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Around the world, growing government hostility is threatening independent media who do their job, ask tough questions, and hold the powerful to account. Here Alan Sunderland explains why the recent UK government’s announcement to freeze the BBC licence fee for the next two years, and potentially eradicate it, is about a lot more than funding models and has worrying parallels with what has been happening to the ABC for several years. 

By Alan Sunderland / 25 January 2022

In Berlin recently, anti-vaccination protesters gathered outside the offices of the public broadcaster, branding them ‘fake news media’ because they dared to deliver accurate, impartial and timely coverage of COVID-19. A few months earlier, the same thing happened to Croatia’s public broadcaster, and there have been similar events in the United Kingdom, Ireland and here in Australia.

In Hong Kong, the once respected public broadcaster has had its independence and integrity undermined by a government that has ‘retired’ respected editorial leaders and replaced them with pro-Beijing bureaucrats.

Look further afield still: Kyrgyzstan is busy turning its independent public broadcaster into a government-controlled mouthpiece, Brazil wants to stop funding public broadcasting completely and a range of countries including Ireland, Spain and South Africa are arguing about how expensive public broadcasting is. The list is endless.

I have been exploring these worrying developments because I was recently asked to participate in a BBC World Service program that discussed the future of public broadcasting in the United Kingdom. If you’re interested, you can listen to the program here. Ostensibly, it was all about the recent announcement that the BBC’s licence fee would be frozen for the next two years and might disappear completely after that.

I say ‘ostensibly’ because once you scratch the surface and look beyond international borders, you can see that the debate is not really about the method of funding public broadcasting in the UK. It is really about growing government hostility around the world to independent media who do their job, ask tough questions, and hold the powerful to account.

When you look at the international media landscape, three things quickly become clear:

  • The news business is under pressure, funding and profits are scarce, and as a result there are fewer and fewer sources of independent, quality news.
  • In almost every country where a public broadcaster exists, it is by far the most trusted and valued source of news for the citizens it serves. It’s as true here in Australia as it is in the UK, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Austria, Belgium and dozens of other places. In the US, which has famously never supported comprehensive public broadcasting, trust in the media generally is lower than anywhere else, and Americans put the BBC in the top four of the news sources they trust the most despite the fact that it comes from another country.
  • Despite public broadcasters being the most trusted source of news at a time when it is most needed, governments everywhere are searching for ways to starve, censor or destroy it instead of delivering the secure funding it needs.

It is against this background that we need to understand what is currently happening to the ABC.

While the BBC struggles with the impact of having its funding effectively frozen for the next two years, the ABC has already had to deal with a freeze for the past three years. That was on top of hundreds of millions of dollars of funding cuts in preceding years.

When you consider that the UK still spends twice as much per capita on the BBC as Australia spends on the ABC, it’s no surprise that ABC services, output and quality have all been stretched to breaking point. And it could be about to get worse.

In the lead-up to the looming Federal Election, the Morrison Government is due to announce a new three-year funding package for the ABC, and it is under pressure to cut the funding further. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), an influential voice in government circles, has long argued that the ABC should be sold off. 

In the same way that the Johnson Government preceded its freeze of the BBC licence fee with criticisms that the broadcaster was biased against it, the Morrison Government has complained long and loud that the ABC is unfairly against it. In both cases, the criticisms came after the broadcasters (along with other media that largely escaped criticism) investigated and reported on legitimate stories of government actions, decisions and behaviours.

From misuse of funds (think sports rorts and car park rorts) to allegations of cultural and behavioural issues (think harassment and bullying in Parliament House), the ABC has come under fire when it does what taxpayers expect it to do, and asks tough questions about those in power.

The fear is that, whether it is licence fees in the UK or triennial funding here in Australia, Governments can and do use funding arrangements to starve and punish public broadcasters. The circumstances, the specifics and the justifications are different, but the dynamic remains the same. 

It should be acknowledged, of course, that no public broadcaster is perfect or beyond criticism. Far from it. The ABC, like all media outlets, gets things wrong from time to time and fails to live up to its editorial standards. There are mechanisms to hold them to account, and they should be used. But it shouldn’t need to be said that underfunding, undermining, attacking or neglecting the most trusted source of independent news in the nation is no way for any government to behave.

It should also be acknowledged that the ABC often cops as much criticism from the left as it does from the right. On social media, the ABC is regularly accused of selling out, of running scared or of kowtowing to the powers that be by failing to consistently take an anti-government line. All of this means that the ABC gets drawn further and further into a polarised culture war that sees the world only in black and white, and declares that everyone including an impartial source of news needs to pick a side or risk condemnation.

Ultimately, only one thing will save the ABC, and that is vocal and active support from the public that it serves. Increasingly, people are being called upon to save the things they value, and to speak up in support of the principle of a properly funded and independent ABC. The coming election campaign provides a clear opportunity to do that

Alan Sunderland had a 40 year career in public broadcasting at ABC and SBS, most recently as the ABC Editorial Director from 2013 to 2019. He continues to write and speak about journalism, and is the Executive Director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors.

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