Our ABC: A bipartisan corporation?


Antony Green has cast his verdict on the 2019 election. We have a new-old government and a new minister for communications. It now falls to the Hon Paul Fletcher MP to steward Australia’s media landscape and to protect our beloved ABC.

What is the task before him? Born from bipartisanship, the ABC is a great national institution. But how rosy is its future, and how solid are its bipartisan foundations?

Taking his inspiration from an oscilloscope waveform, senior designer Bill Kennard came up with the ABC logo in 1965. The logo is a ‘lissajous’ figure, named after the French physicist, Jules Lissajous, who used tuning forks and mirrors to ‘see’ sound and light waves. For Australians today, no corporate insignia is more recognisable.

The lissajous bulges serve multiple figurative and metaphorical purposes. They represent the broadcaster’s up and down fortunes and wobbly political capital. They are a simplified triptych org-chart, representing radio, television and the increasingly important ‘other’, including online content. And they represent a stylised double-handshake between the ABC’s owners on the Left and the Right.

The logo stands for something that is loved and respected around the world, yet in Australia, the ABC has long been a political battleground. Its history features admirable examples of principled bipartisanship, along with abysmal instances of petty politics. Today, the lack of cross-party consensus is the main threat to the broadcaster’s future. How did we get here?

In the beginning

Human rights. An independent legal system. Representative government. A free press. These are meant to be the pillars of the Australian polity. Strong stones were added to the fourth pillar in 1932 with the launch of ABC radio, and in 1942 when the Australian Broadcasting Act received royal assent.

The ABC’s Perth headquarters in 1937. Source: Wikipedia

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons was responsible for the ABC’s 1932 launch. One year earlier, in a period of economic and political upheaval, ‘Honest Joe’ Lyons led a group of defectors from the right of the Labor Party to the cross-benches. Five left-wing NSW Labor members, who were aligned with NSW Premier Jack Lang, also spilt. Lyons led the resulting United Australia Party (one of the precursors of the modern day Liberal Party) to a sweeping electoral victory.

In the years before the ABC, Australians had relied on a gaggle of individually managed wireless services, overseen and licensed by the Postmaster General’s department. The new legislation tidied things up. Lyons knew a bit about radio: apart from formerly serving as Labor Premier of Tasmania, he’d been Postmaster General in Scullin’s Cabinet prior to the spilt.

Lyons was the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office – and the ABC broadcast the news of his death, in April 1939. Later that year, Prime Minister Robert Menzies used the newish ABC to announce that ‘Australia is also at war’. Vastly superior to the old telegraph systems, radio would be indispensable in wartime. (The Australian and New Zealand Wireless Squadron made what is believed to be the world’s first radio-detection instrument. It could capture enemy signals both from the air and through the earth.)

Gutted

Churchill and Hitler perfected the use of radio for propaganda purposes. When the Fuhrer spoke to 15,000 followers in Berlin on 26 September 1938, his speech was transmitted to dozens of countries from Lithuania to Uruguay. When Churchill warned Hitler that Britons would fight on the beaches, he did so via radio.

Winston Churchill delivering his first radio broadcast as prime minister. Source: Time Magazine

War is a great driver of bipartisanship. It is a time when political parties point their swords at a common enemy rather than each other. Legislated under Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, the Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 was based principally upon the recommendations of the cross-party Joint Committee on Broadcasting.

The Act provided for the ABC to be editorially independent, but that wasn’t enough to protect the ABC or allow it to thrive. According to historian and journalist Nick Cater, just three years later, at the end of World War II, ‘the ABC was a decadent, hollow institution. Its authority had been compromised by a poorly drafted charter and further undermined by timid management, poor governance and creeping wartime censorship’.

In April 1945, Richard Boyer refused to accept the post of ABC chair – until Curtin issued an explicit mandate of independence, along with a charter that Boyer himself drafted. (The famous Boyer Lectures are broadcast on Radio National in his honour.)

Post-war growth: television, Olympics, cricket and Alvin Purple

Menzies was Prime Minister when, in 1953, the federal parliament passed the Television Act, which provided a regulatory framework for the ABC and the commercial television networks. The Act ushered in a succession of ABC milestones. Four Corners (launched in 1961), Play School (1966), and coverage of the Vietnam war, which influenced political parties’ stances on whether to back conscription and whether to remain in the war at all.

