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Issue #1764      February 8, 2017

It’s Your ABC

Silencing the watchdog

The former Howard Coalition government attempted to suppress the ABC by stacking its board and senior management with hand-picked government cronies – to try and silence the independent watchdog – but staff resistance defeated that move.

Current readers are unlikely to tune in to a digital version of commercial newspapers when they can tune in to ABC news, which is available free of charge and advertising on ABC iView.

Later, after a heated episode of Q&A, former PM Tony Abbott attempted to bully the ABC into silence with verbal attacks. However, the then ABC director Mark Scott responded with an angry and very sharp public defence of the national broadcaster. Abbott was forced into retreat.

Since then the Turnbull government has persisted with major cuts to ABC funding, forcing the national broadcaster to sack staff and limit its activities in some areas. The government is also relying on current ABC director Michelle Guthrie, appointed 10 months ago, to fulfil its objectives.

Guthrie is a former executive of Google, but for most of her career worked for Rupert Murdoch’s broadcasting companies. She has now appointed Jim Rudder, who once ran Channel 9 and was a consultant to Murdoch, with a view to “restructuring the national broadcaster and transforming work cultures”.

Another recent appointee is Debra Frances, described as a “business transformation expert”. An “adjunct fellow” of the extreme right Institute of Public Affairs also got an ABC broadcasting job. The IPA, a bitter critic of the ABC, has campaigned for its privatisation.

The ABC is also to have a new “chief content officer”, to oversee the content of news, TV and radio broadcasts and if necessary override the decisions of the managers of those divisions, answering directly to the board.

In January the ABC’s director of television and its chief operating officer resigned in protest over senior management decisions. Four senior members of the ABC’s executive have now resigned since Guthrie took over, and she is said to be planning the effective demotion of the remaining ten members.

One of her first actions was to cut science, religion and music programming. Hundreds of musicians signed a letter of protest at Guthrie’s decision to axe live music broadcasting on ABC National radio.

She also terminated Catalyst, the top-rating science show. Veteran science broadcaster Robyn Williams described the new ABC management team as “morally and spiritually bankrupt”.

The Four Corners program about asylum seeker children detained on Nauru prompted international protests, but also led to savage criticism of the ABC by the federal government. Guthrie later declared the national broadcaster should be sympathetic to businesses, and should make programs about successful corporate leaders.

The new ABC management has now ceased transmitting short-wave news broadcasts on the pretext that shortwave is old technology. However, this will leave parts of rural areas, the Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea and some Pacific Islands without news broadcasts, because AM and FM broadcasts are not powerful enough to reach those areas. People in Pacific Islands have in the past relied on ABC short-wave broadcasts for warnings about Tsunamis and other big weather events.

Last week an ABC journalist was the first to reveal that US President Trump was only “considering” an arrangement to resettle in the US 1,250 asylum seekers currently detained offshore by the Turnbull government.

Turnbull dismissed the report as unsubstantiated, but we now know the “agreement” could fall apart on the whim of Trump, the super-brat of US imperialism.

The report demonstrated how Trump and Turnbull cynically manipulate the asylum seeker issue. Both appeal to religious or racial intolerance, and neither will risk losing a perceived political advantage or consider the interests of the asylum seekers themselves, some of whom have now been imprisoned for three years.

But the story also has implications for the ABC, which carries Australia’s most detailed and reliable news and current events coverage.

The commercial TV networks ignored the ABC report on Trump’s statement until it was verified by other sources. Their programs are superficial, and all too often focus on sensational or salacious reports rather than in-depth coverage. Unlike the ABC, their journalists rarely cover overseas news and current events first hand. One notorious exception was Channel Nine’s appalling organisation of an attempted child kidnapping in Beirut last year.

Big business and conservative governments detest the ABC’s courageous revelations about corruption and the corporate world’s ruthless drive for power and influence.

The commercial press has a particular axe to grind. It has never had a rival in the form of a newspaper version of the ABC. As far as “hard copy” news was concerned, it has had the field to itself.

However, the demand for newspapers has now fallen sharply and sales no longer cover production costs, so the press barons rely on the sale of advertising space to make profits.

They now look to digital broadcasting of news and current events coverage to restore their once-mighty profit levels. However, their current readers are unlikely to tune in to a digital version of their newspapers if they have to pay for the service or put up with the ads when they can tune in to ABC news, which is readily available free of charge or advertising at any time on ABC iView.

The commercial media would therefore like to see the national broadcaster withdraw from digital broadcasting altogether, or at least charge viewers for their broadcasts, at a price that favours commercial broadcasters.

Suppression

The government’s attacks on the ABC continue unabated. Before Christmas federal coalition MP Matt Canavan described as “fake news” an ABC radio report that the Indian mining company Adani is under investigation by the Indian government for siphoning money offshore and inflating power prices.

This week the ABC is broadcasting its top current events program, Four Corners, its vital public discussion program Q&A, and Mediawatch, its miniscule but fascinating scrutiny of the mass media. All these programs have been the subject of bitter attack by the government and big business.

It’s crucial to watch closely the pressures that will be placed on ABC staff this year to force them to conform to the dictates of the media barons and their parliamentary representatives, the coalition governments.

And it’s equally important to protest as loudly as possible at any such move, because the government is now intent on changing this vitally important national institution into a timid servant of the corporate world.

Next article – Editorial – The “Kill ’em all” doctrine

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