By JOSEPH GERSH
At a dinner to mark the 90th Anniversary of the establishment of the ABC on August 5th 2022, the Prime Minister, the Hon Anthony Albanese reaffirmed the commitment of the Labor party to ABC’s editorial independence. He recommitted his Government to funding the ABC for five years, effectively taking it out of the electoral cycle, reiterating Labor’s commitment to ending the previous government’s three-year indexation pause.
As part of the Australian government’s soft power initiatives to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo Pacific, the PM also committed to providing additional funds for ABC broadcasting in the region.
He outlined Labor’s guiding principle:
‘Confidence in our democratic system is underpinned by strong public organisations contributing accurate information and well informed, carefully reasoned analysis.’
And took aim at ABC’s critics:
‘We’ve all heard the mantras about the ABC as a haven of inner-city elites, repeated with straight faces by critics based … in our inner cities.’
The passage of the government’s 43% emissions reduction target legislation earlier in that August week was regarded by many as ending the ‘climate wars’.
So, does this recommitment of the Labor government’s policy and reaffirmation of ABC independence and funding presage the end of ‘the culture wars’, at least insofar as the ABC is concerned?
I hope so. But I fear not.
This is a timely backdrop to Zann Maxwell’s invitation to contribute an opinion piece to the Fabians Review, and the reason I accepted it.
I appreciate the opportunity to provide a personal perspective of my time on the ABC Board, to respond to some of the critics (and the criticisms) of its work and to confirm my belief, to quote the title of ABC Managing Director, David Anderson’s recent book, that ‘now more than ever’, Australia needs to support and value its public broadcaster, the ABC.
I joined the ABC Board in 2018 at a time of great turmoil; not that I knew it then. It is not the first time in my corporate career that the employment of a Managing Director has ended and that of the Chairman has followed suit. But it is the first time in my career that (apart from being litigated in the courts) my personal involvement has been the subject of a Four Corners investigation and a Senate sub-committee inquiry, to which I was summoned to explain my actions.
The reason, of course, is that the ABC operates in the full public glare and in a febrile environment where every step taken by the Board is scrutinised and commented on by supporters and detractors alike.
The subject matter of that particular controversy was, of course, alleged political interference. The concern being that the independence of the ABC had been threatened by the actions of the Government of the day and the then Chairman. I gave evidence to the Senate sub-committee inquiry in open forum and on camera.
The ABC of course judiciously guards its independence, and the ABC Board is charged by legislation to maintain both the independence and the integrity of the ABC.
And just as the ABC Board is independent of government interference, so editorial decisions are expected to be made by the Editor in Chief (the Managing Director), ABC’s journalists, editors and producers, free from interference from the Board.
The Board exercises its authority and discharges its duties by approving editorial policies and ensuring that those editorial policies are adhered to and by commissioning both internal and external reviews including regular reviews of the ABC’s complaints procedures.
The ABC is regularly accused of bias of one kind or another and the criticism sometimes levelled against the ABC is that it can be defensive when dealing with complaints. Indeed, the former complaints procedure, it is said, enables the ABC to ‘mark its own homework’, rather than be subject to external scrutiny.
To address this issue, in late 2021 the ABC commissioned a comprehensive independent review of its complaints handling procedures undertaken by former Commonwealth and NSW Ombudsman, Professor John McMillan and veteran journalist, Jim Carroll. In May 2022, the ABC accepted all of the recommendations of the McMillan/Carroll review, and, as a consequence, an Ombudsman (Fiona Cameron) was appointed, who will report directly to the board.
Coalition Senator Andrew Bragg, who had previously initiated a separate independent inquiry into the ABC and SBS complaints procedure by the Senate’s Environment and Communication Committee in November 2021, came out in support of the appointment of the Ombudsman, describing it as ‘a good decision’.
In a statement to the Senate (3 August) Senator Bragg said: ‘Having followed through the process of having a review, which the ABC commissioned into complaints handling, the ABC has now decided it will appoint an ombudsman … I welcome the decision.’
He, of course, cautioned: ‘…we will be able to probe the success, transparency and governance of the ombudsman over future Senate estimate rounds…’
A change of tone, nonetheless.
