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2021: Here we go again!

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If Australians had to make a choice of greater trust between Dr Janet Albrechtsen of News Corp and the IPA or Dr Norman Swan and the ABC, is there any doubt about whom most would choose? Eric Hunter takes a look at claims made by some ABC critics, and the challenges facing the ABC in 2021

By Eric Hunter / 15 January 2021

The ink had, figuratively, barely dried on the Alumni’s summing up of theABC’s great achievements during 2020 when the anti-ABC attacks started all over, marking an inauspicious beginning to 2021.

Yes, it was The Australian, through its most vitriolic anti-ABC columnist, and disaffected former ABC Board member, Janet Albrechtsen, kicking off what will no doubt prove to be another year of unceasing attempts to pull down the public broadcaster(“It’s as easy as ABC to call for harsher lockdowns”, The Australian, 5 January).

Within two days, on 7 January, we hadanother Oz piece, this time by Nick Cater, a trenchant ABC critic who is happy to appear on ABC panels, usually finding an opportunity to slag the national broadcaster at the same time. Would he be allowed the same leeway – which some call simply rudeness – on a commercial channel?

In his January salvo Cater suggests the ABC is long over-due for a review of its Charter and questions if the national broadcaster is even needed in today’s world of multi-communications platforms. I would argue that with the proliferation of social media platforms and certain other outlets happy to espouse “fake news”, it’s more important than ever to have a reliable, quality driven and responsible public broadcaster that is fully accountable to parliament and the public.

Cater is Executive Director of the Menzies Institute, a conservatively-oriented “think-tank”. It marches very much in step with current Liberal ideology which, from my occasional direct associations with Sir Robert Menzies, would, I believe, have been anathema to our longest-serving Prime Minister.

Then, on 15 January in the Australian Financial Review, and later on the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) website, Dr Sinclair Davidson of RMIT pitched in,attacking the ABC in similar vein. He’s deeply involved with the IPA, which has as one of its prime objectives the removal of the ABC under the euphemism of “privatising” it. He even penned an IPA book on the subject, in collaboration with Chris Berg, “Against Public Broadcasting: why we should privatise the ABC and how to do it”.

No mention by either Davidson or Cater of SBS in their January articles – presumably it’s considered already privatised enough through its advertising revenues.

Cater and Davidson both refer to the ABC losing TV viewers, but neither acknowledges the ABC’s diverse coverage, its radio depth and reach, the geographic breadth of its various platforms across the whole country, or its contribution to Australia’s relationships in Asia and the Pacific through its highly regarded International service

Furthermore, Davidson effectively suggests that because the ABC doesn’t have “paying customers”, it somehow doesn’t have to care about its audience and just does as it pleases. He interprets media data as indicating that few Australians “actually consume their product” (highly arguable, in my view) and says a fully funded ABC is an “indulgence” Australia cannot afford. I wonder: does he apply the same reasoning to the relatively infrequent “usage” by most Australians of our other publicly funded institutions like the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art or any of the many state and regional cultural institutions? Should they too have their charters reviewed and perhaps be sold off?

Neither Cater nor Davidson seems to realise the key differences between the ABC and the commercial networks.

The latter are money making businesses, presenting programs to attract mass numbers of “bums-on-seats” to build mass advertising, leading to revenue-based profit.

The ABC, for more than 80 years has grown to become a highly valued institution by a clear majority of Australians. Why? Because it’s the most trusted broadcast medium in relation to news and information programs, supported by the quality and diversity of its programming and its connections between city, country and the other nations in our region. Not even the spin devised by its critics can lessen these long-standing achievements.

Cater does make what, on the face of it, may seem like a reasonable argument when asking why should the ABC be “competing against commercial news”. He fails, though, to acknowledge either the differences in style and subject coverage or, importantly, that the 2018 Competitive Neutrality Inquiry found the ABC (and SBS) had no case to answer in this regard.

In my view, both Cater’s and Davidson’s main misapprehension replicates that of the IPA in presuming the ABC should be regarded as a commercial organisation, with quantity of customer usage assuming more importance than quality of product. Clearly from the regular surveys, a majority of Australians disagree.

But to return to the columnist who fired the opening volleys in 2021. It is very disturbing to read a highly qualified journalist/columnist/lawyer like Dr Janet Albrechtsen starting the New Year by again resorting to distortions, over-exaggeration and plain errors in order to decry the ABC; all heightened by her tendency to pejorative-laden language as a tactic when questioning the professionalism of ABC staff.

