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Cutting on the bias

Broadcasting | Is Michelle Guthrie copping the blame for two decades of attacks on the ABC?

Jane Goodall 5 December 2016 2885 words

No Jonathan Shier: ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie.

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has had a bad time in the headlines over the past couple of weeks. After responding to Noel Pearson’s allegations that the ABC is “a miserable racist broadcaster” she has faced a barrage of criticism for recent cuts to Radio National programming and the loss of Catalyst from ABC television, along with its team of seventeen specialised science broadcasters. Variously accused of being “out of her depth” and “morally and spiritually bankrupt,” of “gutting a cultural treasure trove” and “remaking the ABC in Murdoch’s image,” is she taking more heat than she deserves?

Or is it that, after nearly two decades of being under intermittent and at times savage attack, ABC staff and their supporters have, in the words of a certain over-quoted senator, had it up to here with their tolerance? Could it be that the current sense of crisis is overblown? What should we make of a Twitter flurry complaining of inadequate attention to the Brandis affair on 7.30 and ABC News, or the continued rumblings about Chris Uhlmann’s views on renewable energy and the South Australian blackout? As always with complaints of political bias, within or against the ABC, moods and impressions feed into the account. The more you drill down for evidence, the harder it is to nail.

If members of the Coalition government are convinced that the ABC’s default setting is on the left of the dial, there is a growing chorus of opinion that the dial has been switched firmly to the right, and that Guthrie’s recent suite of cuts and changes are a clear sign of it. Cuts to ABC infrastructure include the loss of its fact-checking unit, the transcript service and The Drum’s online commentary, all of which were part of an invaluable contribution to public knowledge and the public record of current affairs. In changes to ABC radio programming – introduced in a manner both arbitrary and unheralded – former News Corp CEO Kim Williams will present the discussion program What Keeps Me Awake? and Tom Switzer, an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and an internationally published journalist, will take over as host of Sunday Extra.

To present the case for the defence, the cutting and rearranging of programs is nothing new at the ABC. There was an outcry when Geraldine Doogue was installed as host of Saturday Extra in 2005, in a program merger that saw the end of Alan Saunders’s highly regarded The Comfort Zone, but Doogue has made a brilliant success of the revised format, and Saunders continued to make his mark as a key presenter at ABC RN until his sudden death in 2012. Both Switzer and Williams are eminently qualified to provide cogent and knowledgeable perspectives on current issues, and neither are doctrinaire right-wingers. John Cleary, who brought exceptional flair and breadth of vision as presenter of the religion and ethics series Sunday Nights, is to go, but ABC talent has a habit of surfacing elsewhere after it has been displaced. Though Jonathan Green loses his place on Sunday Extra to Switzer, he will be presenter of Blueprint for Living on Saturday mornings.

Cuts to RN music programs will see the end of The Daily Planet, The Inside Sleeve, The Live Set, Rhythm Divine and Jazztrack, each of which plays a role in fostering distinctive forms and trends in Australian music. In response to an open letter from musicians and industry professionals protesting that the decision “ignores the complexities and depth of our Australian music industry,” Chris Scaddan (head of music) and Judith Whelan (head of spoken content) affirmed that there was compensating accommodation for “new sounds and artists” in the new plan, and that the ABC would “keep listening and talking to the Australian community about getting the balance right.”

But ABC staff and their supporters are not to be so easily placated. A motion of no confidence in Guthrie passed by Radio National staff on 24 November cited “the continuing erosion of specialist programming in music, features and religion” as “a serious breach of the ABC charter.”

A week later, the rhetoric had risen to white heat over cuts to science broadcasting. Distinguished science journalist Robyn Williams delivered a scathing response to the announcement that Catalyst was to be axed. The decision, he said, came from a management that was “morally and spiritually bankrupt,” prepared to disband a team of irreplaceable professionals “with not a farewell, a handshake or a stale biscuit.” To do science requires “a critical mass of people who’ve got a stable presence, learn their complicated skills, support each other, and last.”

Catalyst reporter Mark Horstman released a statement saying:

I’m gutted. For my fifteen colleagues, that their incredible skills and dedication are not valued by the ABC. And gutted that our warehouse of unique experience in science communication is trashed in one fell swoop. As a true believer in the role of the public broadcaster, I always trusted that science was at the core of what the ABC made.

Fallout continues on social media. The video of Williams’s speech on the Friends of the ABC site has had half a million views. Horstman’s statement, on his own Facebook site, has had over 220,000, with 6000 shares and more than 2500 comments. Many draw links with recent reports of how Australia is falling behind the rest of the world in science, technology, engineering and maths education, or STEM, though the prevailing message is that the cuts are politically motivated. “The LNP are hell-bent on dumbing down Australia.” “The government’s agenda is controlled by ignorance.” “There is little public endeavour that neoconservative governments will not emasculate for the benefit of the few who so strenuously object to paying taxes.” “Turnbull has done what Abbott couldn’t – got rid of science, innovation and agility from Australian TV.” “Murdochisation continues.” And “a win for the hard political right, the anti-vaxers, the anti-climate changers… who see science and reason as the enemy.”

