Not long ago I idly turned on ABC television in the middle of the evening. An Aboriginal woman was speaking, or rather yelling, and the first words I heard were a complaint in graphic terms about anal rape (I will spare you the exact phrase). Not exactly what one is used to hearing by one’s own domestic hearth.
Dear me, I thought, switching off, how our national broadcaster has changed since its courtly days more than six decades ago.
This set me delving into my misty impressions of the ABC as it was in that remote era when manners and opinions were so alien to our own. To start with, it was dignified. It never in those days tried to touch the lowest common denominator of vulgarity. Its hierarchy was headed by serious-minded public-spirited men (none of whom had made their careers publishing a magazine that encouraged teenage girls to lose their virtue). Its radio announcers (also male, though no longer in dinner jackets—that was before the war) would never have dreamt of trying to be “edgy”, even if they’d known what that meant, as they guided “listeners” through the programs in the clipped accent “educated” Australians essayed then and that were supposed to sound like the English upper class. They would never have hinted at their politics, but you couldn’t have pictured them voting Labor.
This lament appears in the current Quadrant.
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On television, the new medium that everyone was a little wary of because of its possible social effects, such as discouraging children from reading—and how right they were to be dubious, even if they didn’t foresee that television was capable of far greater social destructiveness than luring children away from their books—genteel hostesses, such as the architecturally coifed Corinne Kerby in Melbourne, would materialise graciously on the screen from time to time, with flowers and a standard lamp in the background as though they were at home, and natter away in a cosy manner to fill up the gaps intended for commercials in the many imported features that were the staple of the national broadcaster’s schedules; or if no hostess were available, there would be a filmic “interlude”—swans sailing among the lily pads on a lake to the sound of tinkly harp music was a favourite.
The imported features were mainly from Britain and tended to be about history, or stately homes, or nature, or the Second World War. There were comedy productions, panel games that were witty and clever and sitcoms in which racial, physical and “gender” characteristics were all acceptable subjects for mild satire. “Australian content” was never in the form of the tedious dramas the ABC specialises in today where you couldn’t care less what happens next to the uncongenial characters who expletivate their way through them, though they were pretty unpolished, with sets quivering when doors were shut or studio microphones dangling into what was supposed to be an outback paddock. Nor did current affairs consist of audience-stacked shouting matches about the evils of Anzac Day. Politicians, if interviewed, were never subjected to a hostile inquisition but courteously and intelligently asked about their policies; indeed all interviews were marked by the interviewer’s concern for public elucidation rather than a desire to illustrate his, or on today’s ABC more usually her, own cleverness while humiliating the guest.
TELEVISION and radio like that have long since been abandoned by all broadcasters, government and commercial, and will never come back. But imagine, just for a little longer, that the ABC had somehow remained immune to the mutations of “community values” and was still its original sedate self but brought up to date. This would be an ABC in which programs were carefully edited to avoid indications of political or other preference. Its comedians would be funny and able to be so without blasphemy and coarseness, so that nightly warnings that a torrent of “adult” language is about to be unleashed would never be required. Such an ABC would continue to broadcast a morning service on Sundays for people unable to be among the still quite large number that went to church. Its panel discussions would be models of civilised conversation. There’d be no Greenpeace propaganda masquerading as fact in its science programs, and its news would be as accurate as journalistic integrity can make it and not gratuitously distorted by the opinions and prejudices of reporters trying to manipulate our reactions to it. It might even be scripted by literate journalists trained to write clear spoken English instead of a clunking succession of syntactical abuses and so-called elegant variations in news reports that sound as though they were being read aloud from a newspaper article instead of delivered in direct speech (please listen to an ABC bulletin with this in mind if you don’t see what I mean).
Such an ABC, as a refuge from the sound and fury and vapidity that assail us all around, might well fulfil a therapeutic function in a strident world. It might be regarded as a voice of sanity. But not by everyone. Not by the Left.
Leftists would never approve of an ABC like that. They would scream and rant that it was “stuck in the Menzies era”, “fascist”, “misogynistic”, “homophobic”, “transphobic”, “white supremacist” and of course “racist”, that it lacked “diversity”—which would be true but not necessarily a defect—that it “privileged” cisheteronormativity, that the Sunday morning service was “Islamophobic”. You can hear it all now. They’d say it was the fiefdom of an unaccountable cabal of alt-right Hansonites bent on destroying democracy. They’d emit interminable screeches and moans through their multiple social megaphones about “elitism” and museum pieces and out-of-touch snooty disdain for the reality of ordinary Australian life (as imagined from the inner cities) and dinosaurs no longer fit for purpose. Above all they would complain that it was stacked against them, that it showed not unconscious but real deliberate bias against the Left. And they would expect their complaints to be taken seriously and acted on.
Yet the reverse of this fantasy of a socially conservative ABC is our present reality and complaints about that are loftily dismissed as baseless by the ABC itself, among others. An ABC in thrall to the Left and to the lowest manifestations of our “culture” is what we have and what we are expected (again by the ABC itself and, tacitly, even by a “conservative” federal government) to accept as the normal settled condition of what is supposed to be a “national” broadcaster, a broadcaster for the whole nation, all of whose taxpayers pay for it.
