The past week has been an interesting one for our public broadcaster, and both the Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, and Chairman Justin Milne have left. Guthrie was cut off by the board amid growing concerns that she no longer represented the interests of the ABC, and Milne resigned following damning allegations that he had betrayed the editorial independence of the broadcaster. The rest of the media and some politicians have latched onto this frenzy and the ABC has been portrayed as a sinking ship. Was Guthrie’s axing and Milne’s departure the right choice, and is the ABC collapsing as some claim?
Role of a Public Broadcaster
Before answering those questions, it’s important to understand the purpose of a publicly funded broadcaster and the sort of role it plays in the media landscape of its respective country. All media needs money to function, and where that money comes from shapes what sort of content appears and the angle in which this content is analysed or discussed. This leads, quite intentionally, to bias in reporting, and for many consumers it ingrains a skewed or sometime blatantly false narrative. Most would pass this off as ‘right’ or ‘left’ wing bias, proof of an ideological war that both sides appear to be waging – it just depends who you ask.
No, the left and right wing bias is merely a thinly veiled smokescreen that is used with exceptional proficiency to hide the true bias that most media harbours, whatever ‘side’ of politics they might appear to be on. The money that sponsors them is not given to push ideological agendas, it is given by wealthy corporations to effectively censor the media we consume as they wish. For example, Fairfax supporting LGBT figures in fluff piece articles does not make them, as some fun Facebook commenters shout, Marxist. People are conditioned to believe that the Sydney Morning Herald is ‘left wing’, while in reality they actually tend to push support behind Coalition policies, or at the very least write some half assed critique of them. The same goes for commercial television (the cancer of the media world). That we live in a world where shows like the Project and Sunrise are given the label of ‘news’ is terrifying. On the ‘right’ it’s even worse, with the Murdoch press (equivalent to the plague?) spewing out its incredibly prejudiced views, usually without any facts or legitimate analysis to back it up. And if they really can’t avoid speaking ill of their sponsors and favoured political party, then it’s always easier to talk shit about Labor, because they’re communist right? In short, these ‘news’ sources act on behalf of corporate interests.
When implemented properly, a public broadcaster, as the term suggests, is the opposite and acts on behalf of the public. Its goal is to provide impartial news based on facts and completely independent of any outside influences. The ABC is such an entity, funded by Australian taxpayer money to provide us impartial news based on facts and investigative journalism. Others include Al Jazeera, run by the Qatari government, or Telesur, funded by a group of Latin American states and based in Venezuela. However, all three of these fail to achieve the aforementioned goal at varying degrees. While they all provide excellent news on a number of topics in their respective regions, they have to be taken with a grain of salt when reporting on their host countries. Al Jazeera is hailed as one of the best sources of news in the Middle East and Africa, while Telesur is a decent alternative for Central and Latin America. But Al Jazeera has been criticised for its coverage of Qatar, and Telesur for its coverage of Venezuela and other contributing states. The governments directly influence how they are portrayed, taking away any sense of editorial independence when covering them.
The ABC, thankfully, has nowhere near the same level of state interference as the others, but it has frequently been used as a puppet of the Coalition and had its funding threatened numerous times. Privatisation is also on the table. This can be seen by comparing the ABC’s coverage of the Royal Commission into Unions with the current Royal Commission into the banking sector. They report on the findings, but there is a distinct lack of vigour that they displayed when questioning the sham investigation into the Union movement. Union membership and reputation was damaged severely by the media’s frenzy over apparent corruption, a charge that ended with a single person jailed. Meanwhile, the same media is relatively quiet about devastating cases of corruption and mismanagement within the banks. The interim report is due soon, but I wonder how many will end up in jail in the end? I’m not optimistic.
A Breach of Independence
To answer the first question proposed at the start: yes, Guthrie and Milne had to go. Calls have also been made for a complete overhaul of the entire board, not the worst idea. Guthrie was always an awful choice for managing director from day one. Prior to her role at the ABC, she worked for Murdoch, a man who has lobbied for the privatisation and dismantling of the ABC. While Guthrie didn’t do as much damage as many like myself expected, given her previous employment she should not have even been considered for the role. As for Milne, his resignation was a blessing. During his interview with Leigh Sales he carried himself like a Liberal politician, constantly evading questions and sounding very timid under scrutiny. That he attempted to interfere on behalf of Turnbull does not surprise me. In fact, anyone on the board with any connection to a politician or who holds membership with any political party should be replaced.
As for whether the ABC is falling down, I think not. Unless funding is cut by the government, the ABC appears to be running as normal. Scott Morrison’s comment about how the ABC has to ‘stop talking about itself’ is comedy gold considering the circumstances that landed him the top job. He also needs to back off trying to place his own candidate in a filler position; it’s bad enough Turnbull had contact with Milne in relation to ABC matters, and now we have a Prime Minister trying to install a temporary replacement. If ABC staff packed up shop for a couple of weeks they’d be ripped to shreds for it, and the ABC certainly did not promote one candidate over another. No, to the contrary, the ABC has taken it in stride pretty well, with a number of staff praising the loss of Guthrie and Milne.
Achieving an independent and neutral public broadcaster is not difficult:
- Keep the ABC appropriately funded to carry out the standard of journalism we expect.
- All people in a position of management and power within the ABC should have no membership or connection with a political party, or prior employment with companies known to attack the ABC.
- Politicians are to present complaints regarding ABC staff or actions properly and not try to interfere with the ABC’s internal affairs in private communications.
Change will take time, and I doubt the government will give the ABC any breathing room, but while a ‘free press’ does exist, the ABC in principle is the best we have. It must be defended, lest it be used for blatant propaganda by a creeping totalitarian government.
The media’s role explained:
- Manufacturing Consent, written by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.
Some alternative sources for international news: