March 2014

The Nation Reviewed

The conservative crusade against the ABC

By Don Watson
Andrew Bolt and Tony Abbott. © Jason Edwards / Newspix
Why do Andrew Bolt and company love to hate the national broadcaster?

It’s such an ABC discussion to end with a discussion about “Lou Reed”. This, you know, heroin addict and transgressional. So ABC … What about Dvořák? … Or Tchaikovsky? … Well?

—Christopher Pyne, Q&A, ABC1, 28 October 2013

For millions of Australians, the ABC is all at once a homely source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment, a reliable source of news and information, and an ungainly emblem of the country’s character. In some measure, it satisfies both their national pride and what remains of their Anglophilia. For millions more, insofar as they are conscious of its existence, the public broadcaster is an irrelevant item of megafauna. On these broad lines the country divides: what is a sort of indispensable national house cow for one large portion of the population, another portion of comparable size scarcely knows and doesn’t give two hoots for. Like the two ventricles of the heart, they pump away in peaceful co-existence.

Then there is a third cohort, possibly numbering in the thousands, who believe the ABC is run by “Leftists” and crusades on “Leftist” causes such as “boat people, same-sex marriage and global warming”. One of the chief spokesmen for this extra ventricle, Andrew Bolt, recently asked readers of his blog to “imagine if every single one of the main ABC current affairs shows” were hosted not by the “Leftists” who presently host them but by him and “fellow conservatives Janet Albrechtsen, Gerard Henderson, Tim Blair, Miranda Devine, Piers Akerman, Tom Switzer and Rowan Dean”.

So close your eyes and imagine ABC current affairs programs, including Radio National’s venerable Science Show (Robyn Williams is numbered among the bad), being hosted not by the present “caste” of competent broadcasters but by these “conservatives”. What do you see? Fox News? What are they saying? Anything? If in this imaginary world no one at the ABC “crusaded on boat people, same-sex marriage and global warming”, as our outraged correspondent insists the present lot do, it seems possible that their replacements might have nothing left to talk about.

They would crusade on “free speech, climate scepticism and free markets”, he says. How strange, then, that they have crusaded against the ABC for letting the public know what Australian governments were up to with our neighbours, and for presenting information on boat arrivals that the government has been denying us. If free speech is their thing, how come they are for Scott Morrison and against Edward Snowden?

Oh, where are the conservatives of yesteryear, with Orwell and Oakeshott at their side, and the “open society” forever their objective? Now, it is a commonplace that open societies depend upon the individual’s right to scrutinise government policy. Why, then, are these self-styled conservatives so down on the free flow of information and so happy to defend government secrecy? Tell us again how the ABC is less than patriotic for reporting the stories of refugees in the face of the Navy’s determination to say nothing at all about what they have chosen to call, with Orwellian panache, “on water” matters. In the interests of free speech, will we swear to take the military at its word and question the patriotism of any civilian – or public broadcaster – who dares to quote a different view? Especially civilians who are “not even Australian”, as the minister for defence so sagely put it.

Yet I doubt that even disgruntled ABC viewers and listeners would charge the ABC with insufficient dedication to free expression. Or free markets. I don’t recall any of the named hosts – even the one who once worked for that stalwart of the socialisation objective, RJL Hawke – doing much crusading against free markets. Nor do I remember their extensive advocacy for same-sex marriage, but how refreshing to imagine an ABC crusading against it. As refreshing as imagining a show about science being hosted by an anti–climate science crusader.

You have to feel for the government in this. Much as they might wish to imitate their friends and supporters in what they like to call the “free” – as opposed to “government-owned” or “taxpayer-funded” – media, they can’t paint the government broadcaster as a chilling Orwellian nightmare without seeming to betray a liking for the genre. Pity, that: it would make a good speech. Like the one James Murdoch made in Edinburgh in 2009. He described the BBC in just those terms, and who cared if Orwell was spinning in his socialist grave at the gall of it? That’s the thing about the “free” press: “their money; their free speech”, as our blogger says. Free, that is, to traduce the living and the dead, posture madly, peddle influence, be parasites, ignoramuses and (vide Murdoch and son) epic hypocrites. There is no dog to bark at them – well, a couple of very small and all but toothless mutts, perhaps.

And there’s the rub. Most of those millions who value the ABC might in other circumstances be satisfied with the children’s shows, sport, music, arts, religion, farming, nature, nurture, history, philosophy, language, science, sociology, drama, emergency services and Stephen Fry. They might make do with an evening news service, if they thought they could trust commercial media for the rest of their current affairs. But they don’t trust them. It’s possible they find the very thought demeaning. They don’t like their news and opinion mixed in with advertising and coloured by the need to chase revenue through unrelenting noise and vehemence. They don’t like the tone of commercial media. It’s a matter of taste – or snobbery, if you prefer.

For the same reason, a lot of viewers and listeners would not complain if the public broadcaster stepped back from the popular melee. Some no doubt perceive bias or a lack of balance, but very likely just as many are peeved because they think it ill becomes their ABC to imitate the public riot. And this might be why the likes of such a right-wing caste are not likely to ever take over the organisation. A true conservative “eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of [their] world”. By this definition (Michael Oakeshott’s), the ABC is in essence a conservative institution: old, familiar, pervasive and habit-forming, bearing the nation’s heritage and beliefs, speaking for the pluralist complexity of the country. It does none of this perfectly, but it is pretty well alone in doing it at all. By the same definition, the so-called “conservatives” who berate the ABC are not conservatives but heretics, radicals and vulgarians, and no amount of Dvořák – or Lou Reed – will cure them.

What is curious is where the obsession stems from. Even if the “massive power” alleged of the public broadcaster were real, it is hard to think of an election result that the ABC decided, or of political leaders cosying up to the ABC in the way they perennially do to Rupert Murdoch and used to do to Kerry Packer. Who does the British prime minister, David Cameron, most want to be his friend? Rupert Murdoch or Chris Patten, the former Conservative Party chairman and the present chief of what the Murdochs reckon is a rampant and menacingly “authoritarian” BBC? Who does Tony Abbott think more important? Murdoch or Mark Scott, a former adviser to a Liberal government and the present managing director of the equally menacing ABC? Is it that these national broadcasters have no power worth pursuing, or that in the main they use it responsibly and cannot be bought? Or that they are institutions woven so thoroughly into the fabric of national life that no amount of normal political harassment and interference can much change them? Whatever the case, true conservatives must at least half-heartedly rejoice.

Not these anti-“Leftists”, however. No doubt, as James Murdoch made clear, the “free” media resents any inroads public broadcasters are making on their commercial territory, but that’s at best a partial explanation for the journalistic Tea Partying. More likely it’s some species of projection. Never has the ideological difference between the major parties been narrower. So general is the liberal-pluralist consensus, the parties must search for something to believe in. Increasingly they find it in the dark corners of talkback radio (or the lighter ones of Q&A): not in reality, but in beat-ups and the excrescences of populism. There is a little bit of Putin in all sorts of politicians now.

Conservatives have their open society. They have a market economy, freedom of speech and pervasive liberal values. For some, so many victories were bound to prove unbearable, the more so, perhaps, because a lot of them occurred without their participation. They have inherited the spoils but, with one or two exceptions, have no claim on either the struggle or the moral and intellectual tradition. For all the unlikely power granted them by modern media, it is their fate to feel marginalised, denied, unfulfilled: when all’s said and done, like fringe-dwellers excluded from something essential at the centre of Australian life – namely, as the blogger reveals, the ABC.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

March 2014

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