Bashing the ABC is to modern Liberal politicians what Bullrush is to most Gen X primary schoolers: a beloved game inculcated in childhood, to be played with boundless enthusiasm and frantic vigour whenever the opportunity arises (either at recess or in government), and guaranteed to bring on a warming, Proustian glow whenever subsequently triggered in memory. So it’s been about as shocking as a failed share-house relationship to see the usual suspects queuing up to give Aunty a tennis ball branding in the playground over the last few months, and to learn of the Abbott Government’s blatantly ideological stacking of the nominations panel tasked with overseeing board appointments to both the ABC and SBS. Along with News Ltd shill and cartoonish-ly reactionary termagant Janet Albrechtsen, former Liberal Deputy Opposition Leader Neil Brown QC was recently appointed to the four-person panel charged with appointing future ABC board directors, in a clear show of political intent from a neo-conservative government displaying a commitment to culture warfare and social engineering so fierce as to make even John Howard blush. The government’s placement of Brown and Albrechtsen on the panel is an ideological statement totally in keeping with the rest of its first major acts, e.g. the attempted repeal of the so-called “Bolt laws” section of the Anti-Discrimination Act, and a federal budget that puts downward pressure on all of the major Liberal Party erogenous zones, e.g. Medicare, welfare payments (both unemployed AND disabled, for maximum stimulation) and public sector wages.
In an interview with The Australian’s Sharri Markson – daughter of celebrity management huckster Max Markson, and greenhorn editor of the paper’s media section – Mr Brown, John Howard’s former 2IC during the wilderness years of the mid-1980s, flicked the catches on his guitar case, pulled out “Lady Alston” and started jamming on a trad Liberal 12-bar:
“I think [the ABC] should be sold,” Mr Brown said. “The best thing to do might be to start again.”
Shifting arthritically from an E to an A shape, Brown kept chugging through the changes:
Mr Brown said the ABC in particular had grown to have “more of a disposition to the Left rather than a balanced approach”.
“I certainly think there should be more balance,” he said. “I would be looking for directors who could contribute towards that balance being maintained. It gets a herd mentality about it and takes an official view about what you, the citizen, should believe in. I’m not saying it should be conservative or right-wing: I think it should give balance.”
Then the final push to B7, and back to root position:
“There has been a tendency to pick up the accepted zeitgeist on issues of climate change without giving the other side the opportunity to present its views. That’s my concern.”
He said the ABC often did not give a “fair go” to views it did not agree with and there was sometimes an “underlying tone” in its news reports and coverage of controversial topics.
Leaving aside Howlin’ Brown’s invocation of the old false equivalency chestnut that there’s a legitimate “other side” to the climate change debate, i.e. that cave dwellers affrighted by science and neo-liberal market worshippers should have their brain farts recorded so as to ensure any reporting on the issue is objective, it’s perhaps more interesting to reflect on the main, hackneyed charge: that the ABC has “more of a disposition to the Left”.
Now, if we’re going to be truly, cross-our-hearts-and-hope-for-Manus honest about this, then we should probably admit that the old stooge isn’t wrong. At least since the arrival of This Day Tonight and the “Carlton Crew” in the late-‘60s, the Corporation has existed in the public imagination as at least vaguely left-leaning, and this worldview has likewise been clearly identifiable in the bulk of its news and entertainment personalities (federal Liberal MP Sarah Ferguson being one of the few exceptions, and it should be noted that her journalism career began outside of the pinko crucible of Aunty’s cadetship program). I’ve worked at the ABC (albeit in a very minor capacity, and not in any way connected with the news division), as well as in another *job* that involved listening to a lot of its local talkback radio content, and these two experiences confirmed to me that, outside of Amanda Vanstone’s Counterpointfort on Radio National, you won’t hear too many conservative voices either on air or wandering the halls (apart from a few panel show pundits and the weekly Q&A panto villain).
This is not to suggest that the ABC’s news and current affairs division is some sort of Pravda-esque mouthpiece for the Socialist Alliance, however, or that what goes on in Andrew Bolt’s misshapen, wank-fevered mind bears any resemblance to reality. Indeed, few would dispute that the ABC’s news service is still the most reliable and trusted nation-wide, albeit in a lacklustre field. But say we were to accept Brown’s accusation for a moment: in the current neo-liberal dry hump that is the Australian media landscape, is having a left-ish national broadcaster such a terrible thing? Or indeed, is it merely the logical, market-driven outcome of a lack of media diversity in this country so startling that it’s been described variously as a threat to our democracy, and as the worst concentration of media ownership in the developed world?
