Tony Abbott is fighting ABC listeners as much as ABC journalists

Tony Abbott is fighting ABC listeners as much as ABC journalists

Millions of Coalition voters listen to the ABC and many of them, rural, regional, urban and inner urban, are passionate about it. But the civilised world view of the typical ABC listener is increasingly at odds with the angry and resentful ''anti-elitist'' and pseudo-nationalistic neo-liberal view of the world being heavily promoted by New Newscorp newspapers and the shock jocks, and adopted by many, but far from all figures in the government.

There is an increasing divergence between the generally tolerant, humane, liberal and civilised culture of the classic ABC listener and the strident, cranky and increasingly anti-intellectual constituency to which some in the Coalition is pitching itself. The gap - increasingly a chasm - is being blamed, by some, on the susceptibility of the listenership to ceaseless soft, wet propaganda from leftie ABC journalists.

Supporters of the ABC.

Supporters of the ABC.Credit:Edwina Pickles

These and others, including Fairfax journalists and what is said to be an informal grouping of liberal elites, are accused of being increasingly out of touch with ordinary, decent hard-working Australians. These are the people accused by the Prime Minister this week of being on everyone's side but Australia's.

The truth is simpler. Abbott and others are trying to change the national culture - even to change the national realities. They are as opposed to the culture - real or imagined - of ABC listeners as to the culture of lefties thought to be unduly influencing them.


The crusade has formidable allies, not least the extensive Murdoch commentariat, a host of new right think tanks, and the shock jocks. It has galvanised a sector of the population which has been made to think that it has been missing out or ignored in the ''national conversation''. Abbott would like to have the support of traditionalists - the body of ABC listeners - but is not there wooing or appeasing them. At the end of the day, he is against their view of the world, and has never had great faith in his capacity to persuade them to his.

The old conservative complaint against the ABC was that it was ''their people'' (leftie liberal ABC journalists) talking to ''our people'' (the commercial, intellectual and moral ascendancy of Australia). In the new world, however, this old ascendancy is almost as much the natural enemy as the institutions of the left. Indeed, the left view of the world is seen to have largely captured the old institutions, now hardly worth saving for re-education.

These are the elites - the people Rupert Murdoch despises, who have repeatedly brought the country down. Luckily, there are new ways to promote and construct new realities.

For Abbott, however, the risk is that there is nothing like a witch-hunt against the ABC to revive the claim he is a man with a secret nasty agenda. Or to remind people doubts about Abbott are as strong within conservative circles as among those John Howard would derisively call the usual suspects.

It takes me back 11 years, to a time when Abbott, as a newish minister, made a thoughtful speech about the war on terror to the Centre for Independent Studies, one of the temples of the new reality. He said the war on terror would be won only when Western civilisation was as clear and dedicated about its values as the suicide bombers who were attacking it.

The war was not primarily about military technology, he said. ''It's a test of character. In a culture conditioned to be of two minds about everything, Western leaders need to be more dedicated to enhancing civilised life than suicide bombers are to taking it. The task is not to win over intellectuals addicted to finding fault but to demonstrate to the wider world that those noble aspirations about the poor huddled masses yearning to be free are really meant.''

I thought it a good speech, the more interesting in coming from a cabinet minister, and I wrote an editorial praising it - and Abbott for saying it. It wished the Howard government generally saw the issue in such terms. Abbott knew I had written the editorial because I had rung his office to ask for a full text.

He rang me the next evening, jokingly begging me never to praise

him again. At cabinet, Peter Costello had a copy of the editorial. Costello remarked, as soon as all were assembled, that Abbott's speech had attracted wide comment, and praise. Even from The Canberra Times.

''Even The Canberra Times,'' said John Howard. ''Surely not praise from the 'Fyshwick Pravda'''

''Yes, even The Canberra Times'', Costello was supposed to have said. ''I think I should read some of it.''

And, to general laughter in cabinet, he quoted Abbott's references to the Western sensuality, licence and frivolity which had so enraged the authors of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US and the 2002 Bali bombing. He quoted Abbott's remarks about how it would be a happy paradox if the terrorist threat prompted a rediscovery of sterner and higher values, and thereby renewed the West's appeal to the wider world.

Abbott said it was a performance worthy of some of Costello's cruel (but deeply missed) pantomimes at question time.

By now, however, Abbott has learnt the praise of journals such as The Canberra Times, of ''the usual suspects'' in the ABC, or most journalists working in the Fairfax press, does not much impress his core constituencies. For some under his umbrella, indeed, a proposition is more appealing, and more likely to be desirable, if it is hated by the luvvies, the cafe latte set, the chardonnay socialists, Balmain basket weavers and those inside what Nick Cater has called ''the goat cheese belt''. This could be either because such people are always wrong, or because the extra added pleasure - nay physical joy - of irritating them is better than sex.