Might all this be seen in retrospect as something of a psychodrama, in an institution prone to crisis and staffed by exceptionally articulate and committed people? Or is the sense of having had it up to here with their tolerance a very real turning point in the culture of the organisation, and one that reflects a turning point in the wider political culture?

The present situation has a long and intense pre-history, in which the most turbulent phase was the nineteen months between March 2000 and December 2001, widely known as “the ABC of turmoil,” when Jonathan Shier was managing director. Shier, described by staff as a “megalomaniac,” was accused of instituting a culture of bullying and intimidation. During his short reign, he oversaw a total of 390 redundancies, removed the heads of all departments responsible for program content, and subjected the assembled staff in the news and current affairs division to a ninety-minute dressing down, the purport of which, in the words of its then director Max Uechtritz, was “to disparage, demean, harangue and threaten.”

All this is documented by Ken Inglis in Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983–2006, the second of his ABC histories, and by Margaret Simons in a lead essay, “Fear and Loathing at the ABC,” in the Monthly in May 2005. Inglis provides a forensic examination of the charges and counter-charges of political bias through a period of Labor and then Coalition governments, tracing the tensions back to when a newly re-elected Bob Hawke declared in 1985 that there was “a pattern of bias in the ABC,” and the conservative activist Bob Santamaria then used his Point of View segment on Kerry Packer’s Channel 9 to up the ante. “With few exceptions,” he said, “the public affairs programs of the ABC emerge as extreme left-wing in politics and as protagonists of aberrant sexual practices.”

Labor appointments to the ABC board included pollster Rod Cameron and former premier John Bannon, though, as Inglis says, there was no expectation that he would “behave politically.” A strong convention decreed that those entering board meetings would “park their guns at the door.” But the convention was breached decisively during the Howard years, when ministerial interference from Richard Alston took on an unprecedented degree of antagonism.

During a single month in 2003, Alston filed sixty-eight complaints of bias against the ABC. The board was stacked with overtly political appointments: Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger, Marxist-turned-conservative historian Keith Windschuttle, the zealous right-wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen. Kroger made it clear from the outset that he would not be parking his gun at the door, stating in a 2002 Lateline interview that he did not think ABC news and current affairs reporting was balanced, and that he intended to keep saying that “at the board meetings and outside.”

In an interview with Mark Colvin for ABC Radio’s PM, Inglis described Windschuttle as a “provocative” choice because he had made a public statement that the ABC should be privatised in order “to break its Marxist culture.” Albrechtsen, who (apparently by managerial decree) made appearances on Q&A, published virulent attacks on the program in her column in the Australian. All three have associations with the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs: Kroger and Albrechtsen as directors, and Windschuttle as a favoured speaker and writer.

If Inglis is circumspect about the evidence for political victimisation of the ABC, Simons offers a more forthright view. The ABC – as she saw it when she spent a month “stooging round the atriums” in the aftermath of the Shier/Alston period – was still haunted by the purges. “The ghost walks,” as one staff member put it. Some were speculating that the damage done in the Howard era would in the long run prove fatal, despite the fact that 1996 funding levels were largely restored under Shier’s successor, Russell Balding. And, to an extent, cuts alone can be dealt with. Kerry O’Brien describes a regime of stringent corner-cutting on The 7.30 Report, but admits that the loss of a third of the editorial staff left the program with perhaps the best team it had ever had. It was the sense of relentless domineering oversight that left the spirit of the organisation “like that of a whipped dog.”

In her conclusion, Simons wondered how the ABC would look in ten years’ time. Would Four Corners still exist? Would the ABC still be able to commission drama and documentaries? If, ten years after the publication of her article, we can answer in the affirmative to both those questions, it may be because the whipped dog has learned to show its teeth again.

Guthrie is no Jonathan Shier. Her personal style is, by all accounts, quiet and courteous. In a profile written by Simons for the Monthly in September this year, she comes across as personable and dedicated. She has been crossing the country, visiting regional stations, asking questions and listening. There is no trace of suggestion that she is a bully or inquisitor. Yet if alarms are going off and the dogs are barking, it may be because she is seen as an enabler for those who are both those things.

Widely reported as “Turnbull’s pick,” Guthrie has held senior positions in News Corp subsidiaries. With Switzer and Kim Williams as her own picks, and as replacements for ABC Radio presenters who have a very strong personal following, the concentration of News Corp influence is not a good look.

