Monday, June 18, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

ABC sale = politics fail
The Coalition will be fighting this all the way to the election


The consensus is that the Liberal Party handed the ALP a political gift when its council passed a motion on Saturday for the full privatisation of the ABC. Despite the bluster of federal communications minister Mitch Fifield – who tweeted on the weekend “More Labor lies. We won’t privatise the ABC” – it is perfectly fair for the Opposition to campaign on the basis that the Liberal Party wants to privatise the ABC. They do, and there is endless wriggle room in statements that the government has “no plans” to sell off the ABC (plans can change very quickly) or a sale is “not our position” (at the moment). Finance minister Mathias Cormann was admittedly more definitive than that on the ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, telling Hamish Macdonald that the sell-off would not be policy before or after the election – but cabinet will get the final say, so Cormann cannot deliver on his commitment.

The PM on Saturday promised that a social media army would tackle Labor lies, which is another signal that the forthcoming election will be a test of our electoral system in the face of the same data-mining and micro-targetting techniques deployed to powerful effect in the Brexit and US presidential elections of 2016, by the likes of Cambridge Analytica. This afternoon, Attorney-General Christian Porter announced passage of new laws to prevent any repeat of the Mediscare campaign – in which Labor sent texts purporting to be from Medicare itself – by making such deceptive activity a criminal offence. (What about false claims of $100 lamb roasts or the wipe-out of Whyalla under a carbon tax, will they be criminalised too?) For the record, there were plenty of doctors worried in 2016 that the Coalition’s plans to privatise the Medicare payments system represented the thin end of the privatisation wedge. 

The AFR’s Phillip Coorey argued [$] this morning that there was some basis for Labor’s campaign on Medicare in 2016, and the campaign Labor will run on the ABC has far more substance. “Good luck with trying to stuff that one back into the bottle,” he wrote, and concluded with an off-the-record admission from a federal minister, who complained that the Liberal Party council on Saturday had thrown up a completely unnecessary distraction to the economy, jobs, infrastructure and national security, and asked: “Are they f---ing nuts?”

If re-elected, the Coalition will be under pressure from an emboldened “base” to move to privatise the ABC – if not via a sale, perhaps by tender, as Bernard Keane writes today in Crikey [$], as a step towards destroying the organisation. Alternatively, a privatisation foregone could be cover for the kind of drastic cuts suggested this morning by Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who wants the ABC brought back to a “safe size – to, say, one TV station and two radio stations”. 

Without evidence, Bolt simply asserts that the ABC is “unlawfully biased, captured completely by the Left”. The Murdoch media, for commercial as much as ideological reasons, is dead wrong about bias at the ABC. To keep saying it – they’ve been saying it for 20 years – doesn’t make it true. The Coalition is wrong in the eye of the endless inquiries that have been held into ABC bias, and wrong in the eyes of the public who rate it the most reliable and trustworthy [$] media outlet. If there is the odd dud story, so what. The same is true at every busy media outlet around the country. The reality is that there is an equally strong, but much less visible, critique of the ABC from the left. Check out social media attacks on the number of IPA bods given slots on panel programs like The Drum or Q&A. Talk to some senior ABC reporters about the difficulty of getting hard-hitting climate yarns up nowadays, and, on the flipside, the embrace of non-contentious lifestyle programming. Talk to the Greens about their ability to get airtime on the national broadcaster – except when they’re ripping themselves apart. As always, if your coverage is getting attacked from both left and right and every other direction, you’re probably getting the balance right.

The ABC has been beaten up for so long by the Coalition and the shock jocks and the Holt Street types that it is in danger of becoming cowed. The appointment of the PM’s personal friend, Justin Milne, to the chairmanship, or of ex-Murdoch executive Michelle Guthrie, has not helped the perception, but the truth is the rot set in beforehand.

Former MD Mark Scott, previously an adviser to Liberal NSW education minister Terry Metherell, was regarded by many ABC insiders as the best MD they had worked under. But Scott was too slow to react to bullying by the Abbott government and by Malcolm Turnbull in particular, as communications minister, on topics from the NBN to the hapless Zacky Mallah, when Turnbull was himself virtue-signalling to the party base as he built support for a leadership challenge. Belatedly, Scott began to highlight the difference between a public broadcaster and a state broadcaster.

The ABC needs not only to fight back against budget cuts or a threatened sale, it needs to change tack and strenuously underline its independence and determination to report without fear or favour. Playing nice – like handing back the cabinet files, or self-censoring on topics like same-sex marriage or the death last week of another asylum seeker on Nauru – only guarantees more bullying. As Turnbull himself used to say, never give in to a bully. The ABC is in a position of strength. As Jon Faine argued so passionately on Friday, it needs to fight back. Fingers crossed that at the Melbourne Press Club tomorrow, Michelle Guthrie will begin to do just that.

since this morning

Former deputy prime minister Wayne Swan has claimed [$] victory in the battle for presidency of the Australian Labor Party, defeating incumbent Labor frontbencher Mark Butler.

A Kenyan media interview with Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi, in which Gichuhi complained about her $200,000 salary and the lack of “house girls” in Australia, has emerged [$] as she is forced to repay misused public funds for travel.

Clive Palmer’s new political party, the United Australia Party, will run [$] a candidate in every lower house seat at the next election, and the businessman has announced that One Nation defector Brian Burston is his party’s first MP.

in case you missed it

The Australian reports [$] that Opposition leader Bill Shorten is facing a $10 billion black hole in his key savings plans to axe franking credit refunds for retirees, with a Treasury study confirming that Labor had failed to calculate the expected changes in investment strategies among people hit by the tax changes.

The Coalition has lost [$] its 34th consecutive Newspoll, with Labor retaining its 52–48 per cent lead in the two-party-preferred stakes, although Malcolm Turnbull has improved on the preferred prime minister measure.

The AFR reports [$] that Chinese telco Huawei is hitting back aggressively over spy agencies’ efforts to veto it on national security grounds from involvement in the construction of the 5G wireless network. It is reported that Huawei is lobbying federal parliamentarians directly, arguing that its exclusion would drive up costs for consumers, lead to an inferior service and threaten the company’s future in Australia.

Fairfax Media’s Michael Bachelard investigates China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


The Monthly Today

PM’s humble pie

The government’s economic reform agenda is threadbare

Labor frays on tax

The Opposition risks becoming a rabble

Medivac “floodgates”? Hardly

Peter Dutton’s fearmongering is despicable

Victoria forges ahead

Voluntary assisted dying laws won’t please the religious right

From the front page

PM’s humble pie

The government’s economic reform agenda is threadbare

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The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

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Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

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Falling for ‘Fleabag’

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