Menzies Research Centre – ABC Accountability

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Menzies Research Centre – ABC Accountability

23 April 2021

The ABC was never intended to operate as a political cheer squad, yet that is what it has become. It now bears almost no resemblance to the once proud institution older Australians might remember from their youth. In the words of Richard Bowyer, the ABC’s distinguished post-war chairman, the ABC should aspire to be “an impartial clearing house for our ideas … a much-needed centre of national unity.”

A survey this week shows how far it has strayed from that ideal. Just 37 per cent of Australians believe the ABC to be accurate and impartial, and those people largely vote Labor or Greens. More than two-thirds (72 per cent) of Liberal voters believe the ABC’s coverage is biased and inaccurate.

In my state of South Australia, 64 per cent of people think the ABC is biased and in Queensland the figure is higher at 72 per cent. It is clear that the ABC is out of touch with mainstream Australia. It is essentially a staff led collective which is not fulfilling its charter and it is failing to provide “…programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community”.

We conservatives have nobody to blame but ourselves. After seven years of Coalition governments failing to rein Aunty in, it’s hard to be critical of the progressive overreach of ABC programming.

For backbenchers like myself, the Senate estimates committee hearings offer a narrow window to hold the national broadcaster to account. For the two hours that the ABC’s managing director is in the chair, Labor, the Greens and the cross-bench line up to defend the ABC while Government Senators like myself seek every available second to cross examine them in relation to the myriad of funding and editorial decisions made during the last quarter.

Last March, I cross examined ABC management in relation to the justification for spending millions on “ABC Everyday” (formerly ABC Life), part of the ABC’s website which runs the kind of articles one can find on numerous magazine style websites like “Mamamia”.

I cannot understand why the taxpayer is forced to pay for articles including but not limited to “Buying the perfect avocado won’t be a gamble with these tips” or “I wanted to set an example for my kids. Why these men took their wife’s surname”.

I also explored the rationale for a senior ABC producer emailing staff to tell them to “avoid” using the term “paedophile” to “not marginalise” those in the community who had such impulses but who had not acted upon them. Two basic lines of questioning. If I had the benefit of the entire day, I could have continued for hours.

On each occasion, the managing director appeared uncomfortable; in many instances he sought the sanctuary of taking the questions on notice or alternatively looked blithely in disbelief at the line of questioning as if we were speaking a different language.

The net effect of such questioning is essentially nil. We return to our respective corners, and the ABC continues to carry on with its business.

This organisation grows more recalcitrant every day. Like children who have been allowed to stay up past bedtime without recrimination, our national broadcaster now sees the lack of recourse against them as a green light and have been doubling down on their behaviour.

Being up past their bedtime has degenerated into starting a bonfire in the back room.

In 2021, Australians have more choice than they could ever have imagined with the meats of their media stew. The internet, print media, radio and television can all be accessed on a smart phone from almost any location.

Unlike their commercial competitors, the ABC has no need to attract subscribers, nor venture capitalists, nor it would seem, the approval of an ombudsman or any significant editorial scrutiny.

In 2021, the ABC can do as it pleases, when it pleases and expect little scrutiny from anywhere outside an occasional run on Sky News Outsiders or a line of uncomfortable questioning from a frustrated backbencher in Senate estimates.

The Australian taxpayer contributes $1.1 billion per annum to our national broadcaster and in the main, receives a diatribe of inner-city leftist politics vomited at us through our TV screens and smartphones.

Presently, there is no legislative requirement for the ABC to report individual salaries of their staff or the costs of programming such as television or web page content.

In addition to those matters, there is no legislative requirement for the ABC to report program ratings or web hits outside the ABC’s own Corporate Tracking Program which purports to provide insights into community perceptions about the value of the ABC’s contribution to Australian society.

It is therefore impossible for the Australian public to determine whether the taxpayer is getting value for money in relation to the staffing and programming decisions made by management.

The Australian people deserve accurate and impartial news and current affairs programming.

An obvious deficiency in the public broadcasting landscape is a public broadcasting Ombudsman. An independent, accountable, and accessible body to receive, investigate, make decisions, give directions to and facilitate the resolution of complaints in relation to the sector in a timely and independent manner.

But before we even get to that point, there is a critical need for a thorough, far reaching and independent review.

The last fulsome inquiry of that nature was the inquiry chaired by Alex Dix in 1983.

The Fraser government commissioned this inquiry in 1979, as the national broadcaster approached its 50th anniversary and found that:

The ABC is now nearly 50 years old, and in the last decade its record has faltered… The ABC has been led into changes which have ended nowhere, such as the experiment with access radio; on the other hand it has remained aloof from other directions of obvious change, such as multicultural broadcasting… The ABC has become slow moving, overgrown, complacent, and uncertain of the direction in which it is heading despite the efforts of many talented and dedicated people who work for it.

The review urged fundamental change, making 273 wide-ranging recommendations on the future objectives, powers, and policies of the ABC.

This critical deep dive took place in 1983, the year in which Bob Hawke became Prime Minister, Australia won the America’s Cup, and the internet was something you might have taken fishing.

Since that time, there have been other, more tailored inquiries, such as the review by Bob Mansfield, whose findings were published in the 1997 report, The Challenge of a Better ABC (the Mansfield report).

The time for meaningful action to fix the ABC is a distant speck in the rear vision mirror and the starting point must be a full, proper and independent review into its operations from the perspective of a modern world with an enormous diversity of media available at its fingertips.

There are 1.1 billion reasons why this is anything but unreasonable. The ABC has been bound and gagged by left wing ideology for too long. It’s time for a hostage rescue mission to return Aunty to middle Australia.

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