The only time that the BBC has ‘emu-lated’ an Australian broadcaster was in the early Seventies, when it suspended its Reithian commitment to ‘inform, enlighten and educate’ for long enough to find a slot for Channel 9 children’s show presenter Rod Hull, a safari-suited buffoon who specialised in assaulting celebrities with an emu hand puppet.
Since then, with the notable exception of Seven’s Neighbours and Home and Away – whose sunny backdrops were for many Poms an irresistible foil to the diurnal drear of Coronation Street and Emmerdale – and may have boosted emigration more than mad cow disease – most of the TV traffic has been in the opposite direction, with our own national broadcaster’s policies of bulk-buying BBC costume dramas and aping its program formats doing more to sustain the cultural cringe than any initiative dreamed up by Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. It wasn’t just The Ashes and the teabags which made this country such an easy place to move to from Blighty in the 1980s; it was also the knowledge that you wouldn’t miss an episode of Ab Fab and Pride & Prej. And while Q&A may have looked like a current affairs breakthrough to most of its audience when it launched in 2008, it was in almost every respect déjà vu to those of us who’d grown up watching the BBC’s Question Time. Even the ABC’s nickname is a shameless plagiarism – ‘Auntie’ having been the not entirely affectionate soubriquet of the older broadcaster since the 1940s, a legacy of the patronising, ‘Auntie knows best’ tone adopted by its exclusively Oxford- and Cambridge-educated presenters when addressing wartime audiences.
While the ABC has certainly become more confident about generating original content over the subsequent decades, its taxpayer-funded immunity to market forces meant that politically, at least, it has never rolled very far from the BBC tree, and like the older broadcaster can continue to churn out programs most of those taxpayers don’t want to watch, and to cater overwhelmingly to the interests of left-leaning inner-city elites with programs like Q&A (and Four Corners and The Drum and Insiders). So the only surprising aspect of its decision to answer the now near-deafening chorus of complaint about political bias by relocating some of its Ultimo operation to western Sydney is that it has taken so long, the Beeb having responded to identical charges fifteen years ago by relocating a good chunk of its staff and production facilities from pampered, over-educated central London to the north-western city of Salford, a dystopian post-industrial wasteland which makes Parramatta look like Vienna.
The new ABC offices won’t be finished for at least two years, so it will be a long time before we see any qualitative outcomes of this decision. And in the meantime, a more cynical columnist might be tempted to look for parallels between the ABC chairperson’s surprise Parramatta photocall last week and the US Vice President’s long-overdue visit to the US Mexican border a few days later. It is certainly reasonable to assume that under normal circumstances, both women would have had root canal work and colonic irrigation rather than make such a trip. And just as it is uncertain whether a few Yuma press conferences will turn the tide in the US’s burgeoning illegal immigration crisis, it remains to be seen whether the occasional presence of ABC’s senior management in the blue-collar centre of Australia’s most populous city will affect its future output. But it is, as someone once said about the killing of a single lawyer, a start. And if nothing else, it is grounds for hope that as well as continuing to pursue diversity policies, this new Peoples’ ABC might at some stage start employing a few Australians who don’t think that gender is a matter of choice, who don’t think that the world is coming to an end – and that white men are to blame for that – and who do think that creating jobs is more important than closing coal mines. But at time of writing that looks about as likely as Ita Buttrose becoming eligible for membership of the Australian Club.
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