Of course, perception and reality are not the same thing.
Maurice Newman (a former ABC Chairman) and others have described the ABC as a ‘workers run collective.’
A more nuanced version of this criticism is that, ensconced in Ultimo, the ABC tends to focus on the preoccupations of ‘the inner-city elites’; a criticism mocked by the PM in his 90th birthday remarks.
For this reason and many others, the ABC’s Five-Year Plan to move up to 70% of ABC’s content makers out of Ultimo marks a recognition of the geographic and demographic reality of Australia. A reality not lost on an organisation that has over 60 locations and bureaus; a cogent answer to the perception that the ABC is the captive of ‘inner city elites’. The more recently announced move of the news team and others to Paramatta, closer to the geographic heart of Sydney is a significant step in the realisation of the decentralisation plan.
The proposition advanced by some of the most egregious and persistent of the ABC’s critics, namely that the ABC should be ‘cancelled’, sold, privatised or transformed into a subscription service (all of which amount to the same thing) continues to be prosecuted.
In fairness, this line of thought has never been the policy of the Coalition (despite a few resolutions of State Liberal party conferences to that effect). In the last Budget, the previous federal government committed to the reintroduction of indexation. Throughout all of the controversies during its term, the previous Government maintained a professional relationship and engagement with the ABC, seemingly understanding the importance of the public broadcaster’s role in modern Australia.
Those who propose an existential ‘solution’ to the ABC ‘threat’, of course, fail to recognise the contribution of the ABC to rural and regional Australia, to emergency broadcasting, to children’s programming, to arts and culture, to Australian drama and comedy, to music. In fact, some of the great supporters are elected members from rural and regional Australia where the ABC’s contribution is well recognised. This has been enhanced by the ABC earmarking the payments recently negotiated with the social media giants towards vastly expanded regional news. Yet the ‘existential solution’ continues to be advanced.
A variation on this theme, prescribed by certain think tanks, journalists and commentators, is to limit the ABC to areas (such as emergency broadcasting or children’s programming) which are perceived as not competing with the interests of commercial media. This argument is often advanced under the rubric of ‘market failure’ i.e. the ABC’s role should be confined to areas in which the market has demonstrably failed to provide what is perceived to be in the public interest. This argument fails to understand, appreciate or value what public broadcasting does in its own right, especially to raise the bar in the contested space of news and current affairs.
As I’ve written elsewhere, it is unbecoming, to say the least, for journalists and commentators, in the guise of reporting on or opining about the public broadcaster, to conflate their ideological position with their perception of the commercial interests of their publisher. In the case of News Limited, Mr Murdoch is more than capable of taking care of his financial interests and that of his shareholders without such ‘assistance’.
And what of the charge of ABC bias or, more accurately, the question of whether the ABC conforms with its obligation to be accurate and impartial?
To deal with bias, of course, it is necessary to declare my own. I generally align myself with liberal democratic values (centre right); perhaps a different perspective than the social democratic views of many of this journal’s readers. Specifically, whilst socially progressive, I prefer a market based economic approach (call me an economic conservative or free market liberal), and I believe that the democratic West should be robust in the defence of its values.
I’m on the record saying that the ABC should encourage more conservative voices. The more the ABC opens itself up to a diversity of views, the more likely it is to fully discharge its statutory obligations of accuracy and impartiality.
I’m also on record (SMH October 24,2021) as having accepted the criticism that the ABC’s ‘vibe’ is more left than right (a criticism also made of the BBC). But bias is in the eye of the beholder; I’ve witnessed the range of views of members of the public after I’ve written an article or commented on radio, ranging from those who perceive me to be a raging ‘progressive’ (apparently an insult), to an apologist for the previous government.
Whilst the ABC does not always get it right, the constant repetition of the allegation that the ABC is a ‘conservative free zone’ is not borne out by the facts. Instead of encouraging greater centre-right participation in the ABC dialogue and acknowledging the ongoing efforts of the ABC to balance the composition of panels and encourage alternative viewpoints, the repetition of this oversimplification is, in fact, counterproductive.
