More Turmoil at the ABC
What a very grim year it has been for the ABC. There have been relentless attacks from Mitch Fifield, Minister for Communications, and other Ministers. There has been daily sniping from the Australian, Daily Telegraph and other organs of News Corporation. This year has seen the announcement of more swingeing budget cuts, on top of the devastating $254 million cut in 2014. The ABC reported recently that more than a thousand jobs had been lost. We have all witnessed the impact on Radio National, Classic FM and ABC television.
This year has seen a string of government inquiries designed to weaken and undermine the national broadcaster. If there were any doubts about the federal government’s intentions then these were blown away when the Liberal Party’s National Council voted overwhelmingly in June to sell-off the ABC. Immediate reassurance from Mitch Fifield, that the ABC would not be sold, did little to reassure. This was the Party that promised that there would “be no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
The government’s appetite for attacking the ABC is surprising in one obvious sense. The ABC remains among Australia’s most trusted and valued institutions. Independent poll after poll confirms this. The very latest poll, conducted by Roy Morgan in May, found the ABC to be in the top four Australian brands, across all product and service organisations. The ABC emerged as easily the most trusted media organisation; daylight second. Does it make political sense for a major political party, not highly trusted according to polled research, to persist with its assaults on the ABC? A lesson from the five by-elections held in July was that hostility towards the ABC played very badly for the federal government and was a factor in their failure to win any of the seats on offer.
And now there is more turmoil for the ABC with the very public sacking of Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, half-way through her five-year term. ABC Friends regret that the ABC is plunged into more controversy, which must be distracting for the organisation’s managers and staff. Our sympathy goes out to Ms Guthrie as she faces the humiliation and distress of such a public dismissal. ABC Friends always found her to be courteous, helpful and keen to attend our conferences and other events.
Much of the commentary in papers and on radio and television over the past two days has stressed that Michelle Guthrie faced an impossible task. She took up her role in mid-2016 and had to deal with the repercussions of the massive budget cuts announced in 2014. She then faced the relentless barrage of attacks described above. Several reports have suggested that she did not have the political skills required for the role. She is said to have been ineffective in her dealings with government and she clearly did not carry her Board with her. Further, she appears to have failed to have won over ABC staff. A significant proportion of ABC’s committed audience will associate her term with a perceived dumbing down of programs such as the 7 pm television news and the 7.30 Report.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald (26 September 2018) adds to the concerns surrounding Ms Guthrie’s sacking. The SMH states that ABC Chair, Justin Milne, received strong pressure from then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to discipline Emma Alberici, chief economics correspondent, following her critical commentary on the government’s proposed company tax cuts. Milne is said to have demanded that Alberici be sacked; Guthrie resisted. Friends’ over-riding concern is that the ABC must be independent; it must stand up to government attempts to influence content on the national broadcaster. This unseemly episode lifts the lid on the pressures that the former MD faced.
ABC Friends will look forward to working closely with the Acting MD, David Anderson, and we wish him well in this most important role; important for the ABC’s staff, its audience and indeed for all Australians. Our public broadcaster is integral to Australia’s democracy.
I wish to thank all Friends for your support, your donations and your engagement. While this has been a very challenging year, it has been heartening to see a large increase in membership, a surge in donations and the magnificent response of our members to the Sydney Rally and other events. We are sending a strong message to all political parties: Australians demand a well-funded and independent ABC.
I urge you to maintain your support for ABC Friends and do accept my very best wishes,