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ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Do we need the ABC?

By Patricia Edgar

Posted Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Do we need the ABC? The Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Ministers - Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop, David Johnstone, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and former Minister Peter Reith have described the national broadcaster as biased, unpatriotic, endowed with more money than it knows what to do with. Their critiques are championed by the Murdoch media which has long asserted the ABC competes unfairly. Gay Alcorn (Age Feb 14) has added weight to the argument that public subsidy gives the ABC an unfair advantage over commercial media.

There is a long established belief, that in a democratic society a well informed electorate is vital and television, not the press, has become our culture's principal window on the world. As far back as 1960, John Kennedy commented when he saw a replay of his debates with Richard Nixon, 'We wouldn't have had a prayer without that thing.' (television). Tony Abbott understands that thinking.

It is easy to underestimate our PM. The iron-man image and halting speaking style mask a highly intelligent man, Jesuit trained with an inclination to Jesuitical argument ? find the words to justify anything - a former journalist with an understanding of how the media work; an experienced and ambitious politician who has thought deeply about how to get into power and how to stay there. Managing the media is an essential part of the process and Abbott knows the main threat to his long term agenda is the ABC. The claim of 'torture' by the Navy provided a plausible trigger so he made his move.

Alain De Botton in his most recent book The News writes 'news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths'. Most of us are lucky to spend 12 years in the classroom and our ongoing education is then drawn from the airwaves and our screens. De Botton believes that news broadcasting is the prime creator of political and social reality.

Abbott's approach to this reality in opposition was to campaign with negative slogans providing little information; the technique worked, he was elected. Since becoming PM he has followed the same plan; tell the media and the public as little as possible by censoring 'operational' facts. Condemn those who ask questions as unpatriotic. This has led to the current confrontation with the ABC.

Abbott's attack on the ABC comes at an interesting time in global broadcasting politics.He is not alone in his views. On January 27 this year The Guardian reported Katsuto Momii , the Chairman of NHK, Japan's influential, publicly funded, national broadcaster, had cast doubt on NHK's commitment to editorial independence when he said it was 'only natural' for the broadcaster to side with the government's position on contentious issues in its international output'.

There were immediate calls for Momii's resignation which he countered by insisting he was speaking in a private capacity. But journalists pointed out the comments were made during a press conference in his role as chairman of NHK. Political interference with a public broadcaster is a sensitive issue globally.

The BBC, the bulwark of public broadcasting, is also under scrutiny from politicians in the UK. John Tate former BBC director of policy and strategy, recently gave a Ted Talk entitled'The BBC's independence rests on being influenced by the public, not politicians'. He stated:

Worryingly, the BBC has been shifting further on to the government's books of late ? It is no coincidence that this has coincided with the raiding of its licence fee for state projects. One could even be forgiven for thinking that parliament had become its governing body ? with no fewer than 18 BBC appearances before parliamentary committees in the year to last November.

Is this what we are now to expect for the ABC in Australia?

A favourite adage of critics since broadcasting began is to insist both commercial and public radio and television broadcasters should be 'balanced'. But balance/ fairness / equal time are tricky concepts that have become tools to whip into line those putting an unpopular argument. It is assumed that balance will correct for bias by a broadcasting institution or journalist doing a story, but it won't when there is no sensible and coherent case against or no informed spokesperson to put a counter argument.Do you give a creationist equal time in a discussion on evolution? Do you allow a holocaust denier, a pedophile priest, a jihadist, a racist, equal time to put their case? Should climate skeptics have equal time to counter the case put by the large majority of the world's climate scientists? Now four million Australians are said to be mentally ill, do you give equal time to those arguing this is a problem created by over enthusiastic doctors? And do you give an asylum seeker who claims to have seen navy personnel deliberately burn the hands of fellow - passengers equal time with the Navy? Our political leaders say it was an unpatriotic and biased act to air this report.

Yet once governments interfere and jingoism rears its head we are on a slippery slope.

The first Managing Director of the BBC Lord John Reith appointed in 1926, succeeded in arguing the BBC should be run at arm's length from the government of the day; the public interest was to be the first priority. Our ABC which came into being 6 years later, modeled on the BBC, adopted the same philosophy and arguments about bias with the Governments of the day, who determine budgets, have persisted.

In the USA the discussion about balance was equally fraught. Radio broadcasting journalism had come of age during World War 2. Edward Murrow a CBS reporter emerged as the icon shaping news reporting and his program See it Nowrepresented television's arrival as a news medium. The program took on prominent targets including Senator Joe McCarthy and his highly publicised hearings, alleging communist sympathizers had infiltrated US public institutions.

CBS's policy was that journalists should be impartial but Murrow took the view that some issues were not equally balanced and he decided to editorialise at the end of his program, something that had not been done before.

See it Now was an effective program earning kudos and awards. It helped expose McCarthy and his tactics but as US television grew more profitable the industry began to shun controversy in news and current events. Murrow lost both his sponsor ALCOA and his slot in prime time.

In October 1958 Murrow made an angry speech in Chicago to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. 'I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation.'

Eventually the US Public Broadcasting model would emerge but it has been the poor partner in the broadcasting mix. The 'fairness doctrine' introduced in 1949 by the US Federal Communication Commission which involved granting equal time was repealed by President Reagan in 1987, opening the door to the national right wing radio talk shows - an entertainment genre that purported to challenge and inform but seems to hold a devastatingly low opinion of the public mentality.

Public broadcasting remains an essential asset in a democratic society and surveys have shown repeatedly that the public trust the ABC. A news service in the public interest should be based on seeking and telling the truth. This is a very different objective from balance and one fundamental to democratic principles. Truth will emerge only when trained professional journalists are permitted to do their job without intimidation. The ABC must be adequately resourced to do this work.

If not, as Ed Murrow said, it is time to be afraid.

Patricia Edgar was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, Chair of the ABCB's Advisory Committee on Program Standards and Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's Children's Program Committee.

Patricia Edgar is an author, television producer and educator. She was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation.

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