Starving out pigs and commies at the ABC

Few institutions inspire hysteria quite like the ABC, with the political right continually attacking its funding while the left cries wolf about its desecration. Both sides need a reality check.

It might be hard to believe in the current environment, but in the early years of the second Menzies government, Labor thought the Liberal/Country Party government was manipulating the ABC for political gain.

Yes, the left was suspicious that the right had a stranglehold on the then-20-year-old national broadcaster.

A dispute in May 1952 arose over the decision by Postmaster General (a portfolio that eventually became known as ‘Communications’) Larry Anthony to sack ABC Commissioner Charles Anderson, nominally for missing two months’ worth of Commission meetings.

Labor angrily pointed out that absence from meetings could be approved, even retrospectively, where a Commissioner requested it -- which Anderson said he had.

So Labor cried foul. Member for Grayndler, Fred Daly, told the House of Representatives: “The Postmaster-General is a man of violent political hates who is biased against the Labor party and its supporters. He has constantly criticised members of the labour movement who have been appointed to public positions...”

Deputy opposition leader Arthur Calwell added that: “The Australian Broadcasting Commission has been established since 1932. The first commission consisted, as we should expect, of 100 per cent Tories ... If this government is conducting a witch hunt for Communists, it cannot be said that Mr Anderson is a friend of the Communists. He is one of the most active anti-Communists in Australia ...”

And so the debate raged.

In some respects, not a lot has changed.

The right of politics still launches periodic attacks on the broadcaster’s funding, the make-up of its board, or the content it produces, while the left cries wolf about a ‘gutting’ of the ABC’s unique role in culture and politics.

For instance, Queensland senator and Howard-era minister Ian Macdonald told the Australian recently that the ABC’s “flagship current affairs programs, they just lack balance. Their lack of balance is just patent”.

The left’s retort is always that there is no problem with balance, and that attempts to cut funding are always veiled attempts to silence non-right-wing coverage of political affairs -- effectively arguing that when a figure like Macdonald asks for ‘balance’, he is really asking for more bias towards his own side.  

Prominent conservative columnist Gerard Henderson asked recently why, if there was no lack of balance, the ABC did not have “one conservative presenter or producer or editor on any of its prominent television or radio or online outlets”, unlike Fox News in the US which made sure it had several ‘small-l liberal’ presenters.

Radio National's Counterpoint presenter Amanda Vanstone didn’t count, Henderson argued, because she rejects the tag ‘conservative’. That old leftie! She was just humouring prime minister Howard all along.

One element missing from Henderson’s argument is that Fox News has dozens (if not hundreds) of commentators engaged in back-to-back political commentary. To find five non-conservatives in that line-up, as he recently did, is not statistically dissimilar to finding one Amanda Vanstone in a haystack of Play School, Peppa Pig, Grand Designs and Gardening Australia.

Just how one could even up the number of “conservative presenters” is not clear – Proper Pig or Regency Gardens Australia, perhaps?

Though I jest, there is a serious point to be made about the ABC’s mix of programming, and the competing versions of reality held by left and right with regard to the broadcaster.

Assuming for a minute that right-wing critics are correct, and the ABC is a tax-payer funded hive of leftist agitation, should its budget be cut year-on-year, as the Lewis review allegedly suggests? Would that help?

Actually, it would not.

As my colleague Harrison Polites has ably pointed out (The ABC should use its data, not Peppa, to prove its worth, June 27) the ABC’s funding has all but flat-lined in real terms since 2001. Labor was a little kinder to the broadcaster than the Howard government, but only a little, while other government spending romped ahead.

Over that time, the ABC expanded services considerably, particularly into online delivery, but also through additional digital channels – and all against a backdrop of a tax base that grew considerably in real terms due to an extended resources boom and continuing population growth.

So if there is a ‘bias’ problem, as Macdonald suggests, it has been doggedly maintained by an institution that has had to deliver a lot more in services, without a lot more money.

If budget cuts were seen as an effective way to starve out the commies at the ABC, decades of history would suggest it doesn’t work.

Moreover, managing director Mark Scott has already explained that all kinds of programming might be under threat due to budget cuts, but most assuredly not news and current affairs.

And what if we assume that the left is correct is claiming budget cuts are an attack on ABC, simply because its ‘balanced’ coverage is unpalatable to a government that positions itself, on many issues, considerably right of centre?

If that were true, the proverbial leftist sipping lattes in an inner-city cafe, would notice that fellow left travellers -- producers, technicians, managers and talent -- were chucked out of jobs in which they'd previously created programs on the arts, lifestyle or for kids, again because of Mark Scott’s assurance that news and current affairs is too important to touch.

If there is a plot to starve out the commies at the ABC, led by MPs with what Fred Daly long ago called “violent political hates”, it is a waste of time. 

If the cost-cutting is just an harmless efficiency drive to consolidate administration, out-source where it is sensible to do so, and possibly charge for long-archived programs, there is no political problem -- just a problem with an army of toddlers having tantrums over the disappearance of their favourite pig.

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