As has been noted ad nauseum, there are States in this country that do not have an alternative to a Murdoch daily newspaper. News Limited and Fairfax between them control approximately 88 per cent of the country’s print media (a commercially moribund but still massively influential sector), but Fairfax’s former status as the home of centre-left broadsheet gravitas has taken a major hit since it downsized its major Sydney and Melbourne papers to tabloid format, outsourced its subediting to contractors in New Zealand, and sacked the bulk of of its news photographers. The only broadsheet newspaper left in this country – The Australian – is an unabashed right-wing pamphlet, run at a huge yearly loss to spruik its plutocrat owner’s views on climate change, media regulation, the NBN and any other potential threats to his commercial interests. More worryingly though, it’s our best quality daily newspaper.
As for Fairfax’s online operation, it remains dominated by lifestyle fluff, gender wars and clickbait, as has been the case since its inception. Initially viewed as a frivolous fad by Fairfax’s dinosaur board, the online side’s race to the bottom in terms of content continues apace, as the company frantically seeks to stop the financial bleeding from its print operation, and somehow conjure a new business model for the 21st century.
And with many major stories of late, ranging from the federal budget to the Essendon drugs scandal, it’s been disturbing to see the Fairfax papers take as singular and shrill an editorial line in their coverage as their News Limited counterparts, seemingly in an effort to shore up market share. This has of course been common practice in the history of newspapers, particularly during election campaigns, but the paucity of alternative options in the Australian market leads to an inevitable lack of nuance. The Saturday Paper – bravely providing a print as well as an online edition – is the latest commercial attempt to attract disaffected Fairfax readers, following in the wake of the now-defunct Global Mail and other similar ventures. Its future is still far from assured.
As for commercial television news, anyone who’s had the misfortune of sitting through an evening bulletin of late could be forgiven for thinking they were watching an episode of Frontline, as produced by the Home Shopping Channel. Now focussing almost exclusively on violent crime, consumer affairs and cheap populism (Nick Kyrgios’ Wimbledon defeat of Rafael Nadal, for instance, was allotted the first 15 minutes of Seven’s bulletin the day after the match, including extended interviews with people who’d walked past his house in Canberra one time), these transmissions are essentially a moving image companion piece to The Daily Telegraph or Herald Sun. Nine and Seven’s move to one-hour bulletins in the major capitals, and Seven’s axing of the risible Today Tonightformat on the east coast, was initially greeted with cautious optimism. However it quickly became apparent that TT’s radioactive waste had simply been buried in the back end of Seven’s new, massively padded bulletin, with the same stories on supermarket price wars and miracle beauty treatments now dovetailing with TMZ-esque celebrity pap footage sourced from its US sister station, to be passed off as world news; a noxious ‘junk in the trunk’ lead-in to sport and weather. Throw in the burgeoning trend for “reporting” on Twitter memes – the media’s equivalent of performing a Todd Carney bubbler – and it would seem that we really are verging on Idiocracy territory. Meanwhile Nine’s old warhorse, A Current Affair, continues to fill orders for its special recipe of xenophobia and class warfare. And Channel Ten’s trumpeting of its hugely beefed up news division in 2011, which included the resurrection of George Negus, has now fallen in a spectacular heap, with the struggling network now set to axe the bulk of its news staff, with only its palsied attempt at a John Stewart format, The 7pm Project, still extant at this stage.
Back in the days of “Brian Told Me”, commercial TV news was a respected mass medium, and a significant part of the national discourse. But with that formerly unified conversation now fractured by online niche/partisan news services and blogs, the networks, like the newspaper companies, are engaged in an even more appalling descent into the depths of derp. There are still a few pockets of serious journalism that have yet to be Spray and Wiped away – Laurie Oakes, Ten’s Meet The Press, Nine’s AFR Sunday – but they are atolls in a sea of right-wing tabloid populism and stealth advertising.
With a fresh round of ABC job cuts announced this week, amid union claims that these represent the “first casualties in the Abbott Government’s war on the ABC”, it’s disturbing to think what our media would look like with a commercially and/or politically neutered Aunty.