A campaign to censor the ABC

Issue 

One side effect of Australian involvement in the Gulf War hasbeen the vicious attacks on the independence of the ABC. ABC chairperson Bob Somervaille's February 27 announcement of plans for anexternal panel to review complaints against the national broadcaster was the culmination of a campaign of public attacks and not so public threats and pressures brought against it by the federal Labor government.

Even before right-wing commentator Gerard Henderson provided a pole for all those who did not find Auntie's Gulf War coverage sufficiently pro-war and anti-Arab, several government ministers had made statements that sounded very much like blackmail attempts.

It has become known around the traps that treasurer Paul Keating is not happy about the campaign to inform Australians that the ABC costs them just eight cents each a day. How dare this independent body try to prevent further funding cuts? Late last year communications minister Kim Beazley tried to pressure ABC managing director David Hill into allowing an IBM logo to be displayed during television coverage of the World Swimming Championships in Perth. Defence minister Robert Ray threatened funding cuts after Radio National refused to broadcast messages to Australian sailors in the Gulf.

Then came Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who is said to have reminded Hill that his job and those of five members of the ABC Board are up for review this year and that the body's triennial budget will be handed down in May.

In the name of objectivity and fairness, would Hawke agree that, if Middle East expert Robert Springborg should be labelled as an opponent of the war every time he speaks on any issue to do with the Middle East, audiences should be reminded of the PM's strong pro-Zionist views each time he makes a statement on any vaguely related issue?

Perhaps a truly independent body to listen to complaints against the ABC would be a good idea in other circumstances. Why not extend such a watchdog to the private media as well? Imagine how busy it would be. But as it is to be set up in the aftermath of what has in effect been a campaign to censor the ABC, this body must be viewed with deep suspicion. Clearly board members, who are often appointed because they have the same political views as the government doing the appointing, have capitulated to pressure.

If the Gulf War has proven anything in relation to the ABC, it is that there need to be more safeguards of its independence from government interference.