For example, a headline in The Australian (11 August) asserted in relation to the Uluru Statement referendum response: ‘(a)s far as the ABC is concerned only one voice will be heard’. It failed to acknowledge, for example, the contrary view expressed by, say, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price in the Q&A programme broadcast from the Garma Festival devoted to the subject and aired in the days following the PM’s announcement endorsing and adopting The Voice.
Despite having her views extensively aired, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price made a similar allegation at the National Party’s federal council meeting, shortly thereafter, predicting that ‘the ABC will only put a one-sided view on this’ (the Referendum), thus creating a new form of bias, perhaps to be known as ‘anticipatory bias’. I sometimes feel that it is not the ABC in reality, but the ABC as a metaphor that critics so often have in their sights.
As an individual member of a Board which itself has diverse opinions there are serious obligations imposed on each board member limiting the means by which we can (or indeed should) influence outcomes. In our deliberations, we leave our personal political convictions at the Boardroom door, and try to provide professional guidance and governance, but more importantly aim to promote the interests and advance the cause of the ABC.
This makes the suggestion that ABC Directors start with the right intentions but are ‘schmoozed by’ management (or become captive to the culture) so inappropriate. In that world, the ABC Directors are mere ciphers. Yiddish is my first language, so I’m as susceptible as any to being ‘schmoozed’, but I think that condescending description is not only insulting, but once again inaccurate.
This concept stems from a wholly misconceived notion that, having been appointed by a government of one persuasion or another, the duty of the directors is to prosecute the agenda of that government. I have had occasion to defend Ita Buttrose from calls that she should be sacked, pretty much for that reason. Former ABC Directors are often quoted as calling for the ABC Board to be sacked or new and onerous Director’s duties and sanctions be imposed which does beg the question to those former Directors: if the problem is so serious and the solution so obvious, why didn’t you fix it during your term of office?
I do not judge the ABC through the prism of whether it conforms with my political worldview. Nor, in fairness, is the ABC a monolithic institution propounding a ‘house view’.
As the child of holocaust survivors, I understand the cost of the breakdown of democracy, tolerance, and liberal values. Well before we lived in a post truth world, there was Goebbels. There are issues bigger than the controversies of the day that should guide our thinking about the nature of society and community. Holding our leadership to account and consolidating trust in our values and our institutions are key to this. We can never allow the trust the community has in ‘our’ ABC to be eroded.
For that reason, to me diversity and inclusion and support groups such as ABC Pride are not ‘woke’ afterthoughts but clear imperatives if we are to reflect modern Australia.
The ABC is criticised for its celebration of our First Nation. To me it is a moral imperative.
And whereas views differ about the economic consequences and hence the pace and nature of our response to climate change, the ABC’s determined effort to deal with the issue comprehensively is something of which we can be proud.
I don’t agree with everything at the ABC. There are things about the ABC’s coverage of the Middle East conflict, for example which trouble me.
But I’m steadfast in my belief that the ABC is one of the bedrock institutions of our democracy and polity.
The current change of atmosphere provides some ‘clear air’ and with that, opportunity for the ABC to deal with the real challenges it faces; challenges affecting public broadcasters and indeed media organisations everywhere. Such is the pace of change and innovation, that there may be as much change in the next decade of the ABC century as there was for much of the first ninety years.
The threats come not only from streaming services, but threats to truth itself, enhanced by artificial intelligence and cyber malevolence on a scale not hitherto contemplated.
What management has to try to navigate is two competing streams at the same time- sticking to the ABC’s core mission and strengths on the one hand and adapting to change at a rapid rate on the other.
As Ita Buttrose said in her 90th birthday speech-
‘We will need to increase the range of ideas, interests and experiences available to all Australians and strengthen Australia’s democratic values of open mindedness and tolerance by explaining and protecting diversity’.
It’s in the interests of every Australian that the ABC succeeds in this endeavour.
Joseph Gersh AM is Executive Chairman of Gersh Investment Partners Limited and a Director of the ABC. He was formerly Deputy Chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts. The views expressed are his own.