Once respected as a trusted voice, today the ABC is increasingly viewed as a loose-knit, self-serving collective which appears largely held together by a common hostility for the society in which its members live, work and prosper. Its lack of self awareness knows no bounds.
The recent Coronation broadcast saga is emblematic of its internal dysfunction. No longer hiding its biases, the broadcaster advertised a two-hour special on ‘how relevant the monarchy is to the lives of Australians, and within the broader Commonwealth in 2023’. Predictably, it featured a panel dominated by pro-republic figures, including former Q+A host Stan Grant, who spoke at length about colonisation and the damage the monarchy has inflicted on indigenous Australians.
Comments, described by the ABC ombudsman as ‘jarring and distracting’, were aired in the prelude to the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Many thousands of viewers complained.
Citing racial abuse and lack of public support from people at the ABC, Grant announced he was ‘standing down’ from Q+A.
While accepting his sensibilities, the bigger question is why, in the first place, did management schedule a programme where his ‘jarring and distracting views’ would likely be aired?
His protest received an apology from managing director, David Anderson, who blamed Grant’s distress on commercial media’s ‘sustained and vitriolic’ anti-ABC reporting. Outraged viewers received no such apology.
No doubt Grant did receive some racial abuse on social media. However it is important to distinguish legitimate criticism of an Aboriginal presenter’s contemptuous attitude towards the Crown (even if ‘spoken with love’), from racial abuse.
Sadly, the term racism has been so commoditised, that indigenous journalist Dan Bourchier thinks his regular invitations to appear on Insiders are tokenistic and simply to tick a diversity box. ‘I’m dismissed as your diversity pick or a box ticker….’
With the emphasis on diversity and inclusion, Mr Bourchier’s TV appearances do leave open the question of whether they are merit based? Equally, ideologically driven cultures provide a convenient refuge for personal grievances. After all, when ideology drives emotions it’s easy to characterise what you want to believe as fact.
So, when broadcasting an Alice Springs community meeting, it’s excusable to omit the ‘full context’ and leave viewers to conclude it was a ‘disgusting show of white supremacy’.
Only when threatened with an official investigation did the broadcaster apologise for its ‘incomplete reporting’.
This wilful blindness was behind the ‘Fox and the Big Lie’, double-episode Four Corners attack on arch enemy, News Corporation. The Australian Communications and Media Authority found that the documentary breached the Code of Practice on accuracy and fair and honest dealing. Undaunted, the ABC aired the show again.
The ABC’s ideological crusades are becoming ever more shameless.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry observed that a Q+A program was ‘an outpouring of undiluted and uncontested falsehoods and vitriol’. It sought an apology for ‘inaccuracies and the omission of material context’. An apology was offered by Mr Anderson, which the collective claimed was a misrepresentation. It admitted only to ‘a small number of minor errors, mostly around the nuance in the use of contested terms’. The ECAJ strongly disputed these assertions, adding ‘no Jewish or Israeli voices were represented’. The ABC countered its invitations had been declined, deceitfully omitting they were not as a panel member but merely as a member of the audience.
Disingenuousness runs deep within the ABC. When the Morrison government announced a ‘highly contentious’ freeze on indexation the public was 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, it was ultimately forced to confess it had 120 more employees after the freeze than before. And while constantly crying poor, it still covered the $200,000 damages and costs of journalist Louise Milligan, after a judge found she defamed former Liberal MP, Dr Andrew Laming, on her private Twitter account. This was in addition to $780,000 in legal costs the ABC outlaid defending her against a defamation case brought by former attorney-general, Christian Porter. Ms Milligan is still employed by the ABC.
When emotion and ideology replace objectivity, it requires the employment of more than 26 sympathetic in-house lawyers. One dutifully resigned after tweeting the Morrison government was ‘fascist’.
How far the ABC has strayed from the vision of its longest-serving chair, Sir Richard Boyer. He wanted the broadcaster,‘To stand solid and serene in the middle of our national life, running no campaign, seeking to persuade to no opinion, but presenting the issues fairly and fearlessly for the calm judgment of the people.’ Today, it does anything but.
A Roy Morgan survey confirms the ABC has gone from 10th to 19th place in Australia’s ranking of trusted brands.
No surprise then that in the first GfK radio survey of the year, all of the ABC’s radio stations in every single metropolitan market experienced a concerning drop in audience share compared with the previous year. In the past twelve months, Sydney’s ABC 702 lost more than one third of its total audience falling to a paltry 5.9 per cent. Radio National averages a mere 64,000 listeners across Australia’s five biggest cities, the worst figures on record.
It’s the same with television. The flagship Q+A, which once boasted over a million viewers slumped to 221,000 last year.
The ABC is in terminal decline. Having abandoned Richard Boyer’s noble vision of integrity and impartiality, the board and management are casting around for new ways to win back impressionable audiences. They have decided on a five-year ‘digital-first approach’ across various platforms. As part of this restructure, 120 jobs are to go, including the position of political editor in Canberra; truly remarkable for an organisation supposedly in the news business. Still, erstwhile patrons will be excited to learn a new Climate Environment and Energy team has been created.
These moves are further validation of a fatal conceit, blind to the reality that it’s not the means of delivery turning people away, but a superior, out-of-touch elite, more intent on running political campaigns than putting fair and fearless broadcasts to air.