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New Teeth for Aunty

Reinvigorating the National Broadcaster

 
Cover: December 2007 - January 2008December 2007 - January 2008Medium length read
 

I am a creature of habit. In the mornings, like the former prime minister, I rely on Radio National's Breakfast, although I am less impressed with it in its current incarnation than I was when it was presented by Peter Thompson and Richard Ackland. With the former there used to be outstanding intellectual discussions between 7.30 and 8.00, often involving key thinkers from around the globe. With the latter what I admired was the mordant wit. Almost my favourite moment on radio, ever, came during an Ackland interview with the redoubtable but garrulous Geoffrey Robertson. There was a moment when it appeared likely that a Robertson answer would never end. Ackland had sufficient mastery of the technology to inform his listeners, without interrupting Robertson, by now in full flight, that he was going out for a quick smoke. Every morning I listen to AM. On the way to work I try to take in one of the Radio National morning magazine programs on media, religion and the law, although I avoid sport because the program doesn't interest me much, and health on hypochondriac grounds. If I work at home I often listen to Classic FM, although never to Margaret Throsby, for the paradoxical reason that her interviews are so absorbing that I cannot concentrate on the task at hand. I almost never listen any longer to ABC Local Radio. I am simply not interested in the kind of middlebrow market at which it aims. Melbourne's Jon Faine is an exception. Local ABC becomes important to me only at 6.00, with PM, which I try never to miss. In the evenings, whenever possible, I watch mainly ABC Television: the news and the 7.30 Report, often what is on offer after that, and if I am not exhausted, Lateline. If I am in the garden on weekends, I like to listen to football in the winter and cricket in the summer. During Test matches the gentle patter of the commentary, punctuated occasionally by Kerry O'Keefe's insane laughter, replaces Classic FM. If I am ever in my car at 4.00 in the afternoon or at 10.00 in the evening I listen to Phillip Adams, perhaps the most remarkable broadcaster in the history of this country.

This outline of my daily routine should at least make one thing clear: the ABC plays a very important part in my life. As it does for very many Australians. There is almost no institution in Australia that is more generally trusted, valued and loved than the ABC, as survey after survey shows. There is probably no other that has so loyal and attentive and possessive a society of Friends.

It is uncontroversial that the period of the Howard government was the most difficult era in the history of the ABC. There were two main interrelated reasons for this, one ideological and the other financial. Let me deal first with the one I understand best.

As soon as the Howard government was elected, it decided to make the ABC one of the main fronts of the culture war it was determined to prosecute. The justification can be summarised like this. At some time in the past, so it was alleged, the ABC had been "captured" by its staff, who sought to use the broadcaster, in a Gramscian manner, as a launching pad for cultural revolution. As part of this cultural revolution, the ABC for a long time had supposedly pushed the agenda of the Left on issues like refugees, the republic, multiculturalism, reconciliation, radical feminism, extreme environmentalism, anti-Americanism, gay rights and so on. Because it was supposedly still influenced by Marxism, it was anti-capitalist, showing little interest in or understanding of real-world economics. The ABC had long been, it was claimed, dominated by so-called elites, who tried to force their so-called politically correct views down the throats of ‘ordinary people'. Because there was believed to be a disconnect between the ABC program-makers, who were said to be left-wing ideologues, and their viewers and listeners, who on balance were liberal or conservative, the short description of the ABC most favoured by John Howard in 1996 was the one supplied by his adviser Grahame Morris: "our enemy talking to our friends".

Although almost every element of this case was either exaggerated or entirely fanciful, at the time the Howard government came into office both it and its supporters believed something needed to be done.

Let me outline the most important elements of the strategy that gradually unfolded. The Howard years saw the rise and rise of an aggressive right-wing commentariat: Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Alan Jones, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Christopher Pearson, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan and so on. For the past 11 and three-quarter years they maintained a consistent rhetorical attack on the supposed left-wing bias of the ABC and on the apparent failure of its chairman or its board or even the government to recapture it. Of course, all this had its effect.

