Busting Some Myths About the ABC
The conventional wisdom is that the ABC leans to the left. It's a wisdom so conventional that not even facts and evidence can destroy it.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a cultural institution. Love it or hate it, it's one of the few vestiges of Australian culture we have in a media landscape dominated by foreign imports and overseas ownership.
The catch is that it's funded by the government, and that means it's forever caught in an ideological battle between those who feel the government should not be in the business of funding news and entertainment, and those who rely on the ABC for its fiercely independent and sober reporting.
Now that the Abbott Government has announced it is cutting $245 million from the ABC's budget, these age-old arguments are coming to the fore. But do the arguments put forward by the ABC's most vocal critics actually hold water? Let's have a look.
"The ABC represents only inner-city leftist views." – Senator James McGrath, Murdoch press, everybody to the right of Malcolm Fraser
The conventional wisdom is that the ABC leans to the left, and it's a wisdom so conventional that not even facts and evidence can destroy it.
Starting this year, there are to be four independent audits of ABC news and current affairs annually, that will focus on election coverage. So far they reveal a startling trend: yeah, there's no bias.
Over the last few years, the ABC has proved to be incredibly balanced in its coverage of state and national issues. This balance is a welcome change from their previous bias, uncovered in a 2009 study that revealed the ABC was leaning to the right. Nobody mentions that one much.
The "ABC is lefty!" critics seem to conveniently ignore that Managing Director Mark Scott is Liberal staffer, that board members have currently or previously included conservative writer Janet Albrechtsen, Liberal party powerbroker Michael Kroger, the right-wing anthropologist Ron Brunton, conservative businessman Maurice Newman, director of libertarian think tank Centre for Independent Studies Steven Skala, and right-wing Stolen Generation-denier Keith Windschuttle.
Or you can refer to Crikey's list of how many ABC employees went on to work for Labor vs how many went to work for the Coalition. Spoiler alert: it's about the same.
The ABC does not have a problem with being balanced, but it has a problem with appearing balanced, and so makes the mistake in thinking that any highly-visible manner in which they address these concerns will make its critics shut up. This is because they're playing a completely different game to everyone else. The ABC sees itself as part of the media landscape, that from a news-gathering sense, it is an organisation that can co-exist alongside News Ltd and Fairfax.
News Ltd, on the other hand, sees the ABC as the opposition, the enemy, an opponent to be destroyed, and is never going to pat the ABC on the back and say "Well done on addressing our concerns, we'll leave you alone now." It's a win-win for Murdoch: the more his newspaper claim ABC bias, the more the ABC tries to address it, and the cycle goes on forever.
"The creation of ABC Digital Network is a reckless development." – The Australian
And this is where all of the ABC's critics, the ones who would like to see the broadcaster turned into a smouldering pile of ashes, deign to offer their opinion on how the ABC should be spending its money. Presumably they are doing so in the ABC's best interests.
It is tempting to consider that if the ABC was ignoring the internet, the same critics would be lambasting it for being a behind the times, but let us ignore that particular strawman for now.
Sometimes the future is online. Sometimes it's not.
The future is online when Malcolm Turnbull is destroying the future of community television (despite the government not actually ever funding any of it), claiming that all of these shows should be on the internet anyway.
And while we're talking about critics of the ABC telling it where to spend its money, you couldn't do much better than Christopher Pyne — a senior minister in the government that's cutting ABC funding — starting an online petition to keep the part of the ABC he likes open, only getting 3149 signatures (at time of writing), and many of those are using their comments to abuse Pyne himself for being part of the problem. You can't make this stuff up. Believe me, I've tried.
"Why should I pay for something I don't like?" – everybody
I agree. We shouldn't have to pay for something we don't like. So can I have my money back for the missions in the Middle East, or the four-to-five billion per year we spent imprisoning asylum seekers, or the $880 million the Australian Tax Office gave Rupert Murdoch, or the billions upon billions in subsidies we give to the mining industry, or the quarter of a billion dollars the Abbott Government has set aside for the school chaplaincy program?
No, I can't. Because, sadly, that's not how tax works. We all pay for things we don't want. That's how a representative democracy functions. If we chose which things we wanted to pay for, not only would we spend everything in the budget paying for weekly nationwide referenda, the actual results would be disastrous. Do you think the millions of people living in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane would want their taxes going to improve roads in the outback? How much infrastructure would remote Aboriginal communities get? Maybe this sounds good to you, but then maybe you're living in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.
The point is that we don't vote on an item-by-item basis, we elect politicians based on what they say they're going to do. Which leads us to...
"We never promised special treatment for the ABC or the SBS." – Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Yeah, this one can't be repeated enough. The night before the election, Tony Abbott said: "No cuts to the ABC or SBS."
This is an extraordinary statement, partly because Abbott could have just as easily not said it as he was going to walk away with a clear win no matter what, but mostly because there is no wiggle room. None.
Abbott has been responding to critics this week with faux-incredulous outrage at the mere idea that the public broadcaster should be exempt from cuts when nearly every other department is experiencing them.
Again, even a little bit of wiggle room would have spared him this grief. Trying to manufacture it after the fact is doing more harm to his credibility than he perhaps realises.
For the record, here's what wiggle room actually looks like: "There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but let me be clear: I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emissions trading scheme."
We don't usually hear the second part of that statement, which largely (but not completely) undoes the criticisms leveled at Julia Gillard, particularly by Tony Abbott who accused her repeatedly of lying when he was in opposition. Regardless of your own opinions on the carbon tax or ABC funding, the definition of "lie" remains constant.
"Nobody has lost their job." – Senator Eric Abetz
Special note to the four hundred people who just lost their jobs: Abetz is right. These aren't the droids you're looking for.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah