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Whose ABC is it anyway?

Date

The federal government has picked a fight with the national broadcaster.

<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

It was September 2009 when Maurice Newman, then the ABC chairman, paid a courtesy visit to the national broadcaster's Tokyo bureau. Mark Willacy, the bureau's award-winning correspondent, and his three Japanese staff put on the kettle and sat down for a cuppa with Newman and Bruce Dover, chief executive of the Australia Network, the ABC's Asia-Pacific service.

Willacy refuses to comment on this episode in his distinguished career, but what happened next became hot news in the ABC. This version comes from several sources.

They say Newman proceeded to lecture the bureau about the number of negative stories it was running. He mentioned the focus on Japanese whaling stories. They weren't helping the Australia-Japan relationship. There were more positive stories to be told. There were good-news business stories.

The meeting left the staff gobsmacked. But they had already accepted the invitation to join Newman for dinner that night. When the bill came, however, Newman and Dover were in the bathroom, so the ABC's Tokyo office picked up the tab.

Many in the ABC were alarmed by Newman's intervention and saw it as an attack on the ABC's editorial independence.

Newman, who completed his chairmanship in March 2012, says his recollection differs from ''your informants''. In a three-sentence reply, he suggests we try Dover, ''who may have clearer view''. Dover confirms the ''robust'' discussions took place and that Newman spoke frankly on his personal views, but insists the chairman knew it was not his place to interfere, and never deigned to tell journalists what to write.

Either way, Newman ventured out this week to suggest the ABC had been acting against the national interest in more recent times. Now Tony Abbott's leading business adviser, he supported the Prime Minister's scorching attack on the ABC for its coverage of two stories: its collaboration with the The Guardian to expose Australia's spying on Indonesia, as revealed by the US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, and its reporting of uncorroborated claims that Australian navy personnel caused asylum seekers' hands to be burnt by forcing them to hold a hot engine pipe on a boat being towed back to Indonesia.

''A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone's side but Australia's,'' Abbott told Ray Hadley on Sydney radio station 2GB on Wednesday.

''The ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor,'' Abbott said of the Snowden affair. Further, ''you should not leap to be critical of your own country. And you ought to be prepared to give the Australian navy and its hard-working personnel the benefit of the doubt … You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team, so to speak.''

Australia is not a nation at war, but Abbott was suggesting the ABC's news judgment - what it chooses to run or not to run, what it tells Australians and what it keeps from them - should be guided by a sense of patriotism.

Within hours of the Hadley interview, Abbott's communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull was coming to the barricades to defend the ABC. Politicians could not tell the national broadcaster what to do, Turnbull told Fairfax Media. ''What's the alternative … the editor-in-chief becomes the prime minister?''

Clearly not, but the government does control the ABC's budget of about $1 billion a year. Turnbull is a long-term friend of the ABC. And yet, by Thursday afternoon, he would be announcing some less-than-friendly news for the organisation. The ABC and SBS would be subjected to a cost-cutting study, he said. Since 1996-97, the ABC has been among the few government bodies spared from the demand to deliver cost-cutting efficiency dividends. But now the government has dumped its pre-election commitment to preserve ABC funding.

Turnbull had been planning this announcement well before Abbott's outburst on 2GB. And now he did not want it linked with his colleagues' attacks on the ABC. Only on Thursday morning, The Australian had splashed its front page with more potential bad news for the ABC: that the May budget was likely to abolish the broadcaster's 10-year $223 million contract to run the Australia Network. Some in the federal cabinet believe the network is too negative, and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop last month questioned whether the network ''is meeting the goal of promoting Australia's interests overseas''.

The eastern suburbs electorate of Wentworth, Turnbull's seat, is ABC heartland. But so is Abbott's seat of Warringah and Treasurer Joe Hockey's seat of North Sydney. How much do they really want to gouge the ABC, the news source which, according to the polls, is trusted more than any other? Turnbull wanted to put off his announcement, but he rushed it out on Thursday afternoon after inquiries from Fairfax Media.

