There is news and there is emotional news. When Judith Ireland wrote a straightforward news story about Tony Abbott criticising the ABC's negativity about Australia last week, the response on the Herald's website was an avalanche of emotion: 12,000 Facebook recommendations, 1170 comments (before the exhausted moderator closed them off) and 690 people forwarded the story via Twitter. These are big numbers. All the Prime Minister had done was make a complaint which many people agreed with.
Based on this response, and a torrent of hostile reporting by predictable sections of the media, anything about the ABC that involves cuts or criticisms is going to be put through a prism of class warfare and government interference. This nonsense is now institutionalised.
There is a real story building about the ABC which none of the hysteria has covered. The most critical element unfolding is a move to rationalise the three state broadcasters supported by Australian taxpayers: the ABC, SBS and National Indigenous Television, at a combined current cost of $1.5 billion a year.
Expect a significant restructuring. A big merger. This is the most likely proposal to emerge from the efficiency review announced last week by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The ABC, SBS and NITV could be merged into a single public broadcaster with a multichannel structure that exploits the rapid convergence of media technology.
A consolidation of the networks into one multichannel broadcaster would produce both cost savings and raise revenue via the sale of valuable broadcast spectrum freed up by the restructuring.
Commercial broadcasters are under pressure to make profound adjustments as the internet increasingly delivers TV and radio via computers, iPads and smartphones. One obvious example of where a public broadcaster could cut costs is by ending the provision of foreign-language news, given that such news is available at no cost through the internet.
It is crucial to look past the irrational hysteria about political revenge and ideological warfare in any restructuring of the ABC and SBS. The government of the day has no control over the content of the ABC and there are no plans to dilute this valued independence.
The proposed efficiency analysis was instigated by Turnbull, not cabinet. It will examine the operational, governance, structural, financial and cultural issues within the three public broadcasters.
The context for cutting the cost of public broadcasting is the May budget, in which every agency of government will have to take a cut. Australia has just seen a $1 trillion explosion in government spending over the past six years, going from a budget surplus of $20 billion, and zero federal debt, to a budget deficit of about $50 billion and $667 billion in federal debt.
In this environment, waste and excess will be attacked everywhere, including the three public broadcasters. An obvious cut will be the debacle known as the Australia Network, which is sub-contracted to the ABC. The Prime Minister all but announced its death last Thursday when he said the government ''had enormous concerns about probity issues [over how] the Australia Network tender was awarded''.
Two tender panels had recommended that a 10-year contract for the Australia Network be awarded to Sky News (in which the Murdoch media, via BSkyB, has an 11.7 per cent stake). The then foreign minister Kevin Rudd accepted these recommendations. They were overridden by the Gillard government, which gave the contract to the ABC, a move later condemned by the Auditor-General.
Compounding this debacle has been the performance of the ABC itself in running the Australia Network. It is dreadful. If it was meant to enhance Australia's reputation in Asia, it has been an abject failure on the basis of dullness alone. But the ABC has been worse than dull. It chose to knowingly damage Australia's relationship with Indonesia by publishing Edward Snowden's leaks of Australian spying in Indonesia. It then chose to knowingly damage Australia's reputation in Asia by running for an entire week with accusations of torture by Australian navy personnel, despite not having a shred of corroborating evidence, and despite a super-abundant pattern of false claims made by asylum seekers who have destroyed documents, scuttled ships and claimed abuse.
In December the ABC chairman, former NSW chief justice Jim Spigelman, commissioned an ethics audit into any impartiality in ABC Radio interviews between the two major party leaders during last September's federal election. That will not go anywhere. The ABC does not engender controversy over its election coverage, which is scrupulous given the imperfections built into daily journalism. Even the three most self-evidently biased radio commentators try to restrain their disdain for the Coalition.
However, a second ethics audit has been commissioned by Spigelman into the ABC's ''treatment of the debate about asylum seekers''. This, too, will be a waste of time if it is merely restricted to issues of bias in individual reports. The problem with the ABC over the asylum-seeker issue runs far deeper than bias.
The ABC has been unhinged by the issue. It is obsessional. It is not the content of stories and comment which is the main problem, but the sheer scale of its coverage. This brings into question the judgment of the news and current affairs division, and its self-perpetuating, cultural proclivities at the most basic, granular and reflexive level. Unless this audit considers the scale of the ABC's obsession about asylum seekers, across all platforms, it will be another bureaucratic exercise in self-preservation and self-vindication.