The attack-dogs in the media had the support of the neo-liberal think-tanks, like the IPA in Melbourne, which at critical moments during the past decade conducted pseudo-academic studies into bias during election campaigns or during political crises such as the 1998 waterfront dispute. Even though these studies generally did not show what they set out to show, they too had their effect.

The anti-ABC campaign had the support of Coalition senators, like Santo Santoro and Concetta Anna Fierravanti-Wells, who were fed material on supposed ABC bias by interested lobby groups and used it for a remorseless biannual assault on ABC executives during estimates hearings of the Senate. Such attacks by themselves would not have had as much impact if they had not been supported by Howard government ministers, most importantly Richard Alston. At first Alston demanded more elaborate complaints mechanisms be established. He then used these new mechanisms to pursue the ABC for many, many months, and in no less than three separate inquiries, over the supposed bias in AM's coverage of the early stages of the invasion of Iraq. According to the Howard government and its supporters' set of values, Linda Mottram's or John Shovelan's occasional sarcasms at America's expense were of greater moral significance than the fact that Australia was involved in an invasion of a country on the basis of false intelligence concerning non-existent weapons of mass destruction, which led to the death of tens and then hundreds of thousands of people, the flight of millions of others, the likelihood of full-scale civil war and the destruction of a nation.

For the Howard government all this, however, was not enough. To reform the ABC it first appointed to the board a key extra-parliamentary Liberal Party culture-war combatant, Michael Kroger. According to the historian of the ABC, Ken Inglis, Kroger was the first board member to try to intervene directly with a program: Chris Masters' Four Corners portrait of Alan Jones. When he could not get his way on this and many other issues, largely because of the resistance of the conservative chair, Donald McDonald, Kroger decided to quit. He was soon followed onto the board, though, by three of the most strident anti-ABC cultural warriors in the country: Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle. Even now there was still, for the government, a problem with the board: the staff-elected director. Ramona Koval was first accused of leaking board material to a journalist, David Marr. She was then criticised for her unwillingness to accept a protocol which required all board members to keep their proceedings confidential, something Koval thought inconsistent with her role as the elected representative of the ABC staff. Because of her refusal to accept the confidentiality protocol, one of the members of the board, the stockbroker and close friend of the prime minister Maurice Newman, resigned. When Koval's term was finished, the position of staff-elected board member was abolished. And when Donald McDonald's second term expired, Newman made a return, this time as chair. Finally the board could conduct its affairs in confidence. One decision now made was not to publish Chris Masters' biography of Alan Jones. Another was, or so it was reported, to require the ABC to televise a denialist documentary on climate change, The Great Global Warming Swindle.

The board appointed a new managing director, Mark Scott, who began his administration by making a critical admission at the Sydney salon of one of the most persistent of the ABC's right-wing critics, Gerard Henderson: even if the enemies of the ABC frequently exaggerated their case about left-wing bias, this did not mean that what they alleged was entirely without foundation. He was the first managing director to make a concession of this kind. Scott made it clear that, under his administration, mechanisms would be created to ensure that the problem of bias, both perceived and real, would be seriously addressed. He also made it clear that one of the television programs frequently accused of bias, Media Watch, would be reviewed, and that a new, conspicuously unbiased program, Difference of Opinion, would be launched, as a sign of the kind of improved cultural balance he sought to create.

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How much did the persistent campaign about left-wing bias affect the ABC?

