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This is the year that was. The ABC in 2020

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It is to the ABC’s credit that despite ongoing budget cuts, debilitating staff losses, attacks from government and right-wing lobby groups, and a dollop of controversy, our much-loved major public broadcaster has nevertheless performed exceedingly well in this 2020 “annus horribilis”.

By Eric Hunter, 1 December 2020

It seems a bit trite to say we never thought 2020 would turn out the way it has. First, the disastrous bushfires that started even before last summer got under way, then to be hit by the “once in a hundred years pandemic” that is only now beginning to abate – at least in Australia.

Yet, amongst all the devastation of property and bushland, destruction of our native animal populations, human sickness and deaths, Australians have been buoyed by a sense of inter-dependence, of doing what we could to help each other in need. From individuals, through community groups and institutions, emergency and defence support, people everywhere rose to the occasion to help ease the loss and suffering.

There is one organisation, however, that has never been properly recognised by the Federal Government for the outstanding work it has done right from the beginning of the bushfires and continuing, unabated, during COVID-19. Yet, contrary to the government’s apparent indifference, the community at large has demonstrably increased its appreciation and trust in the integrity and worth of this organisation.

Yes, I am talking about the ABC.

I will come back to the government’s stance, but first let’s consider the indisputable evidence that public support for the ABC has actually increased during the troubled months of 2020. There is similar evidence of increased Australia-wide trust in SBS as well; clear confirmation that, far from their high public regard being diminished, both our public broadcasters are gaining in their standing.

In my view, Australia has the best mix of public and private broadcasting in the world. I’ve observed other models in the democratic world at close quarters and to my mind there is no doubt our dual public and private broadcast system has provided the best outcomes overall of any I’ve studied – and that includes in the UK.

Australian commercial media’s coverage of the 2020 events has also been good; it has not, however, matched the consistency, comprehensiveness and overall professionalism shown by the ABC.

For example, the absolute professionalism displayed day after day by Victorian News reporter Stephanie Ferrier and her team during the COVID-19 crisis – their task exacerbated by the intense additional reporting pressure brought on by the protracted lockdown and tense political situation that developed in the State.

But Stephanie and her team’s dedication has been replicated by her colleagues in every other State and Territory, leading to a Walkely Award for the ABC’s overall COVID reporting.

None of the above is to imply any criticism of the commercials. They have different imperatives to the public broadcasters; our world-class dual system means the ABC is complementary to the commercials rather than in competition. To allege our public media, with their separate and distinctively different structures and output, represent some sort of unfair business threat to the commercials (as the IPA and its supporters in the government and some other media constantly and falsely assert), completely misses the point.

Here are some independently identified facts about public quantitative support for the ABC:

  • During 2020, the two top-rating TV networks – Seven and Nine – have lost audience numbers (as shown by the OzTam 2020 Ratings figures). The other free-to-air networks actually gained audiences and they were led by the ABC, which came in at number three on the national TV ratings ladder. SBS also (notably and deservedly) increased its audiences.
  • The ABC is the most watched Broadcast Video On Demand (BVOD) platform by a significant margin.
  • The national broadcaster featured in four of the 20 top rated TV programs of 2020 – all of them dramas, though only one of these was an Australian production, Mystery Road, which with 778,000 viewers was also the country’s most watched local drama series of the year.
  • ABC remains the most trusted news brand in Australia, closely followed by SBS, according to a global news survey by the Reuters Institute.
  • ABC News was the number one digital news brand every month in 2020. ABC TV’s weekly news reach increased by 18 per cent over the year and ABC Radio’s news reach increased by 13 per cent. ABC News is also currently the most-watch YouTube channel in Australia (across all genres).

More telling than quantitative ratings figures, though, is the clear evidence provided by the results of the 2020 qualitative media awards. ABC programs and staff this year featured extremely strongly in the critically acclaimed, peer-judged Walkley Awards for journalism, the AACTA Awards and the prestigious Eureka Prize for science reporting. To cite just a few examples:

Walkley & Eureka Awards

  • ABC was a major performer at the Walkleys with 22 nominations and eight awards for public interest reporting.
  • The coveted Gold Walkley went to Mark Willacy and his team for their ABC Investigations-Four Corners report, “Killing Field”.
  • Other Walkley winners included the ABC News, Regional and Local teams for their outstanding State-by-State coverage of the bushfires, and ABC Radio team Dr Norman Swan, Tegan Taylor and Will Ockenden for their exceptional daily Coronacast radio/podcast reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • For many years, the ABC has been pre-eminent in science broadcasting, standing virtually alone in the Australian media. This year has been no exception, with the Coronacast team also winning the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism as well as their Walkley.