Jackie Weaver and Graeme Blundell on the set of Alvin Purple, 1976. Source: National Archives

While the public has a strong view that governments appoint their own political mates and puppets to boards, it doesn’t always work out that way. Board members with political leanings don’t always do what their political masters want. In 1970, the ABC’s board of commissioners was full of Menzies and Holt appointees when it pushed back against a directive that budget cuts be focused on current affairs. The board’s chair, Sir Robert Madgwick, led a delegation of commissioners to Canberra to tell the responsible minister they wouldn’t comply. The government blinked and the pressure stopped, at least for the time being.

The 1976 TV series on Alvin Purple’s sexual adventures was an emblem of changing social attitudes and lifting Australian confidence. After three episodes, the ABC’s commissioners pulled the program, but it was allowed back on air after the producers made a few little edits. This was a victory for the ABC’s independence, and another test of the power of partisans to mess with it.

Malcolm Fraser, having been implicated in one of the most partisan acts in Australian political history, was determined to ‘turn on the lights’ in Australia: to restore our economic fortunes and improve governmental accountability. Under Fraser, self-government was conferred on the Northern Territory; the Commonwealth Ombudsman was established; and Australia’s inaugural Freedom of Information laws were enacted.

In 1979, the Fraser government commissioned the Dix inquiry, which recommended that the ABC become more innovative, commercial, competitive and diverse. The inquiry made 273 recommendations, including that ‘the organisation must become more entrepreneurially minded’ and ‘overcome its distaste for the commercial’. With respect to diversity, Dix found that the ABC had ‘a duty to provide programs to Australian society as a whole and its constituent community elements’.

One of Malcom Frasers’ most significant achievements, and a symbol of his dedication to both multiculturalism and independent broadcasting, was the creation of the ABC’s sister organisation in 1980: the Special Broadcasting Service. Since that time, SBS has largely avoided the bombs that are regularly thrown at the ABC. (One cheeky explanation favoured by Canberra insiders: there is bipartisan support for a broadcaster that specialises in ‘Sex before Bedtime Shows’.)

Also in 1980, Triple J was launched as a youth-focused FM radio station; and it soon became a bastion for young Australians. (It was how a generation would first learn of the death of Kurt Cobain.) In 1983, after partisan divisions on complaints procedures, the federal parliament passed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Bill. The purpose of the Bill was to modernise the ABC. It required the broadcaster to inform, educate and entertain in ways that were innovative and comprehensive.

Hard and soft power

Over time, as the functions and services of the ABC have expanded, they’ve also become indispensable. During the disastrous Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, for example, the ABC provided a life-saving emergency information service. After the fires were out, it played an equally important role in helping the recovery. The ABC enjoys bipartisan support for its role as a trusted voice in national crises. It also performs important roles in education and social development. And it serves a critical political function.

ABC TV test pattern, 1975. Source: YouTube

Investigative journalism is an essential part of our democracy. We’ve not yet seen a Watergate-style scandal in which journalists bring down a national leader. But we’ve seen many scandals almost as outrageous. And more often than not, the ABC’s journos have been deep in the fray. Their freedom and capability to do this is just as important as a check and a balance in Australia as it is in the even more politically fraught USA. So it is no surprise that media organisations in general, and the ABC in particular, are of great interest to the people who depend on electoral popularity.

Even on meagre public-sector budgets, the ABC has always fought above its weight. Four Corners, the 7:30 report, Lateline, Media Watch: these have all served as powerful platforms for heavy-hitters like Geraldine Doogue, Johnathon Holmes, Andrew Olle, Paul Lyneham and Chris Masters. Journalists such as Leigh Sales and Kerry O’Brien (at one time the ‘dead man talking’) have the power to make politicians deeply nervous. Some ABC legends even entered politics themselves – including Walkley-winning Sarah Henderson, who won (second time around) the prized seat of Corangamite for the Liberal Party, and Maxine McKew, who won John Howard’s seat of Bennelong for Labor.

Thus equipped, the ABC has long been a formidable competitor against the grand old names of Australia media: the Packers, Murdochs, Fairfaxes and Stokeses. It also stands up well against the new media. And therein lies a problem. ‘Never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the truckload.’ That’s a smart aphorism, and even more so for arguments with someone who owns great arcs of air-waves, or wide lanes of digital traffic. The big private media players see the ABC very differently to how audiences do. The big players meet the ABC in the marketplace – and would happily stomp on its bones.