It could be argued that at least the ABC is now scrupulously unbiased in regard to narrow aspects of party politics. During an election campaign the main parties of government and opposition get equal time to put their case, as they should. Leaders of the parties get equally searching grillings by key interviewers, like Kerry O'Brien, Tony Jones and Chris Uhlmann, as they should. The problem with this argument is that none of this is new. It has long been the case. One of the pseudo-academic studies mentioned earlier found that the ABC had been biased towards Labor in the first two weeks of the 1998 election campaign and then biased towards the Coalition in the third as guilty over-compensation. Another study showed that during the waterfront dispute, occasioned by the unlawful sacking of the entire MUA workforce, the sound-bite interviews conducted by the ABC had, on average, lasted one second longer with trade unionists than with representatives of the Patrick Corporation. (I swear I am not joking.) The only conclusion that could be drawn from all this was that the man who undertook these studies, Michael Warby, needed to take a long rest.

In one way the response to the accusations of left-wing bias actually improved the ABC. I think it is better, at least in theory, that right-wingers and conservatives have a more prominent voice on the ABC than once they did. Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute, who has moved from Keating fan to Howard lover without so much as a word of explanation, is still heard regularly on Radio National's Breakfast. He has proven about as enduring, about as interesting and about as difficult to remove as a rock barnacle at Circular Quay. On Insiders people like Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman appear alongside others on the Left, like David Marr. On Radio National Michael Duffy is now trying to play the long-sought-after role of a right-wing Phillip Adams. And on Difference of Opinion representatives of the neo-liberal think-tanks have regularly appeared. I said that this was a good development "in theory" for a particular reason. One of the problems of Australia (unlike the United States or Britain) is the absence of intelligent conservatives able and willing to contribute in the public sphere. It is impossible to think of people like Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman, philistines of the first order, as the cultural equivalents of David Marr, the sophisticated biographer of Patrick White, or of Michael Duffy as an equivalent to Phillip Adams in range, intelligence, curiosity or humour. Nonetheless, in the absence of classier alternatives it is better that such voices should now be heard on the ABC than that the Right not be heard at all, as was more usual in the past.

In my opinion the long campaign against left-wing bias at the ABC, however, did far more harm than good. We live in a country where 70% of the press is owned by the Murdoch corporation. As a result of the campaign against left-wing bias, the kind of criticism that the ABC should be able to mount against its influence, the kind of balance it should be able to maintain, is now considerably eroded. Let me give a narrow example and two broad ones. Under Stuart Littlemore, Richard Ackland, David Marr and Liz Jackson, the ABC's Media Watch was once able, among many other things, to put pressure on the Murdoch press. At the beginning of this year, Media Watch was less politically combative than it had been under the previous presenters. Yet as the campaign about the left-wing bias of the program gained momentum, the Murdoch masthead in Australia, the Australian, waged an unbalanced and obsessive campaign against it. For every three minutes of Media Watch criticism of the Australian, banner headlines and thousands of frequently irrational words flowed. The relentless campaign against the program drove both the presenter and the producer to resign, for reasons that are more than understandable. As she showed in her time in Yeltsin's Russia, Monica Attard is probably the finest and most feisty foreign correspondent the ABC has ever had. In her final Media Watch, Attard showed that she had not been cowed by the Australian, revealing the misdemeanours of both the business reporter Matthew Stevens, who copied word-for-word questions contained in an email of a PR firm hired by a health-care company facing hostile takeover, and of the "colourful" Caroline Overington, who promised one of the independent candidates in Wentworth great publicity if she delivered her preferences to Malcolm Turnbull. Despite the brave joint Roman suicide of Attard and her producer, Tim Palmer, the value of Media Watch has probably been irreparably destroyed.