AACTA Awards

The dramatic series Stateless dominated the AACTA Awards, taking out 13 of Australia’s top drama prizes including Best TV Mini Series. Overall, the ABC, with its production partners, won 19 AACTA Awards across all categories, more than any other broadcaster. Other winners included Mystery Road (Best Drama Series), Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell (Best Comedy Entertainment), Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra (Best Documentary) and Bluey (Best Children’s Program – the animated children’s series has also achieved outstanding international success and acclaim).

These results have been achieved despite seven years of crippling funding cuts. The government keeps denying the reductions or, somewhat contradictorily, claims the ABC must bear its share of funding restrictions along with every other government-funded organisation. Of course, not all such organisations have been subjected to the same level of financial strictures as the ABC, or for as long. Former Prime Minister Abbott’s 2013 pre-election declaration that there would be “no cuts” to the ABC is etched firmly in the minds of every ABC staffer and supporter in the country. His successors have not redressed this outright lie but have simply continued with it.

The true impact of ongoing reductions has been set out publicly and officially on numerous occasions by ABC chair Ita Buttrose and managing director David Anderson, so there is no need to detail them again here. Suffice to say, it is the government rather than the ABC that has a record of dissembling on matters of finance and funding.

So, why are Coalition governments and certain other groups so antipathetic towards the ABC, particularly in recent years? It would be easy to say they are simply ideologically opposed to public broadcasting. While that is true, conservatives also generally applaud successful enterprises and no one can claim the ABC isn’t successful, having demonstrated its value to the Australian public during its 88 years of existence and seldom more so than during 2020.

Of course, success can’t always be measured in purely financial terms, as conservatives often prefer to do. What monetary value, for example, can be put on the 75 years of unique specialist rural broadcasting that the ABC is also celebrating in 2020? Or on its 81-year history of international broadcasting and community support, particularly in the Pacific?

I suspect that the real problem is that governments (both the Coalition, and Labor on occasions) find it uncomfortable to be confronted with a national broadcaster whose legislated independence enables it to play a prime role in questioning and exposing weaknesses in government and its institutions. Somehow, all the grand talk about our “broad church” conservative governments leading a “liberal democracy”, underpinned by a free press and freedom of speech, goes by the board when a government’s motives and actions are questioned by that same free press, especially when the questions come from the public broadcaster.

Is it also because the Coalition government believes, as Tony Abbot once complained, the ABC ought to be part of “Team Australia”? What he was saying was, the ABC should not only not question anything the government does, but actively support it. Where is the demand for “balance” if such is the thinking?

Since 2013 all three successive Coalition Prime Ministers and their cohorts, one after another, have expressed their strong displeasure at the ABC. This can on occasions, overtly or covertly, seem like an attempt to influence ABC political coverage.

No one denies the right of any citizen (from Prime Minister down) to criticise the ABC, but the manner in which government has sometimes chosen to do this is questionable in my view. The recent controversy over Four Corners’“Inside the Canberra Bubble” story is a case in point. Communications minister Paul Fletcher chose to write a detailed “please explain” letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose and made this public by posting it on Twitter (even before Ms Buttrose had received it).

While the Minister is entitled to raise questions directly with the chair and board regarding statutory functions, the ABC under its Act is not subject to ministerial direction. Surely a complaint about the merits or otherwise of this Four Corners program should have been lodged through the ABC’s internal complaints process and, for independent adjudication, with the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority).

Alumnus Quentin Dempster has questioned if Minister Fletcher is abusing his power by writing the letter to Ms Buttrose.

I am not alone in suggesting that Mr Fletcher’s energies would be better spent doing what he should be doing, and that’s ensuring that the ABC is adequately resourced so that it has sufficient staff to maintain the high standards for which it is renowned and about which he professes such concern.

It is to the ABC’s credit that despite ongoing budget cuts, debilitating staff losses, attacks from government and right-wing lobby groups, and a dollop of controversy, our much-loved major public broadcaster has nevertheless performed exceedingly well in this “annus horribilis”.

I salute the dedication and professionalism of ABC’s staff and production partners who have worked so tirelessly to deliver what is still one of the best public broadcasting services in the world.

Now it’s up to all of us who value the ABC, and indeed SBS, to continue our campaigning for a better and fairer deal for both public broadcasters, if we want to ensure their survival.

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