In a cheap and counterproductive factional stunt, the Young Liberals (a group whose very existence surprises me) raised a motion at the national conference that the ABC should be privatised. And even more embarrassingly for the LNP government, the motion was passed overwhelmingly.
Unsurprisingly, the government went into damage control, insisting there were no plans to sell off the national broadcaster. And I kind of agree with that explanation… For now.
For a government as duplicitous and ambitious in its goals of upwards redistribution of wealth, a well-funded and well respected ABC is an obstacle. The media’s role of being an impartial 4th pillar of democracy requires that journalists are able to investigate and report on the actions of our elected representatives without fear or favour so that they can expose corruption and wrongdoing.
This capacity is fatally weakened when the large media organisations that employ journalists are in bed with the government and it is not a difficult argument to suggest that despite its role of supposedly delivering ‘news’ and informing the electorate, Newscorp’s partisan and deceptive conduct is actually bad for our democratic process. It is illustrative that Pauline Hanson’s crusade against the ABC came in the wake of their truthful reporting of her hypocrisy and incompetence.
But while I think the LNP would love to be rid of the ABC so they could continue to lie about their policies, reward their cronies and line their pockets without fear of consequence from the electorate, I don’t think privatisation is on the near horizon at this point.
It just wouldn’t be smart policy. And admittedly this is a government not famous for smart policy in the areas of economic management, energy, communications, to name a few, but trying to sell the ABC now would be politically damaging.
The ABC is far too respected- much more so that the politicians who want to get rid of it- for the electorate to accept such a move.
So the LNP have to play the long game. They will only be able to sell the ABC when the community values it less.
Hence the death of a thousand cuts.
Through cuts to its funding, the Liberal government decreases the ABC’s capacity to produce the range of services it is valued for. It also forces the ABC to choose between investigative reporting and entertainment programs and under ex-Newscorp executive Michelle Guthrie (herself a Liberal appointee) the ABC has already begun reportedly leaning further towards entertainment at the expense of its investigative journalism.
Any government is wary of the term ‘funding cuts’ and the backlash to the cuts in the recent budget show why. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be more to come. Watch for the cuts disguised as funding freezes, where the amount of actual funding remains the same but what it can buy reduces with inflation over time.
Aside from limiting its resources, the other way the government hastens the demise of the national broadcaster is through policy and rhetoric that is harmful to its interests. Shady sweetheart deals to commercial competitors (did we ever find out why Foxtel were granted 30 million in the 2017 budget?) obviously disadvantage the ABC and can reduce its market share.
Moreover, throw enough mud and something often sticks. And the Coalition has been throwing a lot of mud in recent years. Accusations of institutional left wing bias have been made consistently made by senior government ministers and enthusiastically expanded on by editorials in the commercial media. The PM himself (a man not averse to twisting the truth himself) has complained to the ABC about the reporting by a number of its journalists. I don’t expect these complaints to find any evidence of bias, just like Tony Abbott’s sham inquiry didn’t. However the optics of these criticisms strikes at the public’s trust in the ABC. These tactics also have an intimidatory effect, warning ABC journalists to be ever-more careful of criticising government policies even when they are warranted, to the disgust of progressive voters.
When it is unable to afford to create content we value and we no longer trust its reporting as thorough and impartial; then there will be little argument to its privatisation from a public who already seems largely indifferent to the shocking dishonesty and self-serving nature of this government that supposedly represent us.