You may have seen some headlines in the last few days about ‘privatising’ the ABC. It’s probably not going to happen, but it’s the latest in a decades-long furore between conservatives and the national broadcaster. It can be hard to keep track of everything, so here’s a quick guide.

The quick blurb on the ABC

The ABC is a statutory corporation. This means that it’s funded by the government, ergo the taxpayer. It’s a non-for-profit organisation. That’s why you never see commercial advertising on the ABC. And that goes for all of the ABC, including their online platform, their mix of drama, current affairs and news broadcasting, and their numerous radio stations, including Triple J and Classic FM. It is similar, but not identical to, the BBC in the UK, or PBS in the United States.

While the ABC is funded by the government, its journalistic policies are independent. At the core of ABC’s broadcasting principles is the notion that it will broadcast information ‘in the national interest’. Those words have caused some debate throughout its history, as you can imagine. But it also means that it broadcasts to regional areas that would be commercially unviable under any other organisation, and it prioritises broadcasting essential emergency information in times of flood or fire.

Every so often, there’s the suggestion of selling the ABC to the private sector. In essence, this means moving its funding away from public money and towards whoever wants to pay for it. So it would just become another Channel 7, 9 or 10. Most of the time, these suggestions have come from conservatives, who argue that the ABC favours the left side of politics, or is even a mouthpiece for the Labor Party.

ABC carries a powerful sense of nostalgia with voters. But it also carries a hefty amount of trust. Only 31% of Australians trust mass media. But 53% of Aussies trust ABC news coverage.

The latest sh*tfight

On Saturday, delegates at the national Liberal Council voted overwhelmingly to privatise the ABC in a motion put forward by the Young Liberals branch. The national council is the Liberal Party’s peak body that helps steer party policy and rhetoric. But as soon as the vote hit the headlines, the Turnbull government went into damage control, saying they would never privatise the ABC. Bill Shorten, leader of the Opposition, is calling bullshit, and suggests that another Turnbull victory in the next federal election spells almost certain doom for the ABC.

(Just by the by, it was an eventful council meeting. They also voted to join the United States in moving Israel’s Australian embassy to Jerusalem.  John Howard spoke, throwing his weight behind Malcolm Turnbull as the inevitable winner of the next federal election.)

It’s worth remembering that this government has been particularly unkind to the ABC. In fact, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has made six complaints in six months about the broadcaster. The latest has to do with journalists repeating “false” claims from the Labor Party.

In the last twelve months, the government’s made three key adversarial moves against the ABC:

  • It gave Foxtel $30 million in the 2016 budget to help promote “under represented sports”, but when pressured to show documents detailing the deal, none appeared. And as recently as February of this year, no one was able to say just what sports had benefited. Commentators have gone so far as to suggest the money was designed to keep the Murdoch empire on side during the Government’s fight to pass their media reform package.
  • The government made a deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party last year. Pauline Hanson hates the ABC, and has gone so far as to refuse appearing on the network, after it broadcast allegations of corruption in its party ranks. Hanson demanded an inquiry into the ABC on the grounds of ‘competitive neutrality’. The inquiry will allegedly determine if the ABC (and the SBS, which was thrown in for good fun), gets an unfair advantage by receiving government funds. The Communications Minister has struggled to explain why this wasn’t referred to the Productivity Commission’s Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office – which deals with this very issue. The inquiry is ongoing.
  • The government also handed down a series of cuts to the ABC, doubling down on their decision in the latest budget.  About 800 people in the ABC have lost their jobs since the Coalition came into power.

Is the ABC Biased?

Underlying the government’s moves against the ABC are its frequent complaints that the ABC is biased against them. Truckloads of data over the years reveal this to be untrue.

Tony Abbott wasn’t fond of the ABC either. Leigh Sales, the host of The 730 Report, famously caught him in an embarrassing fib in 2012. There were 523 registered complaints about the interview. But the Australian Communications and Media Authority cleared Sales, saying she was only doing her job as a journalist.

In 2015, there was a special audit of Q&A. Despite numerous complaints to the contrary by Tony Abbott, the program was found to not be biased against the Liberal National Party. In fact, the ruling government was given more time to explain their policies than the opposition. Q&A suffered from a gender imbalance, and a bias towards Sydney panellists and audience members, but not a political imbalance.

Across the 2013 and 2010 federal elections, the ABC gave equal time to both major parties.

What will happen?

Nothing in the short term, given Turnbull’s adamant claims that the government has no plans to shift their policy on the ABC. However, there’s no doubt that anti-ABC sentiment has been on the rise, particularly in the last twelve months. An eventual privatisation of the ABC is far from inevitable, but it also can be made more palatable by a slow splitting of its services. Budget cuts may force it to outsource some of its services to the private sector.

We’ll be back at the end of the week with the news summary, and we’ll keep you up to date with this issue as it develops.


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