All the more so when the usual suspects respond to provocations in entirely predictable manners.

Howard could sink the slipper as well as anyone, but was usually fairly circumspect in publicly looking for trouble from people he knew he could never win over. He was always polite, and never triumphal. He took his enemies and critics as seriously as he took his allies and friends - even when, all too often, the battle at the front lines was a bit of a doddle.

When Rural Press bought The Canberra Times in 1998, its principal shareholder, John B. Fairfax, rang Howard to tell him. The prime minister congratulated him, noting it could be the company's flagship. John Fairfax told a Canberra business audience a year or two later he then asked Howard what he thought of The Canberra Times.

''Oh, it's terrible,'' Howard was said to have responded. ''It's the worst paper in Australia. It's worse than The Sydney Morning Herald. Yes. It's worse, even than The Age. It's … it's like the ABC in print!''

Howard once remarked of Canberra that it was ''a funny place: looks like Killara and votes like Cessnock''. Like not a few critics of the newspaper, he saw it as essentially Labor-oriented, and purported to understand, if not excuse, that because this was the way its readership tended to vote. In this sense he assumed it was simply pandering to readers' prejudices and expectations.

I never saw it like that, even if I did think that the nature of our special audience was critical to any question of our approach or our editorial policy. The people of Canberra were the best educated, most connected, most outward looking readers in the country. Whether public servants, or military people, diplomats, educators, in the lobbies, politics or the professions, or engaged in the civic, retail or building industries hungry for information. Not only hungry but amazingly well informed, whether because of access to alternative media or by the nature of Canberra and their jobs.

They were, to a greater degree than elsewhere, very interested in politics - because that was Canberra's core business - but they were also, to a greater degree than elsewhere, very interested in sport, the arts, the world, health, education and social welfare - indeed almost anything. They were not spoilt for choice.

This was not an audience to whom one pandered, or talked down. It was not an audience easily manipulated by propaganda campaigns, emotionalism, sensationalism or hysteria, or by omission, or the beat-up. Or by intrusion on privacy, or focus on trivia. There was no other city in the world - not New York, London, Paris or Beijing - where one could as sensibly remind journalists that on most matters, at least a third of the readers knew more about the events, or the subject matter, than we did.

This was an audience that was tolerant and liberal, open to new experiences and intensely interested in the wider world. The Canberra demographic is markedly skewed towards having a high proportion of people of the professional, managerial and clerical classes, and proportionately far fewer citizens who were entrepreneurs, tradesman, semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

This Canberra was, in short, a place for a liberal and tolerant forum newspaper which treated ideas - on all sides of the spectrum - seriously. We were critical of both sides of politics - particularly more liberal on social issues than the Coalition, more conservative on economic ones than Labor.

It went without saying Canberra also had a much higher proportion than average of ABC listeners. And the more likely that a person was a listener, the more likely they were a regular, serious and critical reader of newspapers, particularly at the serious end of the spectrum.

Locations such as Canberra, or concentrations of professionals, particularly in the inner cities of the state capitals, combine far higher than usual ABC listenership with being of a higher than usual proportion of trendy-leftish social views. But it could be a major political mistake to think this exhausts or exclusively describes the ABC audience. Or that the remnant audience could somehow be rescued by having ABC news broadcasts edited by Piers Akerman, with commentary managed by Ray Hadley, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt. Even in the bush the elitist ABC listening ''snobs'' turn their noses up at them. What's more, the very professional careers and reputations of the Akermans, Hadleys, Bolts and Joneses depend on the fact of such repudiation, rejection - even scorn - from these elites, whether of the inner city or the old smug comfortable classes. It allows them to see themselves as persecuted, marginalised, brave and courageous, the John the Baptists for a new civilisation.

They are promoting a model of a divided, atomised and divisive society in which large sections hardly talk to or understand other sections, or will have a bar of their interests.

Abbott has himself drawn attention to how the world view promoted by Murdoch papers, and a few conservative magazines, is fundamentally different from that reflected, discussed and commented upon in Fairfax newspapers, the ABC and many other traditional forums. That he is in charge is, in this sense, a reflection of his view the latter are out of touch, whether with reality, the ordinary, decent Australian he encapsulates, or the wave of the future. Perhaps. But, oddly, one can discuss or argue the proposition more easily in the forums provided by the purveyors of more traditional, liberal and tolerant images of our community, our nation and our world.

Jack Waterford is the former Editor-at-large at The Canberra Times and writes a regular column

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