What kind of philistine could write the following of our treasured national broadcaster? “Apart from exceptions such as Four Corners and Australian Story, ABC TV is disappointing, and in some cases such as its unfunny profanity-laden comedies an affront to the taxpayer.” Mary Whitehouse reincarnated down under, Dame Edna specs and all? A spokesman for the Thomas Bowdler Society? Some sad sack, more to be pitied than censured, unable to appreciate the sparkling wit of Tom Ballard?
No, given that the ABC is, unfairly according to itself, depicted as a nest of leftists by disgruntled conservatives, who tiresomely argue that the political balance it’s supposed to adhere to demands that at least one individual ideologically a little bit more in their direction than Antonio Gramsci should be given some sort of important job in the corporation’s on-air hierarchy, that iconoclastic assessment must surely come from someone on the Right. Yet it doesn’t, the clue being that a right-winger would hardly single out the tired leftist exposés and tedious victim whinges of Four Corners and Australian Story as “exceptions” to ABC hopelessness. The criticism comes instead from an impeccably pro-ABC source, Tony Walker, Fairfax columnist, former ABC employee and, if that were not enough, vice-chancellor’s fellow at Victoria’s exciting La Trobe University, which also employs sometime “man-boy love” advocate Professor Gary Dowsett and generated the mendacious Safe Schools brainwash.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Tony deserves a big thankyou from those who think the ABC should be abolished or dismantled because, finally, someone not known as a conservative has conceded its defects. Plenty of people have pointed out (in vain) the ABC’s bias, but bias is a by-product of general incompetence and lack of seriousness. A truly professional, expert broadcasting organisation would not allow itself to be tainted by bias. It would be above that, run by people too worldly and clever to let themselves be made an easy target for criticism on ideological grounds. No, the real justification for getting rid of the ABC is not its bias, or not only its bias, but that it is no good at what the taxpayer pays it to do. The ABC’s problem is not so much its chronic leftism as its incompetence.
ABC “comedy”, as Tony cannot but admit, is leaden, its panel shows are grotesque, with self-important bores clutching their sides at their own bons mots and gales of moronic studio laughter. Its “discussion programs” can resemble conventicles of lynch mobs baying for the blood of any conservative incautious enough to take part in them. All these productions are if anything more irritating than a year or so ago, before the ABC began to compete with commercial networks for a “younger” audience to see who could more successfully perform the seemingly impossible and drag down the level of television “entertainment” to even lower depths of mindless Hogarthian squalor.
(In doing this, it might be noted, the ABC has heartlessly dumped its erstwhile core audience, many of them Friends of the ABC—which they no doubt thought of as a friend of theirs—who had stuck with it since the era of Allan Ashbolt and Bill Peach and even as far back as Corinne Kerby. What ingratitude, when you think of all the free publicity those loyal souls have given the ABC over the years via the slogans on the back windscreens of their ancient Volvos—you know the sort of thing: “Independent media? It’s as easy as ABC”. Clearly someone at the top—perhaps even no-nonsense Michelle herself—decided that the type of audience represented by the Friends, with their pointy beards and glasses on chains, did not exactly represent the future.)
Television watchers wishing to enjoy some mild amusement from an ABC program should forget “comedy” and turn instead to one of the corporation’s dramatic excursions into the past. There they will find hilariously overdone sets crammed with so many alleged “period” artefacts that they look less like a background to daily life than—depending on the alleged era of the production—a snooty antiques dealer’s or a down-market “collectables” emporium (always a bit unsavoury with their attendant old-clothes smells).
In one current narco-series, set in the 1950s, the screen is an Aladdin’s cave of Bakelite, Laminex and stainless steel, supposedly in a kitchen of that era but with too much junk—funny old phones and things—to be convincing. The op shops within easy reach of the ABC’s studios must be empty-shelved. (To show beyond doubt that it’s the 1950s there are men in hats wherever you look, ceaselessly smoking.) The effect is of farce rather than serious historical reconstruction.
The scripts don’t help. You can see punchlines coming a mile off, while in “serious” drama you are haunted, through everything spoken or done, by the ghostly echo of something you’ve seen better done somewhere else, from the BBC perhaps or at the cinema, and that the ABC, not being noted for the originality of its writing or its ideas, as anyone who watches a lot of overseas small- or large-screen output will attest, has sought to emulate.
