This past Monday night I went to the Q&A end-of-year party at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney. As a two-time panellist this year I scored an invitation. I reckoned, as you can imagine, that this would not be the sort of crowd with whom I usually socialise. But heck, I pay taxes right? There would be free booze. I read that Low Life guy in the Spectator Australia and know not to look dispensers of gift-horse alcohol in the mouth. Might as well get my taste of the ABC’s one-billion-dollar-a-year government largesse – oops, I mean of your hard-earned tax dollar. So thanks to you all.
Anyway, I went and it was interesting. I got there about 8:45pm, fashionably late, I figured. In fact I was one of the first, coming up in the elevator with a few others. They were, and I do not make this up, mocking Mr. Abbott and pooh-poohing the idea that the ABC exhibited any bias whatsoever. They had no clue who I was. Their chatter was a manifestation, I assume, of the quiet confidence bred by the certainty that everyone else at the party would agree. Who, after all, would attend a Q&A party and be against splashing untold money on the ABC?
Now it happened that Monday, the day of this party, was also the day that ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, supported to the hilt by the ABC Board, announced what he has portrayed as deep and slashing cuts. Just imagine that: over the next three years the public broadcaster will see 10% of its $1.1 billion budget trimmed. The horror!
Hang on. My mistake. I got my countries wrong.
The 10% cut over three years is what Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced back in March for his country’s public broadcaster, CBC. Here in Australia the Abbott government announced a comparatively trifling 5% over five years. And that cut comes after the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government had increased ABC government monies significantly. So, by Canadian standards, the Abbott government has done next to nothing. (And by the way, Harper just stood up and did it with no apologies, saying cuts were needed to be absorbed by all in tough times, full stop.)
But that comparatively light treatment didn’t stop the gnashing of teeth from Mr. Scott. Still, at least he did what he could to protect the Sydney-based ABC workers, the ones who apparently count most in the national broadcaster’s opinion.
I’m pretty sure that at Fairfax and NewsCorp a 5% cut over five years, as in only a 5% reduction, would be greeted with wild celebrations and grateful thanks to whatever gods there be. As Media Watch, which doesn’t appear to have suffered, also reported on Monday, times are dreadfully hard for private-sector media companies.
Have you looked at the salaries the ABC pays! Start with Mr. Scott’s remuneration. Then look at the on-air talents’ salaries. Then look at what the board members get — board members who, to my way of thinking, are simply not doing their jobs, as in requiring that the ABC live up to its statutory obligation and be impartial.
Hiring my friend Tom Switzer to run a half-hour radio show that will focus solely on international affairs does not in any way change the fact that not a single presenter or producer of any of any big-ticket ABC-TV current affairs show has a right-of-centre pedigree. Not a single one!
The Chair of the ABC, Mr. Jim Spigelman, was a great lawyer, in my view, and should have been appointed to the High Court. Maybe he could educate the rest of the board about what lawyers call ‘the appearance of bias’. You see, no one in administrative law has to prove bias, as in establishing what is in someone else’s heart. All the they need to prove is the appearance of bias. Establishing this in regard to the ABC is a patent no-brainer. But I digress.
Anyway, for the first part of the night I kept relatively quiet, wandered around chatting here and there, but mostly listening. There wasn’t a single conversation I overheard or joined that could be characterised as ‘pro Tony Abbot’, and that is to put it as kindly as I can. I suspect that this was a crowd overwhelmingly populated by those who would rather have their fingernails extracted with red-hot pliers than vote for the Coalition. That, at least, was my impression.
I won’t mention any names but a fair few of the great and the good were there. Some were fun to chat with. One person I encountered knew I was a bill-of-rights sceptic and wanted to engage in a bit of constitutional banter. Normally I reserve that for victims of sleep disorders, people who need to be bored until they nod off. But my interlocutor was adamant that my views on not liking judges making big-ticket decisions about abortion, same-sex marriage (you name the social issue) was undemocratic. Let me be clear: to believe that it is the responsibility of the elected in favour of the elected parliament to make those calls was, he thought, undemocratic. But wanting unelected judges to make them was democratic. You see, judges declare the law. So, in the bizarre alchemy of inner-city elitism, that makes what they declare democratic. I think that was the point. I’m still not sure.
But the conversation did get me thinking that Australia and the ABC (and the inner-city metropolitan elites in Sydney and Melbourne whom it services) inhabit quite different colour bands of the cultural spectrum. From the red end, where the elite/ABC/inner-city crowd dwells, the world looks like this: The Labor Party is in the centre. On some issues it may even be perceived from the vantage points of Glebe and Fitzroy to be on the right. Further to the right of the Labor Party are the voters. And on the far right are the Liberal Party and the Coalition. Mr. Abbott is perceived to be even to the right of his own party — somewhere out there on the Mongolian steppes, galloping along beside Ghenghis Khan. Meanwhile, perceived to be hardly left at all, there are the Greens and all the related progressives (many of whom who made it to the Q&A party, by the way). As I said, from that perspective the ABC is maybe a tad left, but only a tad.
In the real world — sorry, the non-ABC world — Labor is on the left or centre-left, depending on the party leader. The Greens would be seen as considerably further to the left and doing whatever they can to drag Labor in their direction. The Coalition would be on the right, but closer to the middle than Labor. Indeed that’s why the Coalition won the last election, and won it massively.
On this second spectrum the ABC worldview is nowhere near the middle, which explains why there is such unhappiness with the ABC. Sure, 80% of people say they value the ABC. I’d say that too. I like QI. I like the Poirot mysteries. But current affairs? Well, I never watch the ABC at all. Not ever. Even when I’m on Q&A I don’t watch it, though that has more to do with figuring I’m pretty hopeless on TV. But my point is that the sort of figure Mark Scott bandies about as “proof” that his organisation is fair, unbiased and beyond reprooach is meaningless. What matters is this: what chunk of the population watches those marquee ABC current affairs shows and news broadcasts?
The answer is not a comfortable one for the ABC, and if people had to pay out of their own pockets – which is what you do when you value a service – it would be a lot lower still. How many would pay to watch Q&A do you think? You know, a show that ended the year with the most outrageously stacked panel I can image, right up to and including a nincompoop thespian who actually asserted that Thomas Jefferson had nothing to do with drafting the Declaration of Independence, His sole qualification is that he is playing Rupert Murdoch, whom he does not like, in a play written by another lefty. A caricature of a Hollywood luvvie, he was thisclose to incoherent without having been given lines to memorise.
Anyway, my evening at the party was saved when Rowan Dean, new editor of the Spectator Australia, arrived with his lovely wife. That made three right-of-centre voters in the entire crowd. That’s not actually fair. There were paid bartenders and waitresses and some of them probably voted for Mr. Abbott.
It is time for the Coalition to start insisting that the ABC live up to its statutory obligation to be impartial. And to insist that the Board either fire Mr. Scott (my preference), make him do what he is legally obliged to do, or fire itself. That billion dollars a year is not mana from heaven. It is money taken from you and me in the form of taxes. And frankly I am sick of subsidising a broadcaster that is the propaganda unit for the left wing of politics.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. His new book is Democracy in Decline