The existential attack on the ABC in Australia is just the latest extension of creeping libertarianism, imported wholesale from the US and promulgated by the Murdoch press and the now dominant right-wing fringe of the Liberal Party.
For these people, there is no legitimate public space, no community, there is only the market. And anything not given a dollar value by the market must, by definition, have no intrinsic value.
The constant whining about “left-wing bias” in regards to the ABC comes without a shred of evidence and continues despite the public broadcaster bending over backwards to appease its critics. Every panel show is stacked with members of the IPA, a group that refuses to reveal its funding and which is blandly labelled as a “free market think tank”; a group which is ideologically committed to the end of public broadcasting.
The now ritual accusation is that the ABC is the plaything of clubby, inner city progressives pushing fashionable causes a world away from the bread-and-butter concerns of the vast bulk of Australians. It’s a cute idea, but it’s an idea recycled by the reactionary right in many developed economies against public broadcasting in a dishonest attempt to close down or narrow the framing of legitimate debate.
Indeed, the contrast between the rabid paranoia of an increasingly unhinged right and the beige reality of much ABC programming is striking. Where is this left-wing bias? Is it Bananas in Pyjamas? Kitchen Cabinet? Catalyst? Bush Telegraph?
As an experienced former journalist, I’ve frequently turned a critical eye at the ABC News. But if you can accuse it of anything, it is of promoting a bland, fake balance that treats all sides of an issue (such as climate change) as equivalent – of insisting on “equal time” on every issue, even when doing so represents the craziest fringe opinion as mainstream.
This stopwatch-driven manufactured “objectivity” is in itself a consequence of the existential threat against the ABC. But its managers seem unable to grasp that these critics will never be appeased. I wager Mark Scott could air the Bolt Report every day on ABC1 and he would still be ritually tarred and feathered in the Murdoch press.
In the meantime – for all the intemperate ranting against it by silly old men – the ABC remains a hugely trusted institution. It inevitably ranks above the commercial media, including the Murdoch tabloids, in public opinion. After all, as a “public” broadcaster, its role is to do what the commercial media cannot or will not provide.
And keep in mind that even some conservative commentators value the role of public broadcasting, seeing it as providing an opportunity for serious and deeper reflection of issues that do not fit within a mass market commercial format.
Yes, it is true that competitive markets do a pretty good job overall in satisfying the public. But markets aren’t perfect. And there remain issues of importance and areas of interest that private sector media will not want to cover. That’s where the ABC comes in.
If economies must be found, the obvious place to start pruning are the myriad opinion programs and panel shows. I’ve been asked onto a few ABC programs in recent years to opine about whatever was dominating the news that day. Often, though, I simply don’t know enough about the subject or feel deeply enough about it to offer a considered view. And I suspect many other panelists have the same misgivings.
If anything the problem with the ABC (and with media generally in recent years) is an excess of shallow opinion-mongering over thoughtful journalism and analysis. The latter is rare because it costs time and money and can anger the powerful. The former is plentiful for the opposite reasons – it’s quick and cheap to produce and is essentially wallpaper.
So if Mark Scott is looking to concentrate the spending of his increasingly scarce budget on something really useful and valuable, I would put the money into old-fashioned reporting. He needs more of the like of the Quentin Dempsters and Andrew Olles and Chris Masters. That’s a commons worth saving.