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Issue #1625      February 5, 2014

ABC’s future under multiple threats

The current savage campaign against the ABC by the Murdoch empire and the Abbott government began after the UK Guardian offered the ABC secret cables released by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The cables revealed that successive Australian governments intercepted communications by the Indonesian government, and had even tapped the personal conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Abbott said the ABC “seems to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor” and accused it of “touting for a left-wing British newspaper”.

More recently, ABC TV news showed footage of asylum seekers who had tried to reach Australia being treated for hand burns by an Indonesian doctor. The newsreader then commented that this seemed to confirm stories the asylum seekers had been forced to hold hot engine pipes after their boat had been boarded by the Australian Navy.

The government subsequently obtained a note from an ABC employee that “My boss (i.e. an ABC executive) believes the (asylum seeker abuse) allegations are likely to be untrue.” Abbott claimed this proved the ABC had committed an act of treachery.

He admitted that the ABC was entitled to report such a story if there was credible evidence, but added that:

“You shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country. You certainly ought to be prepared to give the Australian Navy and its hard-working personnel the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s …”

The government has now indicated that the ABC will be subject to a budget audit, which would certainly lead to funding cuts.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the ABC, noting that it’s accountable to its board, not politicians, and has editorial independence by Act of Parliament. He asked whether the alternative was for the Prime Minister to become the ABC’s editor in chief, commenting “ … you can’t tell them what to write”. Nevertheless, it’s Turnbull who will conduct the budget audit.

The ABC’s “crimes”

Use of the Snowden material was entirely justified. The ABC is obliged by its charter to find news and broadcast it. However, the ABC’s obligation to reveal the significance of the news is not acknowledged by Abbott, who stated he wanted the ABC to be a “straight news gathering and news reporting organisation.” That appears to exclude broadcasting open discussion and interpretation of current events.

Abbott added: “You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team …” Yet a commitment to the truth must be impartial, and must exclude the prejudice of “affection for the home team”.

Abbott also resents bitterly the ABC’s new fact-checking unit, because it casts a critical eye over concepts and statements used by politicians and the entire media spectrum, not just the ABC.

As the government has pointed out, the work of defence personnel is often very hard and dangerous, and when they do good work it is often under-appreciated. But forcing the Navy to tow asylum seekers back to Indonesia, in violation of the UN Refugee Convention and international law, is certainly not good work.

Moreover, it’s entirely possible that the burns were, in fact, inflicted because of the Navy’s actions.

Last week one asylum seeker said he had been temporarily blinded after being sprayed in the eyes by a Navy officer, and had accidentally grasped a hot engine pipe. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was forced to admit grudgingly that the Navy does use anti-personnel gas to subdue asylum seekers, but still denied it made anyone grasp the pipes.

But the Navy has not denied it made the male asylum seekers crowd around the hot engine, and it’s likely that those closest to it had to grasp it to steady themselves against the rocking of the boat.

Abbott dismissed with outrage the idea that someone had forced them to do so. But why? Any organisation, military or civilian, can include people who are sadistic. After all, the Navy has recently had to deal with many cases of sexual abuse within its ranks.

Recruits are trained to do things prohibited under civil law, and must be constantly vigilant they don’t cross that line in peacetime. Yet the dividing line between war and peace has become blurred by the government’s demonisation of asylum seekers and its strident militaristic approach.

When the burnt hands story was first broadcast by Channel Seven (not the ABC) Abbott refused to comment, saying he would not give information that would help a war enemy

He’s now preparing for a war on ABC.

Who stands to benefit?

The attacks on the ABC are not solely prompted by the acute embarrassment its news coverage has caused the government. Nor is the budget review simply intended to make the ABC more efficient. The execrable MP Cory Bernadi suggested that the government could “cut the ABC budget and allow the commercial media to compete.”

From 1996 to 2012 the ABC budget actually fell as a proportion of government spending, from .45 to .27 percent. Although inflation has in effect kept its funding unchanged since then, the ABC has somehow managed to introduce new digital and web services and develop its existing operations.

But there’s the rub.

The commercial media bitterly resent the ABC and would dearly love to capture its audiences. They are outraged that its new services have proved very popular, and that ABC kids programs frequently draw the biggest TV ratings in Australia. Media magnate James Murdoch thundered: “There is a land grab, pure and simple, going on, and in the public interest it should be sternly resisted.”

The Murdoch empire’s hatred of the ABC has become obsessive since Sky News, an outfit in which it has a financial interest, was deprived by the Gillard government of an opportunity to take over the ABC’s overseas news service.

And the coalition is backing the privateers. Bronwyn Bishop and Ian MacDonald say the ABC exceeded its charter and is cannibalising legitimate private media business operations.

In contrast, former ABC chairman David Hill has strenuously rejected Abbott’s criticism of the ABC and his vindictive approach to it.

He commented: “It’s an absurd proposition, laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. This is the first serious suggestion I know of, certainly in the last half century, where a prime minister of the country is suggesting that the Australian public be denied access to the truth, and the first time that a prime minister has seriously intimated that the ABC should censor and withhold information from the Australian public.”

According to a report in The Australian, the overseas broadcasting service, which broadcasts into 46 countries, is likely to be scrapped in the May budget in order to “save money and end the pursuit of ‘soft diplomacy’.”

Other options the government may pursue include reducing the ABC’s budget so it fore goes all but basic news broadcasts, introducing advertising to its broadcasts on the basis of improved economic performance, stripping it of its digital and web services – or even attempting to privatise it, as some coalition MPs would prefer.

The attacks threaten an institution which enjoys nationwide affection and respect and is crucial for the public’s understanding of news and current affairs, as well as its cultural development.

The future of “Aunty”, your ABC, is on the line.

Next article – Toxic regime provokes asylum seeker protests

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