Why the right hates the ABC

The Australian government and its right wing, big business backers despise the ABC. If this wasn’t already well established, the recent leadership saga at the organisation has clarified it.

The first sign of trouble came when managing director Michelle Guthrie was sacked by the ABC board on 24 September. Little explanation was given for the decision. ABC chairman Justin Milne spoke vaguely of needing “a different leadership style” and said Guthrie’s relationship with the government “could have been better”.

Guthrie’s demise, however, was just a prelude to the real drama. A few days after her sacking, some specifics of Guthrie’s dispute with the board were exposed via a dossier of emails and other material obtained by Fairfax Media. The less interesting of the revelations centred on Guthrie’s own incompetence to lead a major media organisation like the ABC.

This was someone straight out of corporate Australia’s central casting, with a background in law and a work history almost entirely in the sphere of “media management”, including a 13-year stint with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Guthrie’s troubles at the ABC, which paid her an annual salary of $900,000, reflected her lack of basic knowledge of or interest in journalism. It was no surprise to hear ABC radio presenter Jon Faine reveal, in the wake of her sacking, that “she was only interested in a very small part of what the organisation did”, and that “she was obsessed with platforms, structures, flowcharts”.

The real bombshell from the dossier concerned the behaviour of ABC chairman Milne – in particular the tensions with Guthrie over her refusal to sack ABC journalists the government didn’t like. Guthrie is reported to have told the board: 

“On numerous occasions, in conversations with Mr Milne, I have defended the independence of the ABC from government and the fact that we can’t fire journalists including [political editor] Andrew Probyn and Emma Alberici because the government of the day complains about their reporting.”

Alberici, the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, had raised the government’s ire in February by writing an article titled “There’s no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay it”.

The government claimed the article was inaccurate and biased and pressured the ABC to take it down. Despite other economists supporting Alberici’s argument, this was enough, apparently, for Milne to demand of Guthrie that she “get rid of” Alberici because “they [the government] hate her”.

Milne is a close friend and former business partner of Malcolm Turnbull. Had Guthrie carried out his order, it would have been a straightforward case of a journalist being sacked at the behest of the government because she told an “inconvenient truth”. So much for the freedom of speech that conservatives claim to want to defend!

Among Milne’s other targets, reportedly, were the ABC’s youth radio network Triple J and Tom Ballard, host of the comedy show Tonightly, which the ABC cancelled in September.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane is right to describe Milne as having been “the Liberal Party’s inside man in a broader, and increasingly relentless, war against the ABC”. And if it wasn’t for Guthrie’s sacking, and the later revelations about his behaviour, he’d still be there. 

Guthrie gave the ABC board all the information it needed to see that Milne was an agent for Turnbull, actively undermining the ABC’s independence from within. They sided with Milne. It was only when the details of his dispute with Guthrie went public that Milne was forced to resign.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The slogan might have it that “It’s your ABC”, but when you look at the personnel heading the organisation, it’s clear it’s much more “theirs” than “ours”.

Of the seven board members, only one is a journalist – the staff-elected director Jane Connors. The rest are all, like Guthrie and Milne, bigwigs from the corporate world, with a definite lean toward those with connections to the conservative side of politics.

ABC board appointments are supposed to be made by the government on the advice of an independent nomination panel. The process minimises direct political interference. For half of the current board, however, appointments were made without the endorsement of the panel.

The last three appointments to the board, made by the Coalition government since the beginning of 2017, were: Minerals Council of Australia chair Vanessa Guthrie, Queensland agribusiness owner Georgie Somerset and Gersh Investment Partners chair – and friend of former treasurer Peter Costello – Joseph Gersh.

You might ask what qualifications such people have to be running such an important public cultural institution. From the government’s perspective, it’s a no-brainer. They can be trusted to keep steering the organisation to the right, and to keep pushing through the slow drip of funding cuts.

However, the aim of the government’s war of attrition with the ABC isn’t, as the mainstream narrative would have it, to rid it of “left wing bias”.

No doubt, from the perspective of the conservative side of politics, the ABC is a bastion of socialism. How could it be otherwise? This is an organisation that, in contrast to private media companies like News Corp, has a legislated role to serve the Australian public, rather than just the political or business interests of its owners.

Its establishing legislation mandates the ABC to broadcast programs that “inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.

Unlike the Murdoch media, it can’t wage campaigns about made-up or fringe issues that will boost the electoral prospects of the Liberal Party. This is one reason that, despite the constant attacks from the conservatives, the ABC and SBS remain among Australia’s most trusted institutions, and are by far the most trusted major media organisations. 

It’s clear to most people that the Murdoch press is right wing, pro-business propaganda. The ABC seems a more serious, authoritative source. This alone is a thorn in the side of the conservatives. 

The reality, however, is that the ABC has never had a left wing bias in the way the government claims. Any appearance of bias is created by it occasionally inviting onto programs such as Q&A pundits who reflect something of the diversity of political opinions among the Australian public.

For instance, if a panellist on Q&A denounced the government for its inaction on climate change, opposed the Adani mine and called for a significant investment in renewables, it would put the conservatives in a spin about the “socialist” ABC. Yet this hypothetical panellist would only reflect the opinion of the vast majority of Australians.

For the most part, the ABC steers a course firmly within the bounds of the centre ground of Australian politics – which over the past few decades at least has been steadily shifting to the right. 

The more fundamental reason the government hates the ABC, and ultimately wants to destroy it, relates to its ideological opposition to any form of public ownership. The Liberals are enemies of anything that might stand in the way of corporate profits. If the government is providing something to the public, it means the capitalist class can’t make money by doing it.

In the past, much wider sections of the Australian economy were in public hands – basic services like electricity and water, telephones, airports, railways, sections of the banking system, housing construction and so on. In the post-WWII period, it was assumed some things were better run by government.

The neoliberal turn from the late 1970s put paid to that idea. Public ownership has been systematically wound back under both Labor and Coalition governments.

This has been a boon for the capitalists and bad for everyone else. Far from making things cheaper and more efficient, the privatisation of services, such as electricity, has made costs skyrocket.

To the Liberals and their corporate mates, this is the best of all possible worlds – one in which they can squeeze the maximum profit out of people in every aspect of our lives. According to this neoliberal world view, the continued existence of the ABC (just like public education, health care and so on) is a travesty.

In a speech made when he was a backbencher in 2008, communications minister Mitch Fifield said, “Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post … There is merit in such proposals”. He cautioned, however, that such a move would not be politically popular and that “any government prepared to go down that path would need to prepare the ground”.

Fifield now claims to have changed his mind. He can’t be taken seriously. In June, the Liberal Party’s federal council voted for privatisation.

What’s needed today is more public broadcasting, not less. Information is a public good and, in a wealthy society like ours, it should be a basic right. 

We can’t rely on private media companies to provide us with quality journalism – all they care about is profit. A future in which we’re forced to depend on the likes of Rupert Murdoch to provide us with the information we need to navigate society and form political opinions is very bleak.