More serious is the case of the ABC and Iraq. It was in part because of the Murdoch press's continuing support for the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq that the Howard government was able to escape the political fall-out that it deserved, of the kind that Bush in America and Blair in Britain faced. Senator Alston's attack on AM served as a salutary warning. The ABC has been muted in its criticism of government policy in Iraq ever since. It is now aware of the dangers of "going too far". On Iraq, ABC Television is now more likely to conduct an interview with Christopher Hitchens, who knows next to nothing about the Middle East, than it is with Robert Fisk, a journalist of strong views but also a profound understanding of the region. Reasonably often, over the past few years, both the architects of the invasion of Iraq, like Harlan Ullman, the author of the idea of "shock and awe", and its most extreme right-wing supporters, like William Kristol, Daniel Pipes, Robert Kagan, Mark Steyn or Frank Gaffney, have appeared on Lateline. Appearances by left-wing opponents of the war have been rarer. In the period before the recent election, if ABC Television had interviewed people of similar ideological extremity, like Noam Chomsky, John Pilger or Tariq Ali, in my view the Howard government, the ABC board, the Australian newspaper and the right-wing commentariat would have interpreted the interviews as evidence of gross left-wing bias. For the ABC, there would have been a considerable price to pay. As bullies understand, intimidation works.

Let me take another equally important example. Almost certainly as a result of pressure from the board, one of the most worthless and irresponsible British documentaries, The Great Global Warming Swindle, was shown during prime time on ABC Television, although the subsequent discussion was handled with such intelligence by Tony Jones that it probably had no effect. Yet in the same period the question of the Howard government's deplorable denialist record on global warming, until very recent times, was conspicuously avoided. This year two important books on this topic were published, Clive Hamilton's Scorcher and Guy Pearse's High and Dry. So far as I am aware, Hamilton has not been interviewed on ABC Television. Pearse has appeared on Difference of Opinion, but even then was described, rather nervously, as the author of a "controversial" rather than of an authoritative book. Nervousness in matters connected with the most ideologically sensitive issues of the day has represented the prevailing mood of the ABC. A typical example was the predictable unwillingness to publish Chris Masters' biography of Alan Jones.

This nervousness on questions of political and ideological sensitivity has mattered very greatly. On many domestic issues, like reconciliation and the mistreatment and military repulsion of refugees, the Howard government acted in a manner that would have shocked previous generations even of Liberal parliamentarians. And on the most important international issues of our era - global warming, the War on Terror, the struggle to reduce global poverty, the settlement of the Israel-Palestinian question - the Howard government followed with lamb-like loyalty all the policies of the Bush administration. As a consequence, if a spectrum covering the ideological positions of democratic governments on global issues had been designed, the Howard government would have found itself positioned alongside the Bush administration on the extreme Right. On both domestic and international questions, then, there has never been a time when intelligent criticism of an Australian government was more vital than over the past years, for the nation to have been able to see what it had become and even to see where Australia now stands in the community of nations. But there has also never been a time when the ABC was less likely to mount sustained criticism of such a kind. The reason seems to me to be simple. The long campaign about left-wing bias and staff capture, mounted by the government and its ideological supporters, gradually reduced the political self-confidence and thus the political independence of the ABC.

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It is uncontroversial that the second reason the Howard years were difficult for the ABC was financial. In the decade before the election of the Howard government the ABC's revenue sharply declined in real terms. In 1997 it lost a further 10% when the maintenance of the ABC's funding turned out to have been one of John Howard's non-core promises. The ABC then reached a lower plateau of funding than at any time in the recent past. It has never really recovered.

In my view the main impact has not been in the area of documentaries and news and current affairs, except for the ludicrous foreshortening of television programs' seasons, where Christmas comes earlier and ends later every year. Nor has it been so noticeable in the area of comedy where, despite the political and fiscal stringencies, the ABC still manages to be the national nursery for comic inspiration. Kath & Kim created an enduring image of the new suburban consumer culture no less memorable than the one Barry Humphries had long ago created of suburban life in the more modest '50s and '60s, with Edna Everage and Sandy Stone. Kath & Kim allowed suburban Australians to see themselves reflected in a Luna Park distorting mirror, and to laugh at what they saw without discomfiture, as if they were peering simultaneously at a self-portrait and at a portrait of a foreign tribe. Nor was this program an isolated achievement. The anarchic Chaser boys have revived and extended, to general amusement, the great national tradition of what is technically known in this country as taking the piss, while Chris Lilley, in We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, has provided an astonishingly penetrating and perceptive portrait of the local variant on that more general contemporary Western condition, the culture of narcissism.

