Inside Story

Kim Williams’s ABC

The ABC chair wants to see the broadcaster standing out in a fragmented media landscape

Denis Muller 27 June 2024 1320 words

Williams wants the ABC to be the “reliable and compelling microphone and mirror to the nation.” Joel Carrett/AAP Image

In his first major speech as chair of the ABC, Kim Williams showed a keen appreciation of the need for Australia’s media to take up the fight against populism’s assault on our democratic institutions. The central theme of his Redmond Barry Lecture last week was the need to support democratic institutions, including the institution of the media, in the struggle against what he called the rise of “dark forces” powered by digital technology.

This assault has taken many forms and has many symptoms. One is intolerance, exemplified by what he calls the insidious and dangerous idea that “a loud and aggressive minority could override the rights of the overwhelming majority to read what they want.” Here, he cited the recent decision by the Cumberland City Council in western Sydney to ban Same Sex Parents by Holly Duhig from its libraries, a ban subsequently reversed amid uproar from the wider public against what was clearly a gross act of censorship.

Another aspect of this assault was the threat to national cohesion posed by the use of the internet, social media and, in some instances, artificial intelligence by these dark forces. Superficially, this might sound like a Luddite resistance to new technology, but that was not the case at all. On the contrary, Williams described digital technology as enabling one of the largest transfers of power in human history, from traditional sources of authority to the citizenry. This had brought innovations in information, entertainment and the arts that can be harnessed for the public good.

At the same time, however, he presented a clear-eyed analysis of the threat to liberal democracy powered by the digital revolution. He spoke of what he saw as the threat to democratic freedoms from an “all-too-often angry machine… which seems to have been designed purposefully to destroy facts, truth, reason, civility, trust and — should we let it — democracy itself.”

He saw, as do many others, an immediate danger from Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians who use digital technology in an effort to undermine public trust in democratic institutions and ultimately in democracy itself. In support of his argument, he quoted French president Emanuel Macron’s recent warning that in a time of “cultural and civilisational combat” democracies are engaged in a “battle of imaginations, narratives and values.”

Williams summarised the problem: “The invisible thread of shared national beliefs, shared democratic rights, and equal civic responsibilities are being challenged in the public square by the combined power of populist ideas facilitated by digital technology. Our intellectual ballast and moral self-confidence is almost literally being eaten away.”

From his thesis emerge several vitally important points about the role of the media. To hear the leader of an Australian media organisation articulating them publicly is a rare treat.

The main one concerns the provision of a common conversation about public affairs, as opposed to the myriad fragmented conversations that take place online, often in echo chambers with contrary views shut out.

Of course, providing a forum for public debate has been one of the functions of the media from the inception of newspapers three centuries ago, and until the digital revolution began to have its impact early this century the professional mass media had a monopoly. As a result it was taken for granted.

That is no longer the case. The professional mass media must fight to be heard amid the online clamour. If it is to succeed in this, its standards of truth-telling, impartiality and integrity must be clearly superior to those of the social media whirlpool.

Williams clearly recognises this. He spoke of institutional renewal, including at the ABC where fragmentation and dislocation of effort caused by the digital world had altered what he called the personality, chemistry and character of the national debate, often in negative ways. He wants the ABC to become an important source of a stronger sense of national community as an antidote to the individualisation brought about by social media.

What this means in concrete terms was not entirely clear. He used the folksy metaphor of a national campfire: “a place where we all come together to share our ideas, dreams, friendship and our sense of common purpose.” Even allowing for the high level of abstraction unavoidable on such occasions, this did sound a long way from the urgent struggle to reinvigorate the Australian democracy that was the central theme of the lecture.

Nor did he offer a particularly convincing idea of what renewal at the ABC would look like. He listed the functions of the ABC as set out in its charter, and went on to say that the starting point in institutional renewal needed to be a greater understanding of the wants and behaviours of the audience. The objective was to be the “reliable and compelling microphone and mirror to the nation.”

He then set out what for him were eight programming priorities. The first of these was for the ABC to remain Australia’s most trusted source of news. Here he has a head start. A survey just last month showed the ABC to be by far the most trusted media organisation in the country. At 78 per cent it was nineteen points ahead of the second most trusted.

But the ABC’s news service is a very mixed bag. At the top end are investigative programs like Four Corners and Radio National’s Background Briefing. At the other end of the scale, the nightly 7pm television news bulletins have become increasingly tabloid, preoccupied with police-rounds stories at the expense of a broader and more sophisticated coverage.

The big issue here, however, is the need for the ABC news division to recover its political nerve. The cumulative effect of nine years of Liberal-National Party bullying and funding cuts can still be seen in the way the division responds to external attacks on its staff, particularly from News Corp. This was demonstrated when ABC executives abandoned Stan Grant over his statements about the impact of the monarchy on Aboriginal peoples during the broadcaster’s coverage of King Charles’s coronation and, more recently, their caving in over Laura Tingle’s remarks about racism at the Sydney Writers Festival.

Williams did not speak of these matters, but leadership in news has been a serious deficiency going back as far as Michelle Guthrie’s time as managing director. Guthrie once said publicly that she wasn’t responsible for every story that appeared on the ABC, even though as MD she was also editor-in-chief. The lack of a clear separation between these two roles remains a fundamental structural weakness.

Williams’s other programming priorities were reinvigorating Radio National, increasing serious television documentaries, expanding drama, comedy and arts coverage, maintaining children’s and educational programs, improving iView, and revitalising the ABC’s soft power capabilities through its offshore operations.

An inexplicable omission from this list was local radio. ABC local radio is the bread-and-butter service relied on by communities all over the country for local news, weather, traffic reports, rural news and — critically — emergency broadcasting. In metropolitan markets its ratings have been going down, and if ever there was a branch of the ABC deserving concentrated attention from the board and management, it is this.

The Australian media industry has been bereft of farsighted leadership for a long time, so it was a revelation that Williams should have addressed himself to the big question of the media’s role in meeting the existential challenge facing liberal democracy.

Digitisation has helped drive a political revolution marked by the rise of what is now being called national conservatism. It is an old ideology under a new name, hijacking the label of conservatism to what is a radically reactionary politics, and bearing alarming resemblances to fascism. This ultimately is the threat that Williams perceives and if he can succeed in directing the ABC’s energies at resisting it, he will have done Australian democracy a signal service. •