Nearly 25 years ago, when I became the minister responsible for the ABC, I had to bludgeon it into taking economics seriously. It was happy to provide wall-to-wall political coverage but economics was a no-go area – it simply wasn’t interested.
Since then little has changed – as the pandemic has graphically illustrated. It is simply incomprehensible that, in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, its so-called principal economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, was urging people to “stop talking about the economy”, as though it was some abstract concept, rather than the lifeblood of the nation.
Fortunately, she moved on, but the damage to the ABC was there for all the world to see.
Australia may be politically diverse, but the same cannot be said for the ABC. It is obsessed with the need for greater diversity in every field except for politics, where its views are overwhelmingly one-sided and always to the left.
It is hard to keep a straight face when Leigh Sales pretends that there may well be some conservatives at the ABC while Barrie Cassidy warns that to have any would be “dangerous”.
Fast forward 50 years and it is unrecognisable – now it seems to take endless delight in being at war with middle Australia, let alone those with conservative inclinations.
The ABC continues to pretend that internal polling, which it always refuses to publicly release, shows that Australians support the ABC. They may well do in regional and rural Australia, where local staff live, but in the urban areas it is a different matter.
This is because its news and current affairs coverage panders overwhelmingly to its peers in elite, inner-urban Australia.
The great majority of its staff work in the comfortable inner-city enclaves of Ultimo in Sydney and Southbank in Melbourne, and nearly all its commentators and presenters are tertiary educated, with the same world view fixated on progressive social issues such as gender diversity, discrimination, climate change, gay marriage and asylum seekers.
So let’s be very clear – Richard Alston was the man whose very job was to keep the ABC on the straight and narrow. A man who drew a salary from Consolidated Revenue and oversaw an organisation also funded out of Consolidated Revenue. This is a man who knows exactly what is wrong with the ABC.
Growing up in the post-war years, I felt the ABC was part of the mainstream. My parents started with nothing, including no tertiary education, yet they both had profound respect for the organisation and identified with its values. They regarded it as the electronic media of record.
There is no one in the federal parliament who favours privatising, gutting or defunding the ABC. This chimera is simply a straw person trotted out by the ABC to distract criticism of its real shortcomings. What parliamentarians really want is a balanced, high-quality ABC.
I’ve added the emphasis.
Alston’s bewilderment comes from a lack of understanding of what the ABC is, and what it isn’t. Unlike most other organisations the ABC lacks the discipline that comes from simultaneously meeting the needs of paying customers and meeting the demands of investors. The ABC neither must attract paying customers nor financial backing – they do as they please. There is no need to please anyone else.
Organisations are disciplined by the need to raise funds. There are two sources of funding – investors and paying customers.
In the very first instance, the ABC has no paying customers. Unless you count the federal government as being a paying customer. That is one view.
Another view is that the federal government is the only ABC investor but that it practices a form of malign neglect.
Whatever. The fact of the matter is that no amount of symbolic appointments to the board or moral suasion can ever drive any change at the ABC. In the absence of any political will to privatise, gut, or defund the ABC there can never be any change at the ABC.
The ABC should be privatised. Either sold as a going concern to an existing media mogul or piecemeal to investors. I have previously suggested that the ABC be given away to current and former staff who pay for the shares via capital gains tax on disposal. It doesn’t really matter how the ABC is privatised – it does matter that even former communication ministers don’t realise that the ABC cannot be salvaged given its current organisational structure.
It being the silly season and all, I have received more twitter ‘love’ for this op-ed than any I’ve ever written. Including this attempt at cancellation:
Posted several times in case anyone missed it.
Anyway, she has missed the bus – the ABC and their confederates made a huge effort to get Chris Berg and I fired in 2018 after we published our book Against Public Broadcasting.