The main impact of ABC financial decline and retreat is, rather, in the area of film and drama. A recent survey on Crikey revealed what I had long suspected, namely that drama on ABC Television has now not only reached an all-time low as a percentage of overall spending, but also that, in the year 2006-07, of the 20 most popular ABC television dramas only two had been domestically produced. I have also read that Australian-produced drama has declined from 100 hours in its heyday to a present, paltry 20 hours. When Matthew Parris of the Spectator was recently in Australia, he was only half-joking when he observed that he saw more British television in Sydney than he did in London. Despite my sincere appreciation of British television, all this seems to me significant and disappointing. The ABC was once the most important supporter of this kind of Australian creativity.

Often, in such different programs as The Road from Coorain, Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool, The Shark Net, Changi and now Rain Shadow, ABC dramas have provided reflections of Australia's past and present, allowing us to see in individual stories the processes and experiences through which the national sensibility has been shaped. Sometimes, as in The Fast Lane or Grass Roots, they have provided memorable and unflattering images of what contemporary urban life and character is like. Sometimes, as in True Believers or Bastard Boys, they have provided the opportunity to argue about our political history, and reminded us, pace John Howard, that history can never be told as an uncontested, uncontestable, single-perspective narrative. Sometimes what has been produced has genuinely broken new ground. I think, for example, of John Clarke, Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley's series, The Games, where the curious quality of life, both local and cosmopolitan, in the media-drenched postmodern world was illuminated with genius. And sometimes, as in the idyllic SeaChange - an enchanting fantasy about the restoration of community in a fragmented world - a deceptively simple and gentle drama has allowed the nation to think about the way we live now, about what we ought to value, about the kind of world that we have lost.

In my view, the role the ABC has played as sponsor of these kinds of distinctively Australian drama is no less important than the role it has played as a site of intelligent political criticism. If the political independence of the ABC has allowed us to see more clearly what our nation might be and what it has become, imaginative ABC commissioning of original film and drama has provided a variety of national images, allowing us to see, from many angles, the collective experiences that have contributed to making us who we now are. None of the series or dramas I have discussed would have been commissioned by commercial television. The ABC as a patron of film and drama is far more important to the project of national self-consciousness and self-criticism than it is customarily understood. Its steep and steady decline in this area is of far greater national significance than either side of politics is willing to admit.

With the election of the Rudd government there is some reason to feel optimistic about the future of the ABC. The culture war will come abruptly to an end. Without a friendly government receptive to its bilious views, the right-wing commentariat will lose most of its cultural clout. The absurdity of having people like Brunton, Albrechtsen and Windschuttle on the ABC board will also be instantly transparent. In time, they will be replaced. If they had any honour, they would resign. As their presence has completely de-legitimised the system of government control over appointments to the board, a collective sigh of relief will be heard from all but the most blinkered cultural warrior when, as Kevin Rudd has promised, a new more BBC-like system of non-partisan appointment is introduced.

In my mind, the far less certain matter is that of future funding. I was interested to read in Margaret Simons' new book, The Content Makers, that hopes for a serious increase in funding for the ABC ought not to be entertained. I wondered why this was so. In an election campaign in which both sides of politics promised tax cuts over five years of more than $30 billion and made other promises of an almost equivalent amount, it seemed to me astonishing that the case for, say, a 10% increase in ABC funding could be dismissed as unrealistic even by someone as friendly to the ABC as Simons. There are many different kinds of public goods which necessarily compete with each other. The impoverishment of the ABC is not a natural state of affairs. With an additional $100 million a year targeted at the more creative aspects of the ABC's mission, that dimension of the nation which one might call its spirit or its soul would be enormously enriched. Why is this hope foolish?

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble. Visit his blog.