The ABC has proven immune to criticism and, no matter what the latest entreaty, impervious to reform. Appointing conservatives to the board hasn’t worked, as the staff collective ignores any and all pleas for at least a semblance of balance. There just might be another way however
There is never-ending angst on the right of politics about the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Attention inevitably focuses on pro-left bias and, linked to this, taxpayer funding of it. Diving deeper, there are a thousand stories about the outworkings of bias and taxpayer funding, and a thousand anguished cries from our side. Stout troopers in the battle include Gerard Henderson, Giles Auty, Tim Blair, David Flint, James Allan and Geoffrey Luck. A powerful line up indeed.
The ABC was once described by a senior Liberal Party figure as “our enemies talking to our friends”. There are also many friends of the ABC outside the Friends of the ABC. People (like me) love the cricket. Or did while they had a great commentary team. Many people love regional radio, despite its deterioration under the weight of budget cuts. And the ABC serves important purposes during emergencies.
But in the era of multiple media channels – driven by technology and globalisation – and the genuine diversity offered by the internet and social media, do we even need a national public broadcaster, let alone an expensive, biased one? Probably many readers would answer an emphatic “no”. I agree. But how the hell do we get rid of the ABC, or even curtail its most egregious inclinations and abuses? Is there anything that can be done, realistically speaking? What would Trump do? How on earth do we begin to drain this swamp?
Governments have tried a number of approaches. They all fail. One strategy is to load the Board with conservatives, or even just get one or two on the Board. This has achieved nothing. The Board gets to pick the CEO, seemingly not much else. Speaking of the CEO, given the entrenched staff capture of the place, one would have to rate CEO, including those appointed by the right of politics, as somewhere on a scale of mediocre non-performers to enthusiastic champions not remotely interested in the case for reform described above. See under “Mark Scott”. Back in the 1980s there was tough-minded, relatively non-ideological David Hill, but most of them since have been wastes of space. The incumbent (or is it recumbent?) chairman, Justin Milne is pro-actively inert, having gone on the record as saying the national broadcaster has no bias problem and is just a wonderful organisation. Milne, of course, was appointed by his cobber, Malcolm Turnbull, so no surprise there.
Not much joy in “getting the right people” to sort the place out.
What about budget cuts to influence the broadcaster’s behaviour and overall direction? That often works in other areas of policy. The ABC seems able, in the face of this approach, both to garner broad community sympathy, and simultaneously make cuts to the good areas, like regional radio, in an attempt to forestall similar cuts by future governments. They have governments over a barrel on funding. Hence, parties of the Left (including the Turnbull Liberals) simply keep feeding the beast as the years roll by.
For a while we “got” a conservative presenter onto radio. Michael Duffy did a grand job. But his job wasn’t to change the culture of the ABC, merely to provide an alternate voice to the leftist mainstream. The measure of “getting at least one conservative journalist voice” is often proposed, but that proposed fix leaves me cold on the twin big problems of bias + public funding.
What about privatisation? A recent book by two prominent members of the libertarian right argued this case (see QOL‘s “The ABC: Independent to a Fault“.) That notion was promptly rendered dead in its tracks when Chris Mitchell, former editor of The Australian, made the obvious point that it will never happen, so why even bother making a case for it? I have argued that the ABC should be crowd-funded to test its support in best way possible, ie., determining its worth in terms of dollars and cents). And no, this will not happen either. In any case, who could be sure that a privatised ABC would act well and fairly? Fairfax Media is a private-sector outfit, yet it has spurned, insulted and alienated its former audience to the point where Nine is now awaiting approval to swallow the worthwhile bits and discard the rubbish, of which there is much) Many private corporations are fully on board with the whole globalist, post-modernist, homosexualist, green, anti-coal agenda. At least we wouldn’t be paying for it.
But it won’t happen. So proposals for privatisation join the lengthening list of impotent strategies. What about changing the charter of the ABC to “make” it behave. It already has a charter, which, if actually followed, would help eliminate some of the more awful examples of failure. In effect, the ABC is able to cleverly utilise its quango status — dependent on government funding but always just beyond the reach of government intervention in its operational affairs.
Senate Estimates hearings are useful fora for ABC critics to air their grievances, and the methodical disembowelments, such as those conducted by the implacable Senator Eric Abetz are fun to watch. But over the years these grillings by warriors of the right have not moved the needle, merely provided entertainment.
What about the Press Council? The Press Council can keep an eye on Fairfax, News Corp and others, but it’s bailiwick does not extend to the ABC.
