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My ABC, Your ABC

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Like any organisation, the ABC is not perfect. But, says academic and former ABC radio documentary producer Bill Bunbury, the national broadcaster doesn’t deserve the level of criticism emanating from hostile government and other media who seem to wilfully ignore the many quality services it provides to the Australian community. 

Featured image: Bill Bunbury recording with Noongar Elder Jack Cox, at Kojonup WA.

By Bill Bunbury / Tuesday 12 October 2021

In what most of us would agree are troubled times – with international tensions, threats to democracy, economic uncertainty, climate change, devastating bushfires and floods, and most recently world-wide COVID-19 – the ABC has more than fulfilled its role as our national broadcaster, supplying accurate and helpful information across many fields. 

As well as being a lifeline alerting people to emergency information about natural disasters, its various platforms also cover fields in which science offers solutions in terms of alternative energy sources, environmental repair and, in the long term, the economic benefits from immediate action. And while we work our way through COVID, the ABC has kept the public up to date on issues like vaccine safety, the importance of vaccination and other protective measures.

ABC News and current affairs programs continue to provide indepth, quality analysis of major issues. Other coverage much appreciated by the community includes rural information and discussion of the contributions of medicine, science, law, the Arts, history, finance and economics, religion and ethics, as well as high quality drama and children’s programming, to name but a few.  

However, quite paradoxically, the ABC currently faces unprecedented opposition, not only from the Murdoch empire and from other wilfully dishonest media personalities, but financially and politically from a Commonwealth government charged with the duty of ensuring the ABC’s services to the community. 

Where the ABC’s current affairs programs have dealt with issues like corruption or debate about climate change, as they should, regardless of political colour, current Government reaction has been exceedingly hostile. 

But of more concern is the ideological position over funding which over the last eight years has seen a 10 per cent reduction, in real terms, to the ABC’s already over-stretched budget, resulting in significant program cuts and the loss of hundreds of jobs. All of which must affect the ABC’s capacity to meet its charter obligations and provide the wide range of quality services for which it is renowned.

Why, as a former ABC staffer, am I writing this piece? 

It’s because simply as a listener or a viewer, I cannot imagine a life in Australia without the ABC. 

My father was born in Busselton, WA, in 1901 – the year Australia became a united continent, but, aged 11, he was taken to England, with his siblings, after a family breakdown. 

He became a teacher and stayed in the UK. But he often talked of his Australian childhood and, in his study, there were black and white photos of his WA home on the banks of the Vasse River.

I don’t know how much that influenced my decision at 23 to swap hemispheres, but there were other factors.

I’d met interesting Australians at Durham University and elsewhere – with refreshingly different outlooks from those I encountered in the still socially stratified England of the 1960s. My philosophy tutor at Durham, also Australian, was another influence. She made philosophy make good sense and taught it warmly. 

I arrived in my father’s country of birth in 1963.

An early and vital discovery was the ABC. Radio National, while still fragmented by time zones in those days, offered interesting insights and pleasant conversations about new novels, health, social issues and science. 

I still remember Robyn Williams alerting us to changes in the atmosphere – in his very first The Science Show some 46 years ago, well ahead of gradual acceptance that the climate was changing. Above all, the ABC talked with its audience, not to it or at it. 

On ABC TV A Big Country brought Australia’s vastness and diversity onto our screens.  Local Radio – state and regional – kept us informed of good harvests (or otherwise) and the ABC’s Country Hour was, and still is, invaluable listening for farmers and rural audiences.

Today Tonight and Four Corners had begun to explore state and national issues. 

As a newcomer, for me, the ABC explained Australia and without it I and many others would have been all the poorer.

In my own field, after joining the ABC’s Social History Unit in the early 1980s, I’d been asked to give a talk at Sheffield University in the UK on the “bottom up – not top down” social features we’d been making.   

I illustrated the session with audio extracts from features like Stonybroke and Walking – an Oral History of the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s on Australia – and a feature I’d made on Group Settlements in Australia after World War I, They Said You’d Own Your Own Farm – a Migrant experience.

One question from the audience was interesting. 

“How come you’re broadcasting this kind of history? We don’t seem to have done this here!”

