There are many reasons to be concerned about the decision to cut funding to the ABC.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the decision to cut funding to the ABC. There is little point ruminating over what was said prior to the election, for it shifts our attention from a far more profound problem – that is, the importance of maintaining an important public service. The ABC offers an important service to all Australians. It is not limited to programming that responds to immediate commercial concerns. Unlike commercial stations, a public broadcaster does not need to wade in the shallow waters of ephemeral tastes or appeal to populist sentiment. Despite attempts to portray the ABC as a temple open only to Australians on the left fringes of our society, its scope actually reflects a conservative approach. Commercial television does not have the same focus on history, science, philosophy and religion – all pillars of western civilisation – that is afforded by the ABC. All great truths begin as blasphemies, wrote George Bernard Shaw in Annajanska. The search for truth and understanding cannot be bought, nor should it be influenced by a political agenda. The agenda of the taxpayers who fund the ABC is far more complex than that which pays for the ‘free-speech’ of the commercial stations. Public funding allows the ABC to explore the full breadth of the Australian experience, in all its complexity. It appeals to a diversity of tastes. Its commitment to the arts and music enlarges us. It provides a service to rural Australia, and promotes women’s sport. Free-to-air television in Australia is less a reflection of our complex national identity. It is true that the ABC could have found savings elsewhere – it did not need to close its television studios in Adelaide and Port Augusta, nor did it necessarily need to cease televising women’s basketball or soccer. The cuts could have been made to studios in the eastern states, or to men’s sport – but who was surprised when these decisions were announced? What is sure is that the cuts are consistent with the philosophy of the Coalition Government and its supporters. The decision to cut funding was made after a sustained campaign against the ABC. Does the Coalition aim to eliminate the remaining vestiges of independent analysis in the media? Its attempt to silence opposing views is consistent with attacks by the Coalition’s fraternal parties elsewhere. Murdoch has launched extraordinary attacks on the BBC, as well as public broadcasters, NPR and PBS, in the United States. But Japan provides the most troubling evidence of a concerted effort to diminish the legitimacy and independence of publicly-funded broadcasters. NHK is a hugely influential public broadcaster in Japan, whose broadcasting act guarantees editorial independence. The right-wing government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, however, appointed four new board members who closely reflect the deeply conservative and revisionist tendencies of the incumbent government. The new appointees include a conservative academic, as well as a journalist who has publicly and consistently denied that the Nanking massacre took place. The most troubling appointment, however, was of the new chairperson, Mr Katsuhito Momii. In his first interview as chairperson, Momii suggested, “It would not do for us to say left when the government is saying right.” This is hardly what one would describe as editorial independence. The belief that independent public broadcasters, focussed on empirical evidence and independent analysis, are inherently left-leaning should be deeply troubling. NHK has lost its value as public service that speaks to the complexity and diversity that is part of all societies. Over the Christmas period, members of the Coalition Government will reflect on the events of the year. Any reasonable analysis will lead to the conclusion that it has tried to run too fast, too soon. The Abbott Government will likely narrow its focus in 2015 and look to implement its vision through a more gradualist, less overtly ideological, agenda. It is unlikely, however, that cuts to the ABC (and SBS) will be reversed. If the Government sees that opposition to these cuts is limited and soft, it will be encouraged to further diminish our public broadcasters. It is in the national interest that they are convinced otherwise. Andrew Hunter is Chair of Australian Fabians fabians.org.au @AndrewHunter