ABC crisis shows we need a genuinely independent and democratised public broadcaster

A Save Our ABC rally in Melbourne, November 2014. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The recent crisis at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with the sacking of managing director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of board chair Justin Milne, is best understood by realising that neither were friends of the national public broadcaster.

For years, the ABC has been under sustained attack from conservative forces, including the Coalition, the Murdoch media and the Institute of Public Affairs. These attacks have included repeated funding cutbacks and increasingly blatant political interference.

Both Labor and Coalition governments have presided over funding cuts to the ABC. By 2008, out of 14 comparable countries, only the public broadcasters of the United States and New Zealand received less government funding on a per capita basis.

ABC funding was further cut by former Coalition prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, despite the ABC Board being headed by one of Turnbull's former business associates, Milne.

The initial response to Guthrie’s sacking from many ABC staff and the broader community was to support her departure. Guthrie, who prior to her arrival at the ABC, had worked for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire for more than a decade, had enthusiastically administered funding cuts and was seen as an agent of those forces trying to nobble the broadcaster.

Likewise, Milne had actively worked to undermine the ABC’s editorial independence by seeking to sack high-profile journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn, who have faced the wrath of conservative forces for their views.

He also tried to interfere in Triple J's decision to shift the Hottest 100 countdown from January 26 (Australia Day) to a politically neutral day.

So why is the ABC being run by such people? And why, despite this, are conservative forces so intent on attacking the public broadcaster? 

After the John Howard Coalition government made a number of controversial appointments to the ABC Board, including conservative ABC critic Janet Albrechtson, the Kevin Rudd Labor government introduced a “merit-based” nominations panel for appointments to the broadcaster. However, the federal communications minister and/or prime minister still have the final say.

The Abbott and Turnbull governments have used this power to undermine the process. The five most recent appointments were all direct recommendations from Turnbull’s communications minister Mitch Fifield and were rejected by the merit panel due to lack of relevant experience.

While the ABC is sometimes portrayed as “impartial” and “unbiased”, the reality is that the broadcaster is still a component of the establishment media. Like the corporate media it privileges official government and corporate news sources.

However, the fact that it is publicly funded and bound to some extent by the ABC Charter does give it a degree of independence and capacity to investigate stories that other media will not.

Whatever legitimate criticisms can be made of the ABC, there is no doubt that funding cuts, attacks on political independence and threats (and partial moves) towards privatisation are all things that progressives should resolutely oppose.

Fixing the problems exposed by the recent crisis at the ABC, however, will require democratising the public broadcaster.

This means reorganising internal structures to make managers accountable to staff.

The ABC Board should also be restructured to ensure its accountability to staff and the broader community.

Public elections for the ABC Board (run by the Australia Electoral Commission) should also be held, as occurs with superannuation boards and trade unions.

The ABC should also be guaranteed a minimum level of funding to ensure it can carry out its role as a public broadcaster. Funding should be set in such a way that governments cannot use it as a means of blackmailing the broadcaster or interfering in editorial decisions.

The argument made by Murdoch media outlets and others that the ABC should not compete with private media organisations should be rejected. The community’s right to have a well-funded and democratically-run public broadcaster is more important than the right of billionaire media barons to make a profit.

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