Of more serious concern is the continuing influence of the IPA, which has played the role of attack dog in relation to the ABC since Kroger’s time as a key operator in both organisations. Presumption of guilt as a pretext for political correction is a highly questionable ploy, and that is the game the IPA is playing.

In 2014, it commissioned a report on coverage of the energy sector in news and current affairs programs, from which it drew a trenchant conclusion. “As a taxpayer funded broadcaster, the ABC is required to be impartial, balanced and objective. The ABC’s coverage of energy policy issues fails that test.” The statement was issued by the IPA’s then communications director James Paterson (now a Liberal senator), who laid much stress on the “independent analysis” by media monitors iSentia. The findings of bias were based on tables showing that ABC coverage of renewable energy was predominantly favourable, that its reportage of the coal mining and coal-seam gas industries was predominantly unfavourable, and that environmental concerns took precedence over recognition of benefits from industry and investment. This, Paterson concluded, was proof of a “systemic” and “endemic” problem at the national broadcaster, which could only be solved through privatisation.

Given that the IPA’s backers include Gina Rinehart and that much of its funding comes from the mining industry, this is an extraordinary piece of hubris. In the eyes of those with a bias hard-wired towards their own interests, everything outside their own propaganda bubble is going to look distorted. The real scandal arises if this kind of influence is allowed to permeate a publicly funded national broadcaster with responsibilities to provide perspectives that have some kind of ethical bottom line.

In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, Paterson renewed the attack, calling again for the privatisation of the “tone deaf, left-leaning” ABC, which, he said, was “not a welcome home for conservatives or classical liberals – particularly among its salaried employees.”

And yet members of the IPA are routinely invited onto The Drum, Insiders, Q&A and other news and current affairs programs. Although the IPA badges itself as a think tank, not a lot of thinking seems to go on in front of the camera. There is, rather, a sense of a prepared agenda, in which stridency is a replacement for cogency. If the bullying style is no longer pervading the ABC from the top, it is still allowed to infiltrate through these “guest appearances,” and there are real grounds for concern that the privatisation agenda may be behind Guthrie’s most recent round of cutting.

Some insiders allege the existence of a management culture hostile to in-house programming. Staff journalists and reporters are seen as a burden on the budget and an impediment to management-driven change. Shifting to a practice of buying in programs made by independent companies (as SBS did last year, when it dispensed with the in-house production team for Dateline) increases executive control. This also enables politics to come into the decision-making more directly. For those who do not like the ABC and see it as an unwarranted form of government expenditure, the outsourcing of programs may be a first step towards disbanding the whole organisation.

Of course, programs should be subject to change and review. New ideas should be feeding in constantly, and sometimes these must entail changes of personnel. There should be ongoing arguments about approach and direction. But these should all be led by those who actually make the programs. Staff of the ABC Science Unit (or the vestiges of that once-vibrant hub) had prepared detailed proposals for change and revitalisation of Catalyst, but these were ignored.

In tailoring, “bias cutting” is a technique used to create ease of movement and a flowing line. There is some irony in the metaphor. Where the ABC is concerned, cutting on the bias can produce nothing but rigidity and constraint. It is typically accompanied by platitudinous statements about creativity and innovation, but it is the death of creativity. The human mind just does not thrive within narrow, and constantly narrowing, parameters. Since the 1980s, cutting – under the guise of economic imperative – has become a staple technique of managers in public institutions of all kinds, and it’s time to call it out for what it is: an indicator of lazy, inadequate performance on the part of the managers themselves, and of any government that fails to maintain funding for essential public resources. Meanwhile, as reporting of the ABC cuts has continued to make headlines on a daily basis, there have been rolling reports of companies (mining companies especially) paying little or no tax.

Community response to these recent cuts, and the loss of the Catalyst team in particular, reflects the scale and intensity of a broader change in the cultural landscape. The shock of the Trump victory in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain has heightened anxieties about the consequences of wilful ignorance and deliberate misinformation. An increasingly raucous minority – and Trump’s supporters, it must be remembered, constitute less than 50 per cent of the less than 60 per cent of the electorate who voted – are trying to badge all forms of serious knowledge and investigation as a preoccupation of “the elite,” but a majority of us hold to certain inalienable truths, and public broadcasting has a critical role to play in that tenure.

A public broadcaster is public property, part of the creative commons that knits together the fabric of society and fosters communal intelligence. With a new urgency attached to the defence of such common property, we need to change the rhetoric. It doesn’t help to refer to the ABC as a national treasure. We should stop being precious about it. And we should stop calling it “Aunty.” It’s a working organisation, engaged in contemporary issues in ways that are tough, pugnacious and necessary. •

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Big ideas: saxophonist Charlie Parker (second from the left) with Tommy Potter, Max Roach (almost hidden by Parker), Miles Davis and Duke Jordan at the Three Deuces, New York, circa August 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Library of Congress

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