Nor is it only “comedy” that’s “profanity-laden”, as Tony puts it, and it’s not only secular profanities either. Religion—or one religion—is a rich source of demotic expression. “Oh my God,” screams just about everyone in live shows to express the slenderest surprise or emotional sensation (this of course isn’t only on the ABC, but it’s what the ABC has come down to). In drama, the Second Person of the Trinity is the preferred epithet, and as a general principle, the “grittier” the drama (this is truer of the ABC than the commercials), the more frequent the invocation of the name of the Christian Saviour. Were the name of the Muslim Prophet to be similarly profaned—but that’s a tired truism now, everyone knows that producers of “edgy” television, film, visual art—anything—don’t dare even consider that, they’re far too scared.
Tony thinks ABC Radio is “world class”. That’s highly debatable too, but it’s not radio that’s so objectionable—though Radio National can be like a loudspeaker at a May Day rally—but television. Television’s bias shows through in every nuance of every program, though it can be slippery and hard to nail down in words. More clearly demonstrable is the ineptitude, and nowhere is this more evident than in news and current affairs.
The worst offender is the 7 p.m. news. Its scripts are slovenly and imprecise. Its journalists haven’t mastered the art of writing spoken English. They don’t know the difference between writing to be heard and writing to be read on the page. They don’t realise that the former has to be unambiguously clear because the audience has only one opportunity to hear the words: you can’t go back to check what was said if you miss something. Clarity in spoken writing means repetition of proper nouns in a way that could be stylistically clumsy when you’re writing to be read on the page, where, if necessary, repetition can be avoided with “elegant variation”. That can’t be done with spoken writing because the audience might not recognise the variations as synonymous with the noun thus varied. Yet the ABC does it all the time, with scripts like this (elegant variation in italics, ABC bias assumed):
Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton’s electoral campaign is leading the embattled US president closer to impeachment. FBI investigators suspect the controversial real estate tycoon turned populist politician of a deal with the Kremlin to frustrate the first female presidential candidate in her bid for the White House …
I exaggerate, but to test my assertion, keep it in mind next time you watch the ABC 7 p.m. news.
ABC “reporting” is geriatric. Although constantly crying poor, the ABC squanders money sending reporters or maintaining correspondents, 1930s style, to “cover” overseas stories that broke online several days earlier. Presumably these emissaries are meant to supply “colour” and “depth” but as they stand there against some supposed war scene, and flap their hands in extravagant gesticulation (they must for some reason of “presentation policy” be taught to do this because as manual behaviour it’s quite unnatural) they never tell you anything you didn’t already know if you were interested enough, and, when signing off, invariably abdicate their air of omniscience by telling you what they don’t know. “So will Italy break with the euro? Here in Brussels the feeling is no, but at this stage it could go either way.”
The ABC, like lefties in general, is knee-jerk anti-American, but that doesn’t stop it Americanising its English. Protest and appeal used transitively, train station, greenback, rookie, chopper: all are common currency on ABC bulletins. Then there’s technical sloppiness: words not matching images (the voice-over says “Penny Wong” and you see Cory Bernardi) or meaningless “wallpaper” footage because there are no images (cranes unloading ships to represent trade; gavels, not used in Australian courts, for legal reports; and—a special favourite—crosses on church gables for the ABC’s endless “child abuse” stories).
I concentrate on the national news because that’s probably most people’s regular point of contact with ABC television, even if “most people” is but a fraction of the taxpayers whose money the corporation hoovers up. Tony says the number of ABC news viewers is in “catastrophic fall, down to less than 700,000 viewers across the mainland states”. That leaves a lot of Australians (ABC News never says “people” if it can say “Australians”) paying for something they neither want nor need.
To relieve them of the burden, the ABC should be financed by those who actually watch or listen to it, like Netflix. All objections to the current ABC would vanish if it were not a taxpayer liability. A “national broadcaster” might have been appropriate in the days of the cat’s whisker, and dictators love them (imagine the bliss at Ultimo if we had a Green People’s Republic with the ABC as its Voice) but we don’t need one in the digital age.
Those of us sick of the ABC and its unmerited self-satisfaction can take some comfort in the hope that criticism from Fairfax is evidence that political pressure is building up to do something about “our” (as ABC News would probably put it) “broadcasting colossus”. Tony and the ABC’s defenders are concerned that by not lifting its game the ABC is supplying its enemies with ammunition. His solution to “ABC News and 7.30 malaise” is to model them on “American PBS’s NewsHour”, which “combines news and longer-form reporting in a compelling hour-long package” (along with, he omits to add, a generous seam of leftist propaganda). Fine, conservatives should say, just as long as the rest of us don’t have to pay for it, or for anything else the ABC transmits.
Christopher Akehurst lives in Melbourne. He contributed the article “Town Hall Totalitarians” in the June issue.