possible sense and more resources are needed, but crying poor at every opportunity, as blind supporters of the ABC seem far too keen to do, is both counter-productive and delusional.

Let’s embrace a national broadcaster that sets the agenda, and spends less money on tired BBC period dramas. I want an ABC that encourages and supports its staff to fully participate in the national debates of the day. And I believe that many Australians crave an ABC that doesn’t still look to the BBC as the arbiter of good taste and innovation. At present, the ABC is letting us all down. It’s time it did much better.
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