In that ambition, the big media organisations have found allies in the Liberal Party, some of whose members fought a hot war against the institution that Paul Keating, in his 1993 ‘True Believers’ speech, referred to affectionately as ‘Aunty’. Among other interventions, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Cabinet reportedly called for ABC journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn to be sacked, and the young liberals reportedly called for the whole institution to be sold (a call repeated by the Institute of Public Affairs).

Bending and skirting

For politicians, accountability has always been a two-edged sword. They invariably say public corporations must be independent and non-partisan. Opposition parties forever complain that governments are secretive and unaccountable. And when those oppositions come to power, they often see journalists and auditors-general and Freedom of Information and parliamentary oversight as pesky and burdensome. Much better to rely on guidelines and codes of conduct that can be bent and skirted.

In the case of the ABC, the normal risks and concerns about public agencies are magnified and intensified. There is an inherent conflict between the executive branch of the state, and the investigative journalists within the ABC who perform an acute role in public accountability. The impetus to reign in the ABC’s independence is even stronger than for ordinary public enterprises.

The ABC has drawn hostility from both sides of politics: this, as Kerry O’Brien recently noted, is sound evidence that it is doing its job. In the 1980s, Four Corners alleged interference by NSW Premier Neville Wran in a police investigation into rugby league and misappropriated funds. A Royal Commission followed and Wran was forced to step down. When ultimately Wran was exonerated, he sued the ABC for defamation. Many people on the Labor side were furious at the national broadcaster.

Both Labor and Coalition governments have had run-ins with the ABC. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The political playbook for attacking the ABC was well and truly in place when John Howard’s senior advisor Graham Morris labelled the ABC as ‘our enemy talking to our friends’, and Howard’s communications minister Richard Alston launched a continued campaign against ‘ABC bias’. At the peak of his campaign, in the first half of 2003, Senator Alston made 68 complaints.

But there is an alternative view, that the ABC actually helps achieve mature and informed debate and ultimately good policy. ABC coverage arguably helped get bipartisan support for signature Hawke era reforms, including deregulating the financial sector and floating the Australian dollar. More recently, it might have contributed to bipartisanship on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In the 1980s, the National Crime Authority initiated a special investigation into organised crime. The investigation required all state governments to agree – and they did, even Queensland after some arm twisting. Chris Masters subsequently ran the Four Corners ‘Moonlight State’ investigation into police corruption in that state. This led to the infamous Fitzgerald Inquiry, with fallout including the gaoling of police commissioner Terry Lewis and subsequent resignation and criminal trial of knighted Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson.

How can we shield the ABC from interference?

One way is through the design of legislation. In 2010, the Gillard Government reformed the provisions of the ABC Act relating to appointments to the ABC and SBS boards. The main change was to introduce an arm’s length nomination process involving an independent panel that would make recommendations to the government of the day. The aim was to de-politicise board appointments. The reforms even included an almost unheard-of requirement: that the government should consult with the leader of the opposition.

How people conduct themselves in governance roles is another potential protection for the ABC. In the sphere of independent and ethical conduct, Donald MacDonald is an exemplar. Soon after the Liberal-National coalition came to power in 1996, MacDonald was appointed as ABC chair. He was already a close friend of Prime Minister John Howard, and his mission at the broadcaster was reportedly to overturn a perceived anarcho-syndicalist dynamic. But once at the helm of the ‘ABC workers collective’, MacDonald established with Howard what is now seen as the gold standard of apolitical governance of a major public entity.

Years later, MacDonald shared details of the agreement he’d made with Howard soon after his first appointment as chair. The pair agreed to have no informal or off-record conversations about the broadcaster. If MacDonald needed to speak to the Prime Minister about the ABC, he had to contact the PM’s office and set up a meeting in the usual way. And when those rare meetings took place, they were limited to matters of funding and top-level governance, rather than questions of content or personnel. Both men, it seems, kept to the spirit and the letter of the agreement.

Where are we now?

In 2017, Triple J found itself in the middle of a political brouhaha. The idea of moving the annual ‘Hottest 100’ countdown from January 26 to another day, out of respect for the first Australians and in response to clear audience feedback, was poorly received among conservative politicians.

