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Issue #1697      August 12, 2015

And now for the news

An update on the ABC

Now that the supercilious Speaker of the House has finally fallen on her sword, the government will again turn its attention to attacking the ABC, so it’s important to review the tumultuous events of the past two months.

Q&A host Tony Jones.

On June 22 during a live broadcast of the Q&A discussion program, audience member Zaky Mallah challenged government minister Steve Ciobo over the government’s plan to cancel the Australian citizenship of dual national citizens if the responsible minister deemed them to be terrorist supporters.

Mallah described his two-year imprisonment for threatening the lives of security officials, and asked Ciobo how his treatment would have differed if his case had been decided by the minister rather than a court.

Ciobo replied that if it were up to him he would certainly expel Mallah, which led Mallah to exclaim that the minister’s statement would cause young Muslim Australian men to engage in terrorism.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott subsequently declared “heads should roll” at the ABC. The Q&A program director was reprimanded, and the program will be subject to an independent audit, although the program and the ABC itself were forcefully defended by managing director Mark Scott.

Mallah is certainly unstable. He has threatened government officials and posted extremely misogynistic material on line, and police found a gun and ammunition in his home. Q&A host Tony Jones said that if program directors had been aware of his misogynistic tirades he would not have received an invitation.

But was the criticism of the ABC fully justified? Commercial TV channels have attacked the ABC for giving him air time, but he had already been interviewed by The Australian and The Courier-Mail, and on talk-back radio.

The uproar also obscured the significance of Ciobo’s statement. It demonstrated that in the case of persons accused of terrorist sympathies the government intends to replace trial for a legal offence with a sentence imposed arbitrarily by a government minister, simply on the basis of his feelings towards the accused. That justifies widely-held concerns that citizenship-stripping would violate the fundamental right to trial established under Magna Carta.

Abbott and his closest supporters would still like to strip citizenship from any Australian citizens they accused of terrorist sympathies, even if that means leaving them stateless.

And Mallah’s statement was probably correct. Ciobo’s declaration, together with the government’s targeting of Muslims as potential terrorists, would doubtless cause some young Muslims to consider joining ISIL.

And despite the government’s description of Mallah as an extremely dangerous terrorist sympathiser, he has been acquitted of a charge of terrorism. Although he went to Syria to fight, he actually joined the US-backed so-called Free Syrian Army. There is no evidence that Mallah has committed terrorist acts in Australia.

Background to the uproar

The Abbott government loathes the ABC, not only because the wide range of political views in programs like Q&A often include criticism of the government, but also because the ABC’s presence restricts the operations of commercial media corporations.

Last year’s federal budget hacked five percent off ABC and SBS funding, leading to many redundancies among ABC broadcast and retail staff.

The cuts were followed by attacks on the ABC by the government, which in turn mirrored a hate-filled anti-ABC campaign by sections of the mass media, particularly The Australian.

The reason for the attacks lies not just in political differences between commercial broadcasters and the ABC, but also in market competition between traditional mass media and the new digital TV media forms such as iview, Facebook and Google.

Facing falling demand for newspapers and free-to-air TV, commercial media owners see financial salvation in transferring to new digital media forms. Many commercial broadcast viewers would undoubtedly subscribe to new commercial media outlets to access popular existing programs.

However, one of the prime broadcasting markets is for news and current affairs, and the ABC doesn’t charge for its digital media broadcasts. Why would anyone used to viewing free-to-air TV news pay to receive commercial news broadcasts if they could still get news free from ABC iview?

Newspaper readers are used to paying for news, and it’s unlikely that commercial newspaper production will cease, but rising costs will probably result in newspaper circulation shrinking to a “niche” market.

The cost of digital broadcasting is minimal, compared to newspaper printing and publication. But some newspaper readers who transfer to digital media will undoubtedly log in to free ABC iview for news coverage and other ABC programs.

The threat to the profitability of commercial media posed by ABC digital media lies behind attacks on the ABC by commercial media and the government.

The solution posed by the commercial media is for the ABC to cease digital broadcasting, leaving the field open to commercial interests – or even to cease operations altogether, as The Australian has hinted in recent editorials and articles.

Looming challenges

Although government and media attacks have damaged the ABC’s reputation, it’s still the nation’s most trusted broadcaster.

That doesn’t impress Abbott. He accused the ABC of betrayal and described Q&A staff as a “leftie lynch mob”. ABC staff members were subsequently subjected to abuse, with one journalist verbally attacked at a Sydney railway station.

Abbott’s petulant ban on Q&A has deprived ministers of opportunities to argue their cases in public. Q&A is now watched by more viewers than ever, and is noticeably more entertaining and enlightening without the presence of the all-too-often truculent and surly government representatives.

The term of office of the ABC managing director will end next year. The news director is resigning and two positions on the ABC Board will fall vacant soon. The government will do all it can to stack the ABC Board and management with its allies.

Morale is understandably low, but ABC staff-elected director Matt Peacock has urged employees to stand strong. That’s good advice, because it would be disastrous for the national broadcaster to dumb down its programs, switch the emphasis from topics the government hates (like climate change, asylum seekers or gay marriage), or censor criticism of this or any future government.

So hang in there, Aunty, the nation needs you.

NB: Last Friday the ABC announced it would shift the Q&A program to the news department, as Tony Abbott had demanded in return for his frontbenchers again appearing on the program.

Next article – Port workers take on a stacked system – Workers ordered back to work

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