For nine years Coalition governments have tolerated the national broadcaster’s defiant indifference to its charter and editorial policies. For nine whole years they have turned blind eyes to its partisan and divisive agenda, grudging apologies and defamation payouts.
Nothing the ABC collective does seems to spur the people’s representatives into action which makes them equally complicit in the contempt the ABC holds for those who pay its bills.
Indeed, rather than censure, the government has just restored full funding, even putting to an end a temporary, minor, ‘highly contentious, freeze on indexation’.
When the ‘freeze’ was announced we were told it would ‘rip the heart out of the ABC, and our democracy’. Neither was true. First the broadcaster is not known for its defence of democracy and second, the corporation was forced to reveal that it had 120 more employees in the 2020-21 financial year than it had in 2019-20.
Yet when chief executive David Anderson was asked at a Senate hearing last year about staff numbers, instead of admitting there were no cuts, he said he didn’t believe the organisation’s headcount had increased over the past year. Dissembling runs deep within the ABC.
When announcing the latest triennial funding, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher meekly reminded the broadcaster to ‘avoid either the reality or, the perception of political bias’, adding defensively, ‘that is not attacking the ABC’.
Australian content was his focus, ‘be it news or drama or documentary’. Each year the broadcaster will be asked to provide a report detailing staff numbers in regional and remote Australia, as well as hours of programming tailored to those audiences.
Clearly the minister would rather use the ABC as a make-work scheme for outback Australia than hold it accountable for editorial integrity. While that remains unattended, it matters little where programmes are made or, whether the head office is in Ultimo or Parramatta.
Indeed, how many apologies and defamation payouts must there be, how many biased stories like the reports on live cattle exports, NSW Racing, greyhound racing, climate change and the Dondale Detention Centre, to name a few, must there be, before someone in government grasps there is a deep cultural disdain for the ABC’s mission?
The corporation employs more than 26 in-house lawyers and has outlaid $26.5 million in legal expenses over four years. Perhaps when only around six per cent of all investigated complaints are fully or, partially upheld, explains why?
Some dissatisfied complainants like Chinese-Australian businessman Chau Chak Wing go to court.
He received $590,000 in damages when a Four Corners episode wrongly portrayed him as a Communist party member. Costs, believed to have been another $1 million, were also awarded.
Taxpayers also picked up the $200,000 tab for the damages and costs awarded to former Coalition MP, Andrew Laming, after ABC journalist Louise Milligan wrongly accused him, on her private Twitter account, of ‘up skirting’ a woman. This is the same Louise Milligan who relentlessly pursued Cardinal George Pell, leaving no doubt in viewers’ minds that he was a pedophile. Even when the High Court’s full bench unanimously found ‘the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof’, Ms Milligan and the broadcaster were unrepentant.
But the ABC cares little for evidentiary proof or for damaged reputations. Former Coalition senator Cory Bernardi and former attorney-general, Christian Porter, will attest to that. They were both effective rightwing politicians ABC journalists thought should be targetted.
Even the dead, like former NSW Labor premier Neville Wran, aren’t spared. In 1983 Wran sued the ABC for defamation for linking him to crime boss Abe Saffron. If he were alive today he would sue them again. Seeking vindication forty years on, a new documentary linked him to the ghost train fire at Sydney’s Luna Park, with claims Saffron was behind the fire and only escaped prosecution because of Wran. An independent review of Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, found it was misleading and wrongly implied a relationship.
It’s this lack of professionalism that produced the bungled documentary series which looked into the disappearance of journalist Juanita Nielsen. The ABC conceded there was a ‘serious editorial lapse’ and that they had failed to go through a stringent due diligence process.
It seems ABC journalists work in a ‘believe what you want to believe’ culture. It’s how, on the flimsy word of an unnamed US marine who heard ‘a pop on the radio’ and assumed it was a gunshot, they framed soldiers from the 2nd Commando Regiment’s November platoon of executing an Afghan prisoner.
This story conveniently fitted the narrative of ABC journalist Marc Willacy’s latest book which seeks to tarnish the reputation of Australia’s serving men and women; a common practice within the ABC. A qualified apology over sloppy journalism and breach of standards was issued but not reported. Pity about the members of November platoon who had lived with unproven allegations they were war criminals.
Yet these are the standards successive communications ministers, and the chairs, boards and management of the ABC have walked past. There are no consequences and there is no accountability. When $1.1 billion a year rolls in regardless, why change?
It is a national scandal. Former host of the broadcaster’s Media Watch programme, now chair of the ABC Alumni, Jonathon Holmes, in a ‘first ever’ election campaign, (really?) informs us, it is still ‘official Liberal party policy’ to privatise the ABC (it isn’t) and that the staff must vote Left. No bias there.
It is time to accept that while the ABC comprehensively fails to meet even its statutory obligations, multiple private media organisations regularly attain higher standards and provide better quality programmes in areas once considered the national broadcaster’s preserve, including services to regional and remote Australia.
In such a media market and, given the ABC’s institutionalised contempt for its mission, it is reasonable to conclude it has surrendered all claims for taxpayer support.
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