Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1621      December 4, 2013

Open season on the ABC

The would-be wreckers of the last vestiges of public enterprise have changed tactics. They used to say the ABC lacked initiative and flair; it trailed way behind its private counterparts in terms of innovation and the sort of magic that the chance of mega rewards can bring. Now corporate media line is that the national broadcaster is a bully, daring to move into new digital fields where fragile private operations are struggling to get a toehold.

And while the accusation that Aunty doesn’t break enough stories to justify its $1 billion budget is still trotted out, the right-wing commentariat has shifted to criticising the sorts of stories it does break – the treatment of Australian live cattle exports and Australian spy agency phone tapping of the Indonesian President and his wife, for example.

Information sent in error by the ABC to South Australian Family MP Robert Brokenshire opened up a new front for attack. Spreadsheets with details of employees’ pay and superannuation were included in the response to a Freedom of Information request. A staffer promptly sent the material to the corporate media where the information was analysed and the worst spin possible put on the unwitting privacy breach.

It was revealed that ABC personnel working at Ultimo headquarters in Sydney were paid significantly more than those in regional centres. Women were still paid less than their male counterparts despite previous commitments to close the gap. Substantial pay cheques for high flyers like TV presenters Virginia Trioli and Leigh Sales were put in the shade by Tony Jones’ handsome remuneration package, presumably because he is male. No comparison with pay rates or practices in the rest of the industry is offered.

ABC director Mark Scott (or “boss” in tabloid speak) is accused of being grossly overpaid, using Comcar “limousines” that should be the reserve of parliamentarians and military top brass and overstepping the mark in defending the broadcaster. The decision to run some of ex-NSA employee Edward Snowden’s revelations of Australian spying in the region during the Rudd era drew heavy fire from the likes of Andrew Bolt. The Libs’ most prominent cheerleader claimed broadcasting the revelations was reckless in light of the delicate nature of relations with Indonesia. No doubt, if the ABC had chosen not to go public, Bolt’s line of attack would have been that the ABC bureaucrats were covering up for their Labor Party “masters”.

ABC News Director Kate Torney’s explanation that editors did withhold one of the three items on advice from two of Australia’s main spook agencies was never going to satisfy the “get Aunty” crowd. There is a theme of contempt running through the editorials and opinion pieces that comes from the top. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr referred sneeringly to a “Greens/Left/ABC/Fairfax point of view.”

There is a clear agenda being followed here. Before the federal election Abbott swore he wouldn’t cut funding to the ABC or SBS. The government’s recent backflip on Gonski school funding puts the Coalition’s pre-poll undertakings in a new light. The current campaign of muckraking and denigration against the ABC in particular may well be part of a softening up process for cuts to the broadcaster’s budget and/or market reach.

As ABC journalist Quentin Dempster pointed out in a recent issue of The Walkley magazine, despite long-term erosion of the ABC’s real term funding (down by 23 percent from 1986 levels) and staff levels (from 7,000 to 4,600), Aunty has racked up some impressive results in recent times. It has unveiled the ABC1, ABC2, ABC3 and ABC News 24 channels and made content downloadable via iPhone, iPad and other mobile devices. Other content-related “apps” are on the way.

Andrew Bolt calls this expansion “metastasising”. Private enterprise is feeling the heat from all this free-to-air content. Faifax and Murdoch are struggling to erect a “pay-wall” around their offerings as newspaper sales continue their plunge. Profits are being squeezed so private enterprise loyalists are being rallied. The ABC’s contract for the Australia Network is being queried again. Murdoch’s hopes will be soaring that Sky News will get the overseas broadcasting gig in light of the manufactured controversy over the decision to air the Jakarta embassy spy news.

If the ABC had not “metastasised” into new areas and held back from breaking some troubling news, the accusation would doubtless have been that public broadcasting is stale, lacking in initiative and so on. The call would have gone out to privatise the whole dreary enterprise and put it out of its misery. Despite the best efforts of many to achieve this objective, the scenario has not played out and another line of attack devised. Murdoch’s papers have called for the ABC to be funded through a telethon similar to the PBS in the US. Calls for outright, total privatisation are still a bit “fringe” but that is the ultimate objective in the corporate boardrooms and the Liberals’ parliamentary party room.

Australians will not give up their public broadcasters without a fight.

Next article – Coal mine boss appointed to land and environment agency

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