Then there is the ABC’s own complaints procedures, always a waste of energy for those optimists who believe their letters of protest and cited examples of journalistic malfeseance might do some good. As Geoffrey Luck discovered, you might as well complain to your budgie for all the good it does (See QoL, “ABC to Complainant, ‘Drop Dead‘”) Again, fodder for Hendo’s avidly read Media Watch Dog but not even close to moving the needle. The ABC, like so many government agencies facing freedom of information requests (for example), finds ways of slowing processes, not answering questions, and obfuscation. Ask former communications minister Mitch Fifield about that. When he complained about gross obscenities being spewed in prime time by ABC-TV, he was told to get a sense of humour and get lost. He did, too. Fifield tops the Victorian Senate ticket, presumably the best the Liberals can offer; his limp impotence should tell you everything you need to know.
The political science notions of industry capture and of policy communities help to explain the ABC’s impregnability. Just as the banks captured their regulatory overlords, the ABC has captured whatever minimal regulatory oversight exists. Moreover, the ABC is a core segment of a broader community of academics, leftist business leaders, cognate media such as The Conversation, The Guardian and Fairfax, and onside politicians who either love the ABC to death or who don’t see a problem with it. When values are shared, as they are with that crew, there is no real need for conspiratorial activities against enemies or in support of shared positions. They don’t need to have meetings. It is just how things proceed.
I suppose that one view might be, if there were no ABC anymore, what would we actually talk about to get our anti-leftist kicks? The ABC never, ever ceases to provide great copy through its own awfulness. Amateur economist Emma “Revenue is the same as profit” Alberici readily comes to mind (see QoL, “Vampire Squids and Blood Funnels“). What else would Jacki’s male co-owner have to write about? The ABC is such a caricature of an organisation that its transparently leftist project provides endless copy. Much of it you simply couldn’t make up. As Hendo notes in his latest bulletin, the arrogantly ignorant Jon Faine’s criticism of the Catholic church was only 450 years out of date.
But another view might be – so what? Governments waste money of many other things and, after all, not many folks watch or listen to the ABC. We righties just obsess over the ABC. I do not find this at all comforting, for a number of reasons. A billion dollars a year isn’t chicken feed. And the perpetuation of dangerous, post 1968 radical ideology proceeds apace, affecting the young the most (see QoL, “How the Staff Captured the ABC“). And while the ABC is merely one part of the team, it is there fighting for causes we should abhor.
The problem, of course, is the culture of the ABC. Everything else follows from this. The long march through the institutions has long since ticked the box saying “the ABC is in the bag”. Changing the culture of any organisation is very tough, even when the CEO and Board actually want to do it. When no one has the imprimatur to do it, or the will, and the staff fight the attempt any way tyhey can, there is nothing but back-breaking work, yet ahead with very little prospect of success. Most working journalists in leftoid organisations deny they are of the Left or, at any rate, put themselves at the self-defined “centre” of politics — a conceit that sees anyone to the right of this notional “centre” dismissed as extremists, always labelled in ways that remind viewers/listeners that they themselves are of the sound, smart centre. This is clever and successful, and has served the ABC well.
But back to practical strategies. Can anything useful be done to make the ABC great again? By anyone?
Short of Trump or Viktor Orban turning up to stand in Wentworth, we know the ABC isn’t going anywhere. It is nowhere near the top of the either punters’ or politicians’ to-do list. So that leaves painstaking work that attack its capacity to spread leftist culture from a position of virtual impregnability. Conservatives bemoan the ABC’s moral corruption and offer all the “back to the drawing board” approaches mentioned above, but they go nowhere amid further outrage and dismay.
Why don’t we try infiltration? What I would recommend, as a start, is the formation of what might be called a counter-insurgency team to build the strategies that will work. Communists and homosexualists infiltrated the Church. Why don’t we do the same to organisations that we wish to change? And I don’t just mean infiltration of the ABC (when an organisation’s unofficial hiring policies favour the children and bedmates of existing employees, applicants unable to invoke the benefits of nepotism aren’t going to get beyond the first job interview. No, the places to sow the seeds of reform are the broader policy community and the within the ranks of the ABC’s regulatory enablers. Form cells. — reverse policy communities, if you will. What about policy development with recommended actions that would serve to break up the problem into smaller pieces? This is the essence of agile strategy. Let us help governments with smarter ideas, by all means, but also recognize that government has been captured and is not really the place to start. By all means look again at the charter. Look at new ways and means of linking funding to performance measures. Perhaps introduce peer review by, say, delegating the authority to review and adjudicate complaints to an independent panel consisting of outsiders. Do things by stealth. Call the problem something different. Call it “excellence in journalism”, for instance, and be ruthless in identifying and addressing that which falls short. Pay people bonuses for being unbiased. Introduce the style of show where you have opposing points of view in juxtaposition. Win friends within the ABC for an excellence-based approach. Get them to champion reform. Offer more funding to areas of excellence which place truth before ideology.
There is no “silver bullet solution”. I certainly do not have one to hand. But we need to be more corporate about this fight, and come up with innovative, essentially new, dare I say, 21st century approaches. If we cannot, we might as well give up and content ourselves with the standard whinging and mocking and moaning. Speaking for myself, I’m more than a bit sick and tired of that mindset. And, worst of all, it doesn’t work.