Source: Triple J

The FM flap fed the wider culture-wars controversy over the Australia Day date. So far, there is bipartisan support for 26 January, but even Jeff Kennett has changed his mind, and it is only a matter of time before the date is moved. The Hottest 100 shift was reportedly front-of-mind when the government pressured ABC chair Justin Milne to pressure CEO Michelle Guthrie to – well, to do something about this and other instances of perceived bias.

That episode ended messily. In the wash-up of Milne’s exit and Guthrie’s removal, then Opposition leader Bill Shorten called for bipartisanship on the ABC. PM Scott Morrison replied that the Opposition Leader was mistakenly thinking he was in caretaker mode. Morrison was determined to call the shots, and he did so in 2019 by appointing Ita Buttrose as the new chair.

A widely respected authority on media and etiquette and much else besides, Ita Buttrose was the editor-in-chief of the middle-brow Australian Women’s Weekly – and the much pulpier Cleo Magazine – for the Packer family. Maurice Newman, former ABC chair, criticised Buttrose’s appointment, which he said made ‘a mockery’ of the independent process and was unfair to other candidates. A ‘captains call’ or ‘drop-in’ from over the top, partisan or not, is never fun for the people who miss out. But Buttrose’s appointment has been welcomed on both sides of the chamber. Her strong CV, community standing and star quality together meant Labor had no choice but to lend bipartisan support to her appointment.

In April 2019, a Senate Inquiry reported on allegations of political interference in the ABC. In this case, there was no consensus to be seen. The Senate Committee split along party lines, with Labor and the Greens accusing the Government of being ‘complicit in the events of 2018 [the departures of Guthrie and Milne] by using funding as a lever to exert political influence in the ABC’. This was strongly rejected by the committee’s Government senators.

In the lead up to the 2019 election, Labor promised to restore the most recent cut to the ABC budget, to the tune of $83.7 million over three years, and to provide additional funding, including for Australian content, regional news and emergency broadcasting. The Opposition remained silent on the other $250 million cut by the Abbott-Turnbull government. The Coalition remained deftly silent on both cuts, and the future funding of the ABC. (The closest the Government came to a commitment was when its senators responded to calls for a new five-year funding model, by saying the ABC’s annual $1 billion funding was ‘substantial.’)

In a dangerous move during an election campaign, CEO David Anderson said the ABC would face ‘inevitable’ job cuts and programming disruptions if the Morrison government was re-elected. After the election, Ita Buttrose was quick to smooth things over, telling staff they had nothing to fear. Perhaps even more dangerous were the broadcaster’s efforts to be seen as radically non-partisan during the campaign. The radio shock jock Alan Jones – notorious for his divisive and incendiary contributions to some of the most reprehensible events of recent Australian history – was welcomed on Q&A as a benign pundit.

Not relaxed, not comfortable

If someone traces the ABC lissajous in the air, most Australians can read it as a signifier of ‘Our ABC’. This perfect logo is an Australian infinity symbol – fifty per cent larger than the ordinary one. But the ABC itself is far from infinite. It is vulnerable – to funding cuts, to competition from new media, and to political attacks.

Lissajous. Source: Interactive Mathematics

Now that the election is over and we’ve entered the new-old normal, perhaps Paul Fletcher (lawyer, former Optus executive and author of Wired Brown Land?) could invite the new shadow minister and the Chair of the ABC for a polite sit-down. Maybe they could reset the new tone of the debate. Or, better still, perhaps they could lay the foundations for a new consensus.

In our social media era, it is more important than ever that we have trusted institutions like the ABC, which speak to power without fear or favour, and which reliably curate facts. (Social media might help people be more connected; it might even be used one day to save lives in emergencies; but it also polarises us politically, and makes good policy more difficult. Imagine trying to have an informed debate on Twitter or Facebook about something as complex and important as floating the dollar or removing tariffs.)

Over the history of the ABC, we’ve seen many forms and modes of bipartisanship. Sometimes there has been real bipartisanship in the national interest. Sometimes there’s been faux bipartisanship, with one party forced to play along. But the ABC’s viability, and its vital role as a free and fair umpire and contributor to the public good, depends on genuine bipartisan support.

Today, that support is at a low ebb. What will Ita, ScoMo and Albo do to set things right?

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