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Ranters against ABC underestimate its ability to fight back

The emergence of the Abbott government's anti-ABC insurgency and the continuation of the Murdoch empire's propaganda onslaught against its perceived ideological foes has spurred escalating attacks on the ABC. These from people who claim this venerable organisation is biased, badly governed, uncontrollable, in the grip of the left or guilty of some other imaginary offence against their sensibilities.

Given that this month marks the 26th anniversary of the celebrated ''8¢ a day'' campaign, when the ABC successfully persuaded the then federal government to guarantee a triennial indexed funding model, it may be helpful to reflect on why the campaign was so successful.

It certainly didn't succeed because Bob Hawke's government was a great friend of the ABC. In my role as the organisation's general manager for corporate relations from 1985 to 1988, I sat in the prime minister's office with then chairman Ken Myer to share a prime ministerial touch-up.

As my diary entry for March 4, 1985 records: ''Ken goes on to talk about restructuring and the efficiencies that have been introduced. Programs get a bit of a look-in. But it's not a coherent presentation, veering from grand vision to triviality. But it suffices to show that the organisation is, well, doing something.''

''That's all very well,'' says Hawke, rolling his eyes, ''but, Ken, there are some black spots.''

He accuses the ABC of ''bias, partiality and propaganda'', citing a Four Corners program on uranium mining. He complains about radicals dictating a left-wing, anti-government agenda for the ABC. The implication is that management is in the thrall of the staff union.


Throughout its history, the ABC has faced many such moments. Mark Scott, his board and his employees are now experiencing yet another.

The ABC, of course, has emerged from them all and is arguably in as good a shape as it has ever been. Malcolm Turnbull's efficiency audit is something of an irrelevance (the last one by KPMG showed the ABC spent taxpayers' money wisely and, indeed, should be given more) but maybe Turnbull had to come up with some manner of nostrum to pacify the anti-ABC ranters in the Coalition.

As David Hill and I agreed when we were developing the ''8¢ a day'' campaign in early 1988, its failure or success would depend not on politicians, commercial opponents or anything the ABC (or its unions) could do.

Whether the ABC could persuade the government that it was not only doing OK but deserved a better deal would be up to the Australian people.

If the ABC initiated a funding fight and the community response was no more than ''ho-hum'', our goose would be well and truly cooked.

But if the community reaction was widespread, instantaneous and vocally supportive, we would prevail.

After some weeks of preparation, the campaign was launched with gusto in early February 1988.

It was over in just a couple of weeks. There was huge public outcry; town hall meetings were held throughout Australia; no politician went unlobbied; no pressure group remained voiceless; no slanging went unmatched. I had never seen the ABC as united and I had never seen it as vibrant.

Eventually the government backed off and then communications minister Gareth Evans, at Sydney Airport, on his way overseas, signed an agreement on the back of an envelope that the ABC would receive triennial indexed funding, which had been first promised in the late 1940s.

The community had spoken.

Abbott and Murdoch should be aware that the community is capable of repeating the dose. They're more than willing to stand up for their 8¢ worth.

Keith Jackson was the ABC's first general manager of corporate relations from 1985 to 1988.


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