As he did, some in the Coalition were relishing the thought that the ABC was finally getting its comeuppance. ''What goes around comes around,'' said Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews. On Facebook, pollster and Liberal Party adviser Mark Textor was as gleeful as he was in need of a spellcheck: ''The ABCs blow job to the Guardian looks to have cost them an arm. Their canberra bureau journalists's purile [sic] behaviour will next cost them a leg''.

If Abbott lives in ABC heartland, he was reaching a wider audience on Wednesday with his chat on 2GB. Ray Hadley railed against the Australian Communications and Media Authority's pursuit of so-called right-wing shock-jocks like himself - ''I'm an honest, decent person'' - and complained that if they wanted to ''contain lunatics on this side of the ledger, the lunatics on the other side of the ledger [what he called the left-wing ABC] must be answerable to someone''.

Hadley put the revival of Australia's culture wars in a nutshell, and Abbott replied: ''Look, I can understand your frustrations, Ray, because at times there does appear to be a double standard in large swathes of our national life.''

Abbott derided the millions spent on the ABC's new fact-checking unit. ''Surely that should just come naturally.'' Some wonder why the unit wasn't asked to fact-check the ABC's original burnt-hands report and its assertion that new footage ''appears to back asylum seekers' claims of mistreatment''.

On Friday, the ABC and The Australian carried interviews with Somali asylum-seekers who continued to claim they were abused during clashes with the navy, and one said his hands were burnt when he was blinded by the navy's ''tear gas'', thought to be pepper spray. None supported the claim that boatpeople were forced to hold the hot engine.

The editor of Spectator Australia, Tom Switzer, notes that he ''broke ranks with most conservatives'' and defended the ABC on the Snowden spying revelations. ''But on the navy's claimed abuse of asylum seekers, they're wrong,'' says Switzer. ''They should regret their error and Abbott is right to highlight this serious mistake in their reporting that made claims without sufficient evidence.''

He adds: ''One can be a strong supporter of the ABC, as Abbott is, and still believe - as both Labor and Coalition prime ministers have - that there is a left-wing bias in some of the ABC's political reporting.''

Bob Hawke was among them. David Hill, who was ABC managing director from 1986 to 1995, remembers the Labor prime minister's attack on the ABC's Gulf War coverage and his claim it was pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.

''But it never stooped this low,'' Mr Hill said of Abbott's attack this week, which he regards as dangerous. Never, he said - certainly not since World War II - had a prime minister ''gone this far to suggest the ABC censor what it broadcasts and keeps the Australian public in the dark by withholding information that might portray Australia in a bad light''. Last month, in the wake of Abbott and Turnbull decrying the ABC's use of the Snowden information, Julie Bishop weighed in. On the Australia Network, she told The Australian: "It is meant to be a tool of public diplomacy and I am concerned by the level of negative feedback I receive from overseas."

This raises the question: should the ABC be used as a tool for so-called ''soft diplomacy''. Does that not, by definition, present a huge conflict of interest for its commitment to independent journalism?

Not at all, ABC managing director Mark Scott has argued. The wartime Australia Calling morphed into Radio Australia in the Cold War, and the ABC's leadership ''has stubbornly insisted the service could not exist as a mouthpiece of government'' ever since. Scott says this independence - delivering the bad news along with the good - is central to putting the nation's culture, values and policies on show.

Turnbull's office appeared to be genuinely surprised on Thursday by The Australian's report that the ABC could be stripped of the Australia Network. But that day Abbott referred to the Gillard government's ''particularly dodgy piece of work'' in 2011 when it cancelled the tender process that had been poised to award the 10-year contract to Sky News, which is part-owned by News Corporation, and instead gave it to the ABC. Bishop has called it a "corrupted'' process.

Rupert Murdoch and son James have made plain their opposition to public broadcasters expanding and seizing fertile ground in the media landscape. ''There is a land-grab, pure and simple, going on - and in the interests of a free society it should be sternly resisted,'' James said of the BBC in 2009.

But the current legislation says the ABC will run the foreign broadcasting service in perpetuity. The government cannot simply strip it from the public broadcaster and hand it to Sky. But it could, if it so wished, shut down the service, albeit after paying millions in compensation for the satellite and other contracts.

