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Issue #1638      May 14, 2014

Aunty’s enemies:
ABC still under attack after 80 years

As the bells in the tower of Sydney’s General Post Office chimed eight o’clock on the evening of Friday July 1, 1932, the peals were picked up and carried to every state of the federation. “This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission”, said the announcer, Conrad Charlton. Then he introduced the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, to pronounce the Commission inaugurated.

These are the opening lines of Volume 1 of Ken Inglis’ expansive history of the ABC. Eighty-two years ago, a conservative prime minister launched Australia’s independent national public broadcaster, committed, in Lyons’ words, to “serve all sections and to satisfy the diversified tastes of the public”.

Despite the grand opening and the genuine commitment of many conservatives to an Australian model of the much-admired BBC – Robert Menzies, then a Melbourne barrister, had led a delegation to Lyons, lobbying for the ABC’s establishment – the public broadcaster had enemies from its inception.

Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, was a newspaper proprietor with interests in several commercial radio stations. For three years, he and other newspaper owners insisted that the ABC be restricted to no more than 200 words a day of overseas news, and limited its presentation of news bulletins to five minutes in the evening – but not before 7.50pm, by which time it was thought people would have finished reading their newspapers. When, by 1936, the ABC had begun to develop an independent news service, Murdoch was greatly displeased. His newspapers demanded a reduction in the ABC’s income from licence fees so that it would, in Inglis’ summary, “stop competing improperly with private enterprise”.

In an early show of defiance, the vice-chairman of the ABC, Herbert Brookes – a leading conservative and son-in-law of Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second Prime Minister – attacked Murdoch for his self-interest and his attempts to cripple the ABC’s news service, as well as his “conspiracy of silence” about the success of the ABC. Knowing Murdoch was unlikely to publish this attack, Brookes arranged for a recording of his speech to be broadcast on the ABC. “ABC takes the gloves off” was a headline in the next issue of Smith’s Weekly.

Private commercial interests were not the only enemies. At its inception and for many years later, the ABC was the responsibility of the Postmaster-General’s Department. The politician to hold the office of Postmaster-General in 1938 was a South Australian Country Party man with a military background, AG Cameron. When the chairman of the Commission and two of its members first met him, Cameron did not mince his words: “I know nothing about broadcasting. I’m not interested in it. If I had my way I would stop all broadcasting. No time for these mechanical things. Don’t know anything about music. As for people who give talks and commentaries over the air, if I had my way I would poison the blank blanks – would bring them under the Vermin Act.”

The story of the ABC suggests Marx’s famous axiom – that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce – should be turned around.

The down-with-the-ABC clowns and incompetents are richly represented in the broadcaster’s early years, but the ABC’s enemies have grown fiercer and more determined as its capacities, its reach and its public appeal have threatened their private or political interests. Deceit, often built on false promises, is a marker of our own time.

In 1996, the Liberal-National Coalition’s Shadow Minister for Communications, Senator Richard Alston, presented the soon-to-be voting public with a manifesto on the ABC, titled “Better Communications”. It was glowing, praising every aspect of the ABC, including Radio Australia, and promising that there would be no cuts to the broadcaster’s budget during the first term of a Coalition government. This was consistent with his earlier role as chairman of a Senate select committee which reported on ABC management and operations in 1995, and recommended against government interference in the ABC and emphasised the need for government to properly fund existing and expanding ABC activities.

Yet only a few months after the Coalition won the election, cabinet was discussing which of two proposals for severe cuts to the ABC’s budget the government should adopt. In his submission to cabinet, Alston favoured the lesser option – a 12 percent cut – because it would arouse less public opposition than the 20 percent cut favoured by the Finance Department, and it would still “give us the opportunity to influence future ABC functions and activities more directly”. And so it came to pass. Among the casualties was Radio Australia, which lost its overseas transmitters, two foreign languages and a significant proportion of its staff and devoted overseas audience.

Ten years after the budget cuts, a KPMG report commissioned by the government declared the ABC was performing financially “as well if not better than” commercial media companies, and recommended an extra $125 million – 7 percent – in the next three years in order that “the ABC could sustain its present range, quality and mix of outputs”. The ABC’s own request was for a more modest $115.2 million. As Inglis comments politely, the government’s actual contribution in 2006 “was rather more modest” even than the ABC’s figure.

Now Rupert Murdoch – and some of his journalists – are questioning the very existence of a publicly funded ABC. A new Coalition government, having promised before last year’s election that there would be no funding cuts to the national broadcaster, has already instituted two inquiries into its management and financial operations. The large majority of the population which values the ABC may soon grow restless.

Perhaps the government might pause and consider the words of Terry Lane, one of the ABC’s most admired interviewers, who retired some years ago. Writing in The Age in 2003, Lane remarked: “Taxes are the way we buy civilisation, and public broadcasting is an institution of civilisation.”

June Factor is a senior fellow in Melbourne University’s school of historical and philosophical studies. She held a leadership role in Friends of the ABC from 1995 to 1999.

The Beacon

Next article – Culture & Life – To kowtow or fight?

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