There is little doubt that democracy everywhere is in crisis. Rising tides of nationalism, rampant populism and growing xenophobia all pose palpable threats as strident political voices grow ever louder. As intolerance becomes the order of the day, sane, balanced, rational discussion is increasingly shouted down. And right in the firing line is public broadcasting.
Australia, as recent developments show, is by no means immune to the mounting clamour. The federal council of the Liberal Party's proposal to privatise the ABC is just the latest salvo aimed at the public broadcaster, following on from a significant budget freeze and a government pandering to shrill complaints from the political fringe in the form of One Nation, bridling at scrutiny of its own activities and seeking to muzzle one of the few truly independent voices in Australian journalism.
The ABC, an irreplaceable cultural asset, is not alone in facing an increasingly hostile array of forces in the form of envious commercial rivals, neoliberal ideology and right-wing governments uneasy about both scrutiny and the dissemination of alternative views.
In the context of current debates, it needs to be remembered just how hard commercial interests fought against the establishment of Australia's publicly funded broadcaster in the 1930s, and how tenaciously powerful media proprietor Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, opposed the introduction of an independent news service for the ABC. With his political connections, he successfully stymied moves for 15 years after the ABC was founded in 1932, ensuring his newspapers remained dominant in the supply of information.
It is often overlooked that totalising tendencies are just as prevalent on the right of politics as on the left. The Liberal Party's federal council proposal should be seen in that light. How much easier life would be to have media coverage firmly in the domain on the Murdoch press and friendly commentators such as Alan Jones, rather than the pesky and intrusive investigative journalism and critical scrutiny of an independent broadcaster?
Back in the mid-1970s, the then Liberal Party federal president, Robert Southey, whom many thought had a bright political career ahead, was forced to step down after it was revealed he had sent confidential memos to former prime minister William McMahon, warning him that "anti-Liberal sections of the Australian press" would have to be "straightened out" and naming some editors as the enemy.
On the ideological front, the prevailing neoliberal paradigm finds no place at all for a public broadcaster. According to University of Wisconsin media scholar and historian Professor Robert W. McChesney, the central question concerning public service broadcasting in the neoliberal view is: "Why should it exist at all?"
"Neoliberals argue that if there is any public demand for something in the current digital environment, it will show up on the internet or elsewhere. There is no longer any need for the state to enter into the process. Accordingly, the neoliberals argue, whatever defence existed in the past for public broadcasting no longer exists.
"Indeed, to the neoliberals, any public subsidy of media is an unwarranted intrusion into the market that protects public broadcasting bureaucrats from desirable competition with the commercial broadcasters. In short, if one accepts the neoliberal assumptions, it is awfully difficult to make a case for public service broadcasting that is not patronising, elitist and possibly reactionary."
But, McCulloch adds, the neoliberal approach is an "arse-backwards and self-serving way to phrase the question". "It invariably points to private control, regardless of the social implications. It assumes away the very issues of ownership and subsidy, thereby reducing public debate over broadcasting to marginal, even trivial, issues. In fact, when boiled down, the neoliberal perspective on broadcasting has no place for public debate by citizens; rather, people can influence the outcome of the God-given market system only as investors or consumers."
In most parts of the world now, public broadcasting is under threat, which led the then European commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, to observe in 2017: "Public service broadcasting is not only about providing information, education, culture and entertainment, it is also an essential factor of pluralistic communication, one of the main characteristics of a democratic society."
According to the European Federation of Journalists, public service values in broadcasting are increasingly under attack. The federation notes that in Greece there has been a state plan to integrate public broadcast journalists into the civil servants' payroll and to renegotiate the national collective agreement, thus curtailing their independence. In Hungary, there is concern about changes to broadcasting laws by a government that has refused to abide by European agreements. In Britain, a government-imposed five-year freeze on the BBC's licence fee has led to 2000 jobs being lost and a corresponding reduction in services. And in Portugal, Spain and France, governments are putting financial pressure on public broadcasters to downsize or even privatise.
The European Broadcasting Union has pointed to the link between democratic values and public broadcasting, noting in a 2016 study that "well-funded and strong public service media are a good indicator that a democracy is healthy". It found in a survey that countries that had popular, well-funded public service broadcasters encountered less right-wing extremism and corruption, and generally had more press freedom.
However, the union noted that "the situation on the ground gives rise to concerns". An analysis of the alerts submitted to the Council of Europe platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists showed that since 2015 "an emerging trend of threats to the independence of public broadcasters or of their regulatory bodies." These included a growing number of alerts concerning political interference in public broadcasters' editorial lines, insufficient safeguards in legislation against political bias, or the lack of appropriate funding to guarantee public broadcasters' independence.
A case in point involves a threat by the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, the junior partner in Austria's ruling coalition, to fire foreign correspondents of Austria's public broadcaster who "do not behave correctly".
In Japan, public broadcaster NHK, which like the ABC was modelled on the BBC, has come under sustained attack since the Abe government came to office in 2012. In 2014, a conservative businessman, Katsuo Momii, was appointed NHK president in a move seen as a government attempt to control news coverage. Momii caused an immediate controversy when he said NHK should not "deviate from the government's position in its programming".
A top current affairs presenter at NHK, Hiroko Kuniya, had her contract terminated after an interview with chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, which was cited as one of the reasons for her termination. She hosted the popular Close Up Gendai, one of few NHK programs to contain investigative reporting and analysis.
International press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said her termination was just one of several that pointed to an ongoing campaign against the broadcaster and other media by the government. The group's Asia-Pacific desk head, Benjamin Ismaïl, said: "Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government seems to be taking less and less account of media freedom and the public's right to information."
For its part, Japan's government has not hidden its hostility towards critical media coverage. Addressing parliament, Communication Minister Sanae Takaichi threatened to shut down broadcasters that continued to air "biased political reports". In June 2015, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urged the government to punish critical media outlets by pressuring advertisers to withdraw business from them.
The ABC is unlikely to be privatised, the Liberal Party federal council's proposal notwithstanding, but it will almost certainly continue to operate in an increasingly hostile environment – like all public broadcasters, seemingly a culturally endangered species.
Dr Norman Abjorensen, who formerly taught at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, is writing a history of democracy.