“Members of the Gillard government think the `top legislative priority’ should be to overhaul media laws, Attempts to control how news is reported and analysed will undermine freedom of speech by restricting the freedom of the media. This is a dangerous step to take as often it is the media that is the public’s advocate for the right to know and its guardian against abuses of power.” – The Australian, Feb 27, 2013
“The ABC has now reached the point where it is prepared to believe the word of asylum seekers, who have every motivation to exaggerate and manufacture claims of mistreatment in order to secure Australian relocation, over the word of our navy and government. Rather than being evidence of navy brutality, these latest claims are evidence that the ABC is out of control.” – The Daily Telegraph, Jan 23, 2014
What a difference a year, and a change of government, makes to the over-cooked freedom rhetoric. Those two quotes from the News Ltd stable tell you everything you need to know about how contingent the support for journalistic independence is at the most dominant media company in the country.
A year ago, it was outrage at “the Gillard government” stamping its jackboot of oppression into the freedom-loving faces of the Australian people. Now the outrage is directed at journalists of the publicly funded ABC daring to question “our government” over alleged mistreatment of asylum seekers. It’s that familiar cocktail of cant and affected piety disguising commercial self-interest that seems endemic to News Corp globally.
And we know the origin of self-interest in this case. Just as his son James did in the UK with the BBC, accusing it of a “land grab”, Murdoch sees the public broadcaster in Australia as camping on his lawn in the fiercely contested, fast-growing, but still low-yielding digital space that eventually will replace his loss-making Australian newspapers. Yes, folks, this isn’t about Voltaire or JS Mill or Thomas Jefferson. It’s about moolah. As usual. Murdoch wants not to just dominate the Australian media market, he wants to own it completely. And he’s prepared to invest big to secure that end.
It’s why his newspapers gave their fawning and nakedly partisan support to the Coalition in last year’s election campaign, photo-shopping Rudd as a Nazi (imagine the ABC doing that to, say, George Brandis?), printing ritual distortions and outright lies and running as a virtual PR agency for the challenger, stopping just short of polishing his shoes.
But having sunk so much (or so little) remaining editorial credibility into engineering a change of government, Murdoch is now calling in the bill. So we see the PM dutifully castigating the ABC for doing what it is supposed to do – being an independent check on power and asking tough, but necessary, questions. He specifically accused the broadcaster of “poor judgement” over joining The Guardian in publishing the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden about Australia spying on the Indonesian president and his wife. Now he has accused the ABC of being unpatriotic in its coverage of asylum seekers. (One wonders how The Australian would have responded had the Rudd government castigated its editorial writers for not helping to fight Australia’s corner at the Copenhagen climate talks.)
In the wake of that appearance on talkback radio, out come the ritual leaks about imminent cuts to the ABC’s budget (including canning the Asian broadcast contract that News Corp has long coveted) and a renewed round of the now familiar complaints about perceived “leftist bias” by the broadcaster. Oddly, the critics of the ABC never seem able to provide actual examples of this raging leftism. Indeed, to this former journalist, the public broadcaster would appear to bend over backwards, with a pike, in its determination to be seen to walking the middle of the road. And, of course, for all the whinging by the culture warriors about a discredited and unprofessional ABC, survey after survey show the national broadcaster is the nation’s most trusted media outlet, clearly ahead of commercial television, radio and, running last, the Murdoch tabloids.
Lest I be accused of being an ABC-lefty-luvvie, it is completely defensible for the government to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money out of the national broadcaster. And for its part, the ABC has a responsibility to ensure the highest possible editorial standards, including a commitment to airing a wide range of views ( which is why the smarmy army of the IPA are part of the furniture at Harris St) But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the broadcaster’s critics, led by the Murdoch press, are out to kick away Aunty’s walking stick without waiting around for the inquiry.
In this debate, you can bet the Murdoch boosters and the IPA will run the line that News Corp is a commercial organisation accountable to the market, unlike the publicly funded ABC. But this ignores the long and shameful record of Australian governments of both political persuasions doing anything to appease Murdoch or to at least keep him off their backs (think Keating and the Herald and Weekly Times deal in the mid-80s). And it ignores that as judged by the market, Murdoch’s Australian print properties are an utter failure, loss-making institutions that are among the worst performing assets in his global empire. By comparison, the ABC gives very good value for money.
This all wouldn’t matter so much if we were talking about a battle over the breakfast cereals market. But this is about information. It’s about the right of people in a democracy to truthful, tough reporting, a multiplicity of views and voices and of the right of the Fourth Estate to hold the powerful to account independent of the vicissitudes of the commercial market.
Ultimately, it is not the job of any media organisation, publicly or privately owned, to be a cheerleader for the government, any government – left or right. But don’t let me get all JS Mill on you….