I know the ABC is always protesting its impartiality by producing comparisons of program time devoted to contentious subjects or number of references to something, but bias doesn’t lie so much in that as in editorial slant, range of interviewees, tone of voice, and whether an issue is mentioned or not, subtle things like that. On subjects such as the Chinese virus (never referred to as such), climate, refugees, gay marriage, American and local politics—basically, you name it—the ABC has regularly presented one point of view only. During its shameful persecution of Cardinal Pell there was never a hint from the ABC that he might not be guilty of the fanciful charges against him. Recently, when a member of one of the ABC’s pin-up identity groups, Muslim female football player Haneen Zreika (perhaps we should make that three groups) refused to wear a guernsey publicising the LGBT+ lobby (a fourth group, or set of groups) the story was conveniently ignored. If she was a Christian the ABC would blare out the story and call the refusal a “hate act”. Just as well she wasn’t Margaret Court or Israel Folau.
WHAT to do about this unsatisfactory state of affairs is, of course, a non-leftist question, since leftists and the pseudo-leftists in the Green and leafy suburbs think the ABC is fine the way it is. Indeed, they believe (as a current windscreen sticker asserts) that there’d be no democracy without it (really? Leftists never have a sense of proportion, real or metaphorical: look at the ungainly creations of “progressive” architects). Some of the ABC’s “Friends”, valiant souls, would even be prepared (as another sticker proclaims) to “fight” for it—it’s amusing to picture platoons of elderly bluestockings (all masked, naturally) with cropped hair, and spectacles swinging from chains, their meek little males with grey pointy beards, straining together like the marines at Iwo Jima to raise a “Defend Our ABC” banner against the philistine forces of darkness bent on slashing the ABC’s funding. On the nuttier Left there are even those who complain that the ABC is prejudiced towards the Right, but that’s the kind of opinion you’d expect from people who have persuaded themselves that Australia is an “occupied” country (even if it never occurs to them that they are doing the occupying).
One thing that is clear from the statistical fact that only a minority of Australians watch or listen to the ABC (around 25 per cent is the usually stated figure, though obviously numbers vary between programs and between television and radio) is that, objectively, this dropsical behemoth does not represent value for the billion-plus taxpayer dollars spent on it each year. That doesn’t worry leftists because they always expect other people (“the state”) to subsidise their indulgences, things such as writers’ festivals and “Safe Schools”.
But in the real world, more people paying for something they don’t want than those who want it is something of an anomaly and not very democratic. Ten years ago in these pages (“A Modest Proposal for the ABC”, March 2012) I put forward a suggestion about this, which, since the ABC as an instrument of leftist propaganda has gone from bad to worse in that time, is perhaps worth considering again. No originality is claimed, since the idea is taken from Germany, where it is generally regarded as fair to all. The ARD, the German broadcasting network, is not directly funded by the state, as the ABC is. Instead, it operates on a user-pays principle, whereby people who wish to receive its programs pay a small additional amount of tax which the government transfers direct to the ARD. Those who don’t want to watch or listen to it simply say so and are exempted from the broadcasting tax. It’s the same principle as with subscription streaming services such as Netflix except that you are assumed to be willing to subscribe unless you declare you don’t.
The system seems to satisfy the requirements of broadcasting and democracy. It’s certainly fairer to those who have no interest in a broadcaster’s “products” than the system we have now. If the broadcaster says it needs more money—as the ABC does, perpetually—the solution is to widen the appeal of its programs to attract more broadcasting-tax payers rather than expect an additional handout for more of the same limited-appeal output, paid out of the taxes of people who get nothing in return.
Leftists naturally would oppose anything on these lines because they’d lose their hegemony over nationalised broadcasting. The ABC would become just one, not particularly accomplished, broadcaster among many. But that of course would be the whole point. Besides, national broadcasting services belong with those maple-veneered stately radios of yesteryear on which the wireless-lover could listen to crackly emissions from Omsk or Valparaiso by twiddling among a forest of names on the dial. It is a relic of a time when governments thought radio too powerful a medium to be trusted to unauthorised operators. It is irrelevant in the digital free-for-all of the information age, and in the case of the ABC can’t even be justified on the grounds of its programs having more merit than those of commercial broadcasters.
By the way, in my description of the German user-pays system I was not wholly precise. It’s not broadcasting that is funded in this way in Germany. It’s religion. People pay—or choose not to pay—a church tax with their income tax. But perhaps we could argue that, to the “Friends” who would fight for it and in the way it preaches the doctrines of leftist wokery, the ABC is a kind of religion. Funding it with the local equivalent of a church tax should please its worshippers—but fat chance. Their shrieks of rage would rival the resonance of Krakatoa. You couldn’t annoy them more, though for the opposite reason, if you’d suggested spending a cent of their taxes on funding real churches that way.
Christopher Akehurst, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne