So how many readers reacted as I did on reading the report of ABC Managing Director Mark Scott’s recent speech at the American Chamber of Commerce in Sydney? No, I mean your reaction after you finished barfing at the patently bogus litany of pious platitudes about how the true owners of the ABC aren’t the politicians or the government of the day but, rather, the Australian people.
Got that? We’re the owners.
Funny thing is I don’t feel like an owner. I read the statute and I know that the ABC has a legal obligation to be balanced. But then on all of the top current affairs shows on TV there is not a single, solitary right-of-centre person employed. Not a one. I’m pretty sure that if I were a genuine owner I’d find a way to hire one, maybe even two. Lord knows, if it were my company, and I felt a soupcon of commitment to the law of the land, I might even try to get a critical mass of righties on the payroll to balance the swathes of Greens and other lefties who are there now. But of course for Mark Scott balance comes from within, when the Ultimo lefties look inside themselves and try their darndest to be balanced. And the Board of the ABC, at least to all appearances, agrees with Scott. Frankly it’s incredible.
Of course seeing the backside of Mr. Abbott was a coup (sorry, perhaps not the mot juste, or maybe it is) for the ABC and Mr. Scott. With the ascension of Prime Minister Turnbull all the heat has gone out of the campaign to get a bit of balance out of the ABC. Indeed, the new Minister oozes nothing but love in the general direction of Ultimo.
And we all know why. The ABC was relentless in its attacks on Abbott. Okay, perhaps it was slightly less deranged in its anti-Abbott mindset than The Australian’s Niki Savva, but it was a close-run thing. The ABC was against anything and everything the Abbott government put forth, and it loved to ridicule him at every opportunity. They had predicted he would never win government, and since he proved them wrong they wanted him gone. Q&A, Insiders, radio hosts, personal attacks, obscene T-shirts — the vibe was everywhere. Were I the ABC’s owner, I’m pretty sure that is not how I would have run the corporation.
Not so Mr. Turnbull. Leigh Sales was transformed by his ascension from pitbull to lovestruck school girl – two very different sorts of crushes being on display. The Ultimo crowd loved Turnbull in that ‘wink wink, you know he’s really one of us’ way that conjures images of a day out discussing the delights of emission-trading schemes, the Republic, taking more boat-borne migrants, the diverse joys of multiculturalism, imposing fresh taxes on the rich, and so on.
Take the last of those. Turnbull moots a higher GST and the ABC talks about the need for reform. Is there any sentient being in Australia who doubts that, if Abbott had done the same, the ABC would have gone into meltdown and attacked him on all fronts? No, I didn’t think so. But now, with the mooting of a 50% increase in the GST rate – and please note that moving from 10% to 15% would NOT be a 5% increase (not even with the way maths are taught these days) but a whopping 50% hike – and all of a sudden the ABC is concerned about Australia’s deficit. I marvel at the change.
Part of this, in my humble opinion, is that the new Turnbull government has only moved left since taking the reins from Mr. Abbott’s team. Every single move, without exception, has been to the left. Of course the ABC is delighted by that shift, and of course Mr. Turnbull will get a comfortable ride from the denizens of Ultimo and Southbank with such a game plan! I predict his cushy ride will last only until he offers some token concession to the right wing of the Liberal Party, or is forced by the state of our economy to tack right.
Meantime, just think about it: Turnbull is no better than Abbott on free speech, probably worse (just ask the American who wanted to talk about abortion, or consider Turnbull immediate repudiation of his earlier opposition to Section 18C). Turnbull has yet to moot a single, solitary cut in spending. The “we have a spending problem” maxim of the ancien regime, obviously more honoured in the breach than the observance, is now not honoured at all. Public service pay? Up. The GST? Softly, softly the waters are being tested for ‘Up’. Then there’s the return to Rudd-like summits. Oh, and he cancelled the Lomborg Centre.
Meanwhile, Turnbull talks in long-winded pieties and slogans. If Abbott did that the ABC would be relentless. OK, it was relentless. ‘But this is Malcolm’, you can hear Leigh cooing while batting her eyelids in that come-hither way.
So here’s the thing. The ABC is not balanced, nor is it even close to balance. It looks far less balanced than the BBC (where they actually do employ righties — not many but some) and Canada’s CBC (ditto). Yes, the ABC is being nicer to Turnbull than it was to Abbott. But that’s hardly a criterion for balance. Yes, the ABC does attack both Labor and the Coalition that is true too. But Mr. Scott never finishes the thought. Attacks on Labor are also, and always, from the left. Just think back to the way Gillard was attacked over the so-called Malaysia solution. It’s almost as though Ultimo employed a coterie of Greens-voting bien pensants. Surely, no one thinks that that is possible.
Look, my bet is that a good 30% to 35% of Australians, maybe more, in no way at all feel as though they are owners of the ABC. They don’t watch the news related shows because they involve wall-to-wall lefties, with an occasional sacrificial lamb thrown in to the perpetually stacked Q&A mix and a Niki Savva here or there to be described as a rightie.
This ‘we love Malcolm’ game will continue as long as the new policies point left. When they don’t, the ceasefire will end. That’s what happens when a billion-dollar-a-year broadcasting behemoth chooses only to employ producers, on-air talent and other top end people from but one side of politics. They simply cannot look inside themselves and produce the disinterested, impartial product Mr. Scott pretends that they can.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline