The A-B-C of public broadcasting


This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983

By K.S. Inglis

Black Inc., 2006

525 pages, $39.95 (pb)

Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983-2006

By K.S. Inglis

Black Inc., 2006

645 pages, $39.95 (pb)
This year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation turned 75. There have, however, been many threats to the longevity and well-being of Australia's popularly cherished public broadcaster, as Ken Inglis's two-volume history of the ABC demonstrates.

The ABC was created in 1932 by the federal Labor government to meet broadcasting needs not served by the commercial radio stations. The ABC modelled itself on its big imperial brother, the BBC. The tone was patrician, the accents upper class "BBC English". There were no women's voices, young people or jazz to be heard among a stolid diet of classical music, church services, Anzac Day marches, royal visits and cricket.

Slowly over the decades, however, ABC radio and television diversified in content and style, pioneering what few commercial media did — popular education, science, the arts, intelligent children's programs. Youth were given their own FM rock station in 1974. Current affairs programs on Radio National and This Day Tonight and Four Corners on television, often probed the misdeeds of government and private power.

Any socially critical blossoming, however, was carefully contained. In a seven-decade theme, the ABC's political patrons and purse-holders in Canberra effectively controlled a nominally autonomous ABC by ensuring its governance was in safely reliable hands. The chair and governing board of the ABC, appointed by federal governments, have been well-stocked with businesspeople and private-school principals, past and active politicians, and others whose political loyalties were predictable.

Although the Labor governments of Whitlam (in the 1970s) and Hawke made a nod to participatory democracy by introducing an elected ABC staff representative to the board, the Howard Coalition government's control of the Senate in 2005 allowed it to cull this position from the ABC's charter and reinforce the boardroom rule of confidentiality, a highly useful fiction for protecting embarrassing issues, such as political interference, from public exposure.

The ABC's managing directors, chosen by the boards, have had suitably business-like values. CEOs have obstructed the rights of the staff-elected board member, carried out their political orders of staff-cutting with gusto while bloating executive salaries and behaving like psychopathic dictators.

With the ABC in such hands, there has been relatively little need for direct government intervention in ABC programming, although occasional reinforcement of the principle that the ABC should not criticise government policy has been needed at times. For example, radio talks critical of Hitler and Mussolini (admired in the 1930s by parliamentary conservatives for their anti-labour politics) were axed. During the Cold War, Inglis concludes that "the ABC had a blacklist of speakers" they considered to be "communist sympathisers", covering a wide spectrum of liberal dissenters.

After John Pilger, the articulate, informed and non-deferential questioner of people in power, rattled Bob Hawke in a 7.30 Report interview on ABC TV, pressure from Hawke saw Pilger rarely invited back by the state broadcaster.
Political interference is more rife during times of war, when the obfuscators and war criminals in government are at their most touchy. When Professor Robert Springborg was used by the ABC as an expert commentator delving into the real motivations and hidden agendas of the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, Hawke opened a second front against ABC "bias". Demonstrating a truly Stalinist dedication to demanding total obedience from the state media to government propaganda, the government pressured the ABC to use Springborg less and to "balance" him by an "expert" with a more ideologically disciplined view of the oil war.

Charges of the ABC's "left-wing bias" have been long-standing — and, Inglis shows, totally unfounded. Polls repeatedly show that a large majority of the population find the ABC to be balanced or indeed biased to the right. While it is true that only on the ABC (and SBS) is some space given to left-liberal views, the dominant ethos of the state broadcaster is weighted towards the voices and images of those in authority. For example, teary-eyed farewells to imperialist troops and a commentator-abundance of the military and political orchestrators of resource wars frame the ABC's war coverage through predominantly khaki-coloured glasses.

Allan Ashbolt (whose democratic socialist values made him the most censored man at the ABC in the 1960s) later in his career reflected that there is much self-censoring by ABC staff, who learn the safety of going with the status quo and not straying beyond liberal and moderate views into the radical and subversive. This "centrist" bias which, as Ashbolt and Humphrey McQueen have noted, leaves unchallenged so many conservative assumptions (patriotism, militarism, capitalism) is further reinforced by narrowly construing "balance" as balance between the government-of-the-day and the government-in-waiting, marginalising views beyond the rival but not dissimilar capitalist parties.

So a timid ABC systemically fails the big questions, stubbing its moral conscience on the self-imposed rock of "objectivity". As the ABC's Controller of News said in 1971 on the eve of the hotly-opposed, all-white, South African Springboks' rugby tour of Australia, there are "two sides to this Apartheid business". On this "objectivity" logic, there are two sides to everything and global warming deniers, torture apologists and union-busters are given equal respect as climate scientists, human rights defenders and working people, no matter how unpopular the political Visigoths and their policies are.

With the furphy of "ABC bias" as a justification, the ABC has increasingly offered airspace to right-wing commentators from the commercial media such as Gerard Henderson, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt. Inglis notes that a case used to be made that because the commercial media are so right wing, the ABC should have a conscious left-liberal bias if media diversity is to mean anything. This argument is still valid.

Complementing the efforts of the government's "bias" vigilantes have been assaults on the ABC's funding, an indirect way of cramping the ABC's potential for a critical media role. Campaigns by ABC unions and Friends of the ABC (excellently conveyed by Inglis) have, so far, prevented the accompanying threats of corporate sponsorship and advertising (which would be needed to make up funding shortfalls, as has happened with SBS). Such commercialisation would not only stain the ABC's ad-free allure but would result in even more ratings-chasing drivel and potentially compromise program integrity.

The ABC looks so oasis-like in the Australian media desert in large part because its commercial competitors are so awful. But the ABC could be so much better. Inglis, despite a volume-padding focus on the personalities of ABC board and managing director, notes some views on how this might be achieved — such as democratising formal public ownership of the ABC through an elected chair, board, managing director and listener forum, making the ABC accountable to its nominal owners, the Australian public.

"It's your ABC", the ABC promos tell us. Well, not exactly, but it could be, even though the state media in a capitalist society can never be genuinely democratic, as 75 years of contested struggle over the ABC shows. We would be much poorer without the ABC and its scattering of cultural and political gems among the dross, but we could be so much richer as a humane society if it were genuinely "our ABC".

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