"The current to-ing and fro-ing is nothing more, nor less, than a contest about the way we interpret events, interact with the world, and sort out our values as a society": Nicholas Stuart.

"The current to-ing and fro-ing is nothing more, nor less, than a contest about the way we interpret events, interact with the world, and sort out our values as a society": Nicholas Stuart.

So what do you think about the ABC? Is it an inner-city, latte-sipping, hotbed of anti-Aussie sentiment and waste of taxpayers' money? Or is it, perhaps, one small bastion of integrity in a stream of dumbed-down commercial broadcasting pandering to the lowest common denominator in our society? Now pause. Hang on to that thought for a moment but step outside the emotion. This column might appear to be about the ABC, but it's not. Instead, it's an examination of what an academic might call the meta-debate; the debate about the debate.

There are myriad reasons politicians may feel impelled to fling mud at the public broadcaster, but its news product is only a minor irritant. Take the Australia Network for example. Compared with the groaning weight of the federal budget, its cost is minuscule. It has a huge potential audience, but the key word here is ''potential''. Increasingly viewers, even overseas ones, access the corporation's material through the internet. Virtually nobody uses short-wave radio any more. And while I've got no way of proving what the audience actually is, neither does anyone else. The point is it's not a mass audience.

This is not to minimise the importance of the material the ABC's streaming into Asia. The point is simply to note that the total cost of the service is such a small blip on the fiscal horizon, it didn't even show up when the commission of audit came to review government expenditure.

This whole debate is, in effect, an argument about nothing - but that doesn't mean that it isn't important. The reason it is resonating far more widely than the substantial subject is precisely because it isn't really a debate about the ABC at all. Nor is it a debate about money. The current to-ing and fro-ing is nothing more, nor less, than a contest about the way we interpret events, interact with the world, and sort out our values as a society.

So let's begin, very quickly, with Labor. While he was still foreign minister, Kevin Rudd instituted the review that unilaterally recommended the ABC should be stripped of the Australia Network contract. He was dumped before he could implement his ideas, which were born from some mixture of anger, impotence and inchoate rage. Almost to spite him, Julia Gillard bolstered the service and lodged it firmly under the umbrella of the ABC. If Rudd were PM today he'd be acting exactly as Tony Abbott: the only differences would be ones of rhetoric and motivation.

Now the Coalition. Since marching triumphantly to office last September the polls have reflected growing disenchantment. Abbott rode a wave of anger into government but it's evaporated and there's been no surge of enthusiasm for his policies. The last leader to suffer such an abrupt end to their honeymoon with the voters was Gillard - and look how that ended.

Quite aside from anything else, something has gone very wrong with Abbott's communications strategy. He was comfortable criticising from opposition, but governing persuasively has turned out to be another matter entirely. He needed, desperately, to find a way of reigniting the anger that only the dispossessed feel; a reprise of the tactics that had worked so well to get him into office. And then in walks the ABC, entering stage left, from the government's perspective seemingly absolutely determined to provoke it. Come in spinner!

So this fight isn't really about the specific report from Jakarta that revealed some asylum seekers suffered burns as a result, allegedly, of having been stopped by the navy. It's actually about something bigger, the whole tone of ABC coverage, combined with a sense of conservative frustration that somehow the ABC's lost its impartiality.

This is a culture war and, for that reason alone, it's one Abbott won't lose. He's Prime Minister, he has the power and, come the new Senate, there will be nothing anyone can do to stop him. A shrill argument actually suits Abbott, because it will look as if he's actually done something important.

It appears recognition of the eventual victor in this battle is slowly dawning in the executive suites of the ABC - if a bit late. When I was working inside the corporation's Ultimo headquarters a couple of decades ago, the prevailing corporate mood was very different. It was a far more conservative institution, in every sense of the word. Now those instincts will re-assert themselves.

This quick rap on the knuckles combined with a rapid filleting of the budget may well see the restoration of what Abbott believes are ''traditional'' news values. That's the way organisations work. No editor would today dream of partnering up with Guardian Australia. The word has also gone out warning reporters to watch the tone of their reports.

Abbott needed to reframe an issue so that he could go back to doing what he been so successful at - complaining. He's done it. Attacking the ABC gave Abbott a perfect opportunity to return to campaigning from opposition. And, given that the vast majority of voters don't watch or listen to the ABC regularly (apart from specific programs), he was always on a winner.

And this is where the analysis gets tricky, because now we've come to the substance of the debate, away from the politics of appearances. Now, as it happens, I do actually believe there is some truth in Abbott's critique that some areas of the ABC are not providing balanced reports.

News is a funny thing. Decisions about what stories should be headlined and the style of reporting are never obvious. They're always influenced by other factors. That's why I'm welcoming this opportunity to dissect the ABC's output. But look! Goodness! I've run out of space.

Nicholas Stuart is a former ABC foreign correspondent. His wife works for Australia Network.