Turnbull, while warning the ABC will not be exempt from cuts, insists there is no plan to ''slash'' its budget. And the study ''will not review what is broadcast, but rather the cost of delivering that content''.

In his corporate life, Turnbull ran the ruler over media organisations, and he may feel he can find a lazy $50 million in waste that won't affect core business. But the last time a government sent the number crunchers through the ABC, they arrived at a different answer.

In 2006, the Howard government commissioned KPMG to conduct a review of the ABC's funding. It never released that report. Leaked details may suggest why - it found the ABC was under-funded. At the time, it said the broadcaster needed an extra $125.8 million in funding over the next three years to maintain its operations.

It is time for the government to at last release that report, says Glenys Stradijot, from Friends of the ABC. "In the present climate, it is difficult not to suspect the government's motives are to curtail the ABC's activities … The Murdoch media, which helped to elect the present government, views the ABC as a competitor and has been campaigning strenuously for the ABC's demise.''

Whatever cuts Turnbull's review might find, he says: ''There is nothing in there that says [the ABC] should be nationalistic.''

And Newman, as chairman, never suggested anything of the sort to ABC journalists, says Bruce Dover.

Dover confirms Newman spoke to journalists - including China correspondent Stephen McDonell - on the issue of positive and negative stories and Australia's bilateral relationships. The reporters stood their ground, and Newman took on board their arguments in the spirit of their robust discussions. But he ''never gave a directive'' and he was acutely aware this was not his job as chairman.

This week, Turnbull reminded Abbott it's not his job either. And even while his razor hovers over the ABC, Turnbull defends Aunty's honour, saying: ''The day everybody says they're happy with the ABC .. then it's probably become a bit dull.''

with Heath Aston and Jonathan Swan

364 comments

  • Tony Abbott, who is not known for his diplomacy or ability to make sensible statements on the run, has made an underhand attack on OUR ABC. He finds any factual reporting of anything he disagrees with as some sort of personal attack. Tony, you can't handle the truth!
    He is well known o be a lackey of Rupert Murdoch & may well be part of an ultimate aim to hobble the ABC to the financial benefit of RM.
    TONY ABBOTT LEAVEOUR ABC ALONE.

    Commenter
    LuckyCountry
    Location
    Southport
    Date and time
    February 01, 2014, 1:32PM
    • The Truth and the ABC are as far apart from one another.

      If ABC really cares about the truth then it would not have reported allegations that the Navy personnell abused asylum seekers.

      If ABC really cares about the truth then it should have apologised for trying to smear Navy personnel.

      No organisation should be above transperency and accountabiltiy, looks like ABC thinks they can do whatever they want without considering accountability and ethics.

      Commenter
      Regh
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 2:55PM
    • Many voters like the idea of a strong man as leader. Tony fulfills that need. It is one thing to criticize the ABC but another to try to control or sell it to vested interests. People should remember that the ABC and Fairfax allow a full spectrum of opinion which is not the case for the right wing media. They do not allow the same criticism that Fairfax and the ABC do. There is justifiable fear that vested right wing interests could gain control of both the ABC and Fairfax. There would be no balance in reporting then.

      Commenter
      Good Logic
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 3:04PM
    • I think Abbott and his cronies would be surprised at how many people would be out on the streets to protest if any real threat to the ABC. I would describe myself as passionate, but only once did I join a protest parade (over a development). I do, of course, rant here and have had the odd letter published. I prefer the behind-the-scenes approach. Nonetheless, I'd be out there with placards if required!! I'm sure many people reading this would do the same.

      Commenter
      Passionfruit
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 3:15PM
    • @LuckyCountry:
      Our Tony would not dare to fiddle with the ABC. Despite all the rantings from the MSM and its pack of looney right wing commentators (views according to Rupert) the simple facts are that the ABC is an institution widely valued by the vast majority of Australians. It would be the quickest way to get turfed out of political office. The public would not stand for it and our illustrious leader knows it.