Take this earlier example from a December 2020 column: “[ABC staff are] recruited from the same pool of woolly-minded idealists with journalism degrees from the same universities” (she doesn’t name any of these guilty universities). While I confess to having, on rare occasions, found myself in reluctant agreement with her more reasoned assessments of issues relating to the ABC, comments like this one are just plain silly.

Albrechtsen’s5 January commentary predictably continues in her usual pejorative tone but this time she targeted one of the ABC‘s most respected, longest-serving and highly qualified specialist journalists, Dr Norman Swan.

Albrechtsen claims that Swan has consistently overstated the dangers of Coronavirus infections, is over-indulged by management and is offering opinion without “balance”. She could perhaps have made some valid points worthy of discussion, but she chose instead to focus her attention on tearing down Swan’s highly respected professionalism and outstanding reputation.

Here’s an example: Albrechtsen asserts that Swan is “comfortably insulated from the costs of rolling lockdowns” by his “sinecure” with the ABC. He plays a continuing “role as doomsday activist” and is “treated as a godlike creature at the ABC” where she says he has “set off a drumbeat for lockdown right across the public broadcaster…”. According to Albrechtsen, rather than being a journalist presenting a balanced view, Swan is a commentator “espousing opinions on myriad [sic] ABC platforms and Twitter”.

On the question of “balance”, Albrechtsen seems not to have noticed the virtually continuous ABC coverage of the pandemic in which many views have been explored about the science, the vaccine developments, the country-by-country results, successes and failures, the processes involved and the options potentially available across all aspects of the pandemic.

She fails to provide a single concrete instance where any significant view on any aspect of the pandemic has been ignored by Swan and his colleagues or, indeed, the ABC overall.

Instead, she relies on a tactic typical of the anti-ABC collective: misrepresentation. In this case, she’s taken a “worst possible case” estimated figure of potential cases, reported on by Swan in March 2020, and presented it as a “prediction”. Her conclusion: that Swan is “catastrophising” and therefore fear-mongering because his [so-called] “prediction” turned out to be considerably higher than the eventual real number. There was no acknowledgement that Australia subsequently took necessary precautions to keep the numbers down. Rather, Albrechtsen suggests Swan was even further astray because a little over two-thirds of Australia’s infections and the vast majority of deaths occurred in Victoria because “the Andrews government could not safely manage hotel quarantine”. So, they didn’t count?

Reading Albrechtsen’s column, I kept hoping she might at least recognise the fact that Swan and his colleagues were awarded a 2020 Walkley journalism award, as well as the annual Eureka Prize for Science Journalism, for their highly informative and popular podcast, “Coronacast”. But, of course, that would have also meant acknowledging she was at odds with the media and science professionals who decide these awards.

But no. Albrechtsen concludes with swipes at ABC Chair Ita Buttrose (not for the first time) and at bureaucracies, along with several paragraphs in which she suggests that the Prime Minister should consider making “no promises about ABC funding”.Then, she says, if re-elected the PM could “cut the urban centres of the ABC loose from the public teat and let them fund themselves from voluntary subscriptions”, and turn the ABC into “a regional powerhouse producing news and programs abandoned by commercial news organisations”.

How convenient for those organisations, including those associated with her media employer, that have decided regional media outlets no longer produce sufficient revenue to be maintained, and too bad about the consequences for regional communities.

Aside from ignoring the importance and value of the ABC as a world-class public broadcaster, it’s hard to miss the commercial mind-set.

As I read Albrechtsen’s article, I was struck by how similar its tone – like that of her earlier December 2020attack on Ita Buttrose – was to the IPA’s willingness to disparage ABC staff, along with its consistent line that the ABC should be privatised to save taxpayers’ money.

I must have been slow, but the penny finally dropped when I realised who is the Chairman (sic) of the IPA. That’s right, none other than Dr Janet Albrechtsen.

So, why doesn’t she apply the highest standards of journalism and acknowledge this conflict of interest when writing her own opinion pieces in the national newspaper?

I am not suggesting that the ABC is perfect. All organisations have room for improvement. But sniping and nit-picking is a sideshow. The real issue here is a major ideological difference.

If Australians had to make a choice of greater trust between Dr Janet Albrechtsen of News Corp and the IPA, or Dr Norman Swan and the ABC, is there any doubt about whom most would choose?

Finally, if the likes of the IPA, the Menzies Institute and the Coalition Right had their way, how much better off would Australians be without the ABC (and SBS)? One can only speculate, but I can think of no better example than how much better-informed Americans might have been during the past four years had they enjoyed the advantage of a national, independent broadcasting service like ours.

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