I recall responding, I hope diplomatically, suggesting that the UK had a rather longer and well chronicled history but that we were aiming to record much of history still accessible to us via the spoken word; reaching back to Federation at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, and including Tim Bowden’s remarkable series Taim Bilong Masta on the history of Australian involvement in Papua New Guinea. 

But the question was interesting and perhaps reflective of the way the ABC was capturing very accessible history.  

There was a similar reaction elsewhere. 

I’d also been asked to talk about the ABC’s work in social history in the 1990s at an Oral History Conference in the USA, illustrating the shape and structure of Hindsight, our weekly 53-minute history feature. 

One listener was puzzled.

“How come you get a whole hour to broadcast history?” 

I had to spend the next few minutes explaining how an independent national broadcast service was funded and what its radio service alone could cover: history, science, religion, law, literature and music were just some of Radio National’s output.

The audience in the US seemed to find it difficult to imagine a taxpayer-funded broadcast service. But several made it clear that they wouldn’t mind having one. 

With regard to what it costs those who fund the national broadcaster, i.e. taxpayers, the ABC was frequently attacked by its critics even back then for being “over-staffed and over-funded”.  

On one occasion I had just finished giving a talk on some recent output when a Senator walked up to me and said something to the effect that:

It’s all very well for you and your research team.”

I replied: “You’re looking at it.”

There’s a history itself here.

Up to the 1970s there had been a marked separation in some areas between program makers and technical operators; tape editors etc.  But within a very short time radio producers in many areas were also researchers, recorders, editors, and presenters. One person with five tasks. 

I was very grateful for that training. Now you had no one to blame but yourself if your program didn’t meet high standards.

Enough of the past. 

When I look at the present, the ABC isn’t flawless. I’m not keen on Radio National promotions telling people that it will help them think. I find that rather patronising. In my own experience there are plenty of people who think, regardless of whether or not they are RN listeners.  

However in these trying times, despite an evidently hostile government, the ABC has continued to produce thoughtful, world-class programs: Craig Recaussel’s superb series Fight For Planet A: Our Climate Challenge, wittily challenging doubts about climate change; the ABC’s coverage of the 2019-2020 bushfires; the enlightening Landline with its continuous and positivecoverage of rural innovation and soil repair; and Norman Swan’s reliable, thorough and accessible coverage of the COVID situation; among many more. 

On the musical side, ABC Classic (formerly ABC Classic FM) in my view has never been better. The presenters joyously and accessibly share their love of great music, introducing listeners to new music and discussing the richness of the heritage we have acquired. I also suggest that their output helps listeners with understandable mental health symptoms in these trying times.However, for political reasons, all these aspects are often thoughtlessly lumped into an overall assessment of the ABC as an enemy of current authority and governance.  

News and current affairs inevitably have to tackle issues of government performance and responsibility, whichever party is in power. That is the responsibility of a people-funded broadcaster and we’d all be the poorer for a Putin-style controlled suppression of exposing corruption and bad behaviour. The ABC is charter funded to carry out that task and should not resile from it.  

But it needs thoughtful handling, and if I had a criticism, I’d suggest that it is equally    important to look for light not heat in investigative journalism. Light can often evoke truth rather than evasion – which is sometimes produced by questioner heat.

However, regardless of its commitment to public awareness, ABC haters appear to, perhaps wilfully, ignore the ABC’s other services. They imply that News and current affairs programs represent the ABC’s sole output and show no comprehension or recognition of the rest of the ABC’s programming, or its digital and other services, and their significant contribution to Australian society. 

We’d be immeasurably deprived if any government, Liberal or Labor, made the ABC disappear as a true independent public broadcaster, either by privatisation and/or by forcing it to rely on advertising revenue for its existence. Just look at countries without such a service. 

Bill Bunbury OAM is a former ABC Radio National documentary producer and presenter. His work has been acknowledged by major awards such as the 1996 New York Radio Festival Gold Medal, the 1997 inaugural NSW Premier’s Media Prize, and in 2009 an Honorary D.Litt from Murdoch University. He’s the author of 14 books, most recently Many Maps: Charting Two Cultures (UWA Publishing, 2021), in collaboration with his wife Jenny Bunbury.

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