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 3:37PM
    • And another thing.... I'm increasingly confused about what is considered left and right wing. If I'm ever pressed to explain my politics I now say centre-left, partly because of bizarre attacks on the ABC (which I see as a good middle ground with slight bias to the "right" - that is, to my mind, basically pro-establishment and pro-business). I used to say I was centre because I always vote Labor and have a strong PJK bias (so right-wing Labor?). Now...I'm wondering whether the "centre" has shifted beneath me?

      I doubt there's anyone on these forums who has seen more ABC than me (as I'm getting on a bit, almost never watch other channels and haven't gone out at night for over a decade). I also see the ABC every morning until about lunchtime and every night from about 6.30pm to midnight. Because of this, I probably know more about business, the share market, world news, nature and science, religion, agriculture, music, art, Shakespeare, the Queen and other odd British families, police procedures in the UK, Stephen Fry and quite-interesting-but-quite-useless bits of information than I care to know! Seriously...can someone explain to me what leftist agenda have I failed to see in all this?

      Commenter
      Passionfruit
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 3:47PM
    • I could not agree more LC, leave Aunty alone Tony.

      Oddly a study into political leanings of the media in 2009 and covering the period from 1999 until 2007 found that the ABC slightly favoured the Coalition, as reported in the Age in 2009.

      Therefore this controversy is manufactured spin but why bother?

      In my opinion the LNP needed a means by which to get the Australia Network into Rupert's hands and this is it.

      The Australia Network is a back door into Asia for Rupert, follow the money.

      Commenter
      Paul01
      Location
      Riverina
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 3:57PM
    • @Lucky Country - it's my ABC too but I disagree with your evaluation. The ABC has been hijacked by the Sydney inner cities lefties and the only thing we now get is never ending pro-Labor/Green propaganda.

      So while a majority of the people in this country struggle to pay their bills, the ABC thinks that the only subjects worth discussing on their airwaves are climate change, boat people rights, gay rights & all things anti-Liberal/anti-Abbott. Nothing else of much of relevance to ordinary working people.

      Don't believe me? Just listen to their news report. Opinion disguised as news and never failing to cover the 4 topics I mention above.

      If they want me to keep funding them - they need to do better. And if not, then they shouldn't get my money. If you love them so much, you can go on funding their never ending brainwashing effort.

      Commenter
      union apparatchik
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 4:09PM
    • Some quotes from Abbott on press and media since 2010: pbs.twimg.com/media/BfJpIWrCcAAhMwa.jpg

      Makes one think? But why would this man care about anything he said before, we'll make things as we need, no matter if contradicting ourselves 4 times in the process. Ah yes, and then delete the evidence from his own website so that it never happened. Pitiful performance for someone trying to live up to a PM role.

      Commenter
      BirkBorkasson
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 4:11PM
    • I like to make two points. Firstly with Budget constraints the Aust Govt should close down ABC's Asia-Pacific service. Reason: In this internet age anyone really interested in Australian news would use the internet to access Australian Media via. The $223million is better spent in sending 100,000 Australian uni students per year to study in an English medium university in Asia. No knowledge of an Asian language is required for Aust uni students.

      Secondly on Japan whaling in Antarctica the ABC position is totally wrong, I have researched on whale populations and participated in a Working Group, lasting one month, of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. I have been waiting for years for ABC to report the contrary scientific views on culling of Minke whale population in Antarctica.

      Please let me point out that Dr Hammond, Chair of the Scientific Committee resigned in frustration in 1993 after the Plenary Committee infiltrated by activists vetoed the Revised Management Procedure supported by 100% of members of the Scientific Committee.
      The only way we humans can help save the most endangered and majestic and largest whales, the Blue whales is to cull the Minke whales as both feed krill. Do we not cull millions of kangaroos a year to help sheep compete? From 1880 the Blue whales were decimated from 230,000 to 2500, see IWC data. When this happened the Minke whales increased and is currently at more than 500,000, see IWC dat. Culling 5000 a year is absolutely no threats to the Minke whales in the Antarctica.

      Commenter
      Dr B S Goh
      Location
      Australian in Asia
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 4:30PM

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