Andrew Bolt often accuses the ABC of being in breach of its charter, in that it consistently presents an almost exclusively Left wing perspective on politics and matters of public interest. And he’s right that it is seriously unbalanced. But as to it being in breach of its charter in this respect, I’ve got news for him.
Here is the charter:
6 Charter of the Corporation
(1) The functions of the Corporation are:
(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:
(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and
(ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;
(b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:
(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
(ba) to provide digital media services; and
(c) to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.
Note: See also section 31AA (Corporation or prescribed companies to be the only providers of Commonwealth‑funded international broadcasting services).
(2) In the provision by the Corporation of its broadcasting services within Australia:
(a) the Corporation shall take account of:
(i) the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors of the Australian broadcasting system;
(ii) the standards from time to time determined by the ACMA in respect of broadcasting services;
(iii) the responsibility of the Corporation as the provider of an independent national broadcasting service to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialized broadcasting programs;
(iv) the multicultural character of the Australian community; and
(v) in connection with the provision of broadcasting programs of an educational nature—the responsibilities of the States in relation to education; and
(b) the Corporation shall take all such measures, being measures consistent with the obligations of the Corporation under paragraph (a), as, in the opinion of the Board, will be conducive to the full development by the Corporation of suitable broadcasting programs.
(3) The functions of the Corporation under subsection (1) and the duties imposed on the Corporation under subsection (2) constitute the Charter of the Corporation.
(4) Nothing in this section shall be taken to impose on the Corporation a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court.
There is no explicit reference whatsoever to ‘balanced reporting’. And it would take a very long stretch of the imagination to even infer an obligation for balance from the above wording. But it’s academic in any case. When I was in the Army, the Army Law Manual listed many military offences but there was one, in particular, which cropped up more often on charge sheets than any other – conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. It covered a multitude of sins and guaranteed that if you warranted it you would be found guilty of something. Similarly, in the ABC’s charter we have subsection (4) that guarantees that it can flout its charter with impunity as long as it has the support of the Board – at least as far as the general public, who pay for it, are concerned.
What prompted this piece was an article in this weekend’s Australian telling us that ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie ‘has announced a big shift as the national broadcaster fully adopts the indigenous constitutional recognition proposals contained in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.’
If ever there was a flagrant breach of balance this is it. Now I fully accept that commercial newspapers can editorialize and adopt positions on contentious issues but surely the ABC should be more circumspect, particularly as details surrounding the Uluru Statement are still very sketchy. At this stage, she has absolutely no idea what she is supporting. But regardless of that, there are many Australians (almost certainly a majority when the facts are clear) who will oppose these changes, as PM Turnbull was at pains to point out, and the ABC has already written them off.
I can accept that individual ABC commentators are entitled to express their own opinion (deploring, of course, the lack of balance) but I refuse to accept that the ABC has any right to editorialize at a corporate level. Similar to Alan Joyce on SSM, this just looks like Guthrie hitching a whole organisation to her personal agenda.
We also often hear that the ABC is supposed to be a ‘market failure broadcaster’ but again, as Michelle Guthrie told the Senate Estimates Committee back in May, that role also is not in the charter. It damn well should be.
The ABC gets over $1billion of taxpayers money every year and, according to its charter, has carte blanche to do whatever the hell it wants. It is like a public company that is, in no way, beholden to its shareholders.
In light of the above, it seems clear that conservative MPs who are castigated for not bringing the ABC into line are getting a bum rap. Until the charter is updated there is little they can do. But that does not let them off the hook. They should be clamouring for the ABC Act to be amended to, at least, mandate a requirement for balanced political reporting and entrench the role of market failure broadcaster. I’ve no doubt that readers can come up with many other ideas that would help improve the efficiency and accountability of the ABC.
Yes, this is a big ask (impossible in the current climate) but surely, along with repeal of 18C, it is worth some consideration by a supposedly conservative government. Whingeing about ABC bias is just pathetic unless you’re prepared to do something about it. And never again should a conservative PM promise no cuts to ABC funding.