Don't conscript your ABC to the culture wars

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The ABC, I hear, has surrendered to government pressure, given up its independence and impartiality, and committed itself to delivering anti-climate change, anti-intellectual, right-wing populist propaganda instead of news.

Or so it would appear to some people, based on four words allegedly uttered by ABC news director Gaven Morris during an hour-long staff briefing last week. (“ABC News boss warns staff against focus on ‘inner city left-wing elites’”, SMH, October 25)

ABC director of news Gaven Morris.

ABC director of news Gaven Morris.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

That simple phrase was all that was needed to tip off those in the know to what was happening. A cowed and compliant public broadcaster. ABC After Dark, here we come.

Like almost everyone else who read this story, I wasn’t at the ABC staff briefings so I don’t know what was actually said, let alone the broader context for it. But I suspect the real message might be a little different, and it might have more than a little common sense behind it.

To begin with, I am no big fan of the term “inner city left-wing elites”. Anyone using that term largely deserves the attacks it provokes. Like all lazy clichés, it obscures more than it reveals and feeds into the increasingly polarised public slanging matches between ideological hardliners who bore the rest of us silly. It’s as if we are all being forced to watch an endless, low-scoring football match between The Fascists and The Socialists and we must pick a team. Our every word and gesture is pored over constantly to determine which side we support.

What an exhausting way to live our lives.

Rather than seize on that unfortunate phrase and immediately jump to the conclusion that the ABC has joined The Fascists, I’d rather focus on the broader message the ABC’s current news strategy is trying to send. It’s called “More Relevant to More Australians” and it argues that the ABC needs to be there for all Australians. I’ve heard that message before.

The ABC should not be readily conscripted into the culture wars.

The ABC should not be readily conscripted into the culture wars.Credit:Steven Siewert

Back in 2013, then chairman of the ABC, James Spigelman, gave a speech at the National Press Club. As a former adviser to Gough Whitlam, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of NSW and a man with a lifelong commitment to social justice, Indigenous issues and the arts, he was one of the best and fairest champions of public broadcasting ever to hold the ABC chairmanship.

He warned then that journalists, including those at the ABC, were more interested in issues such as gay marriage than electricity prices, and they had an obligation to engage with those sections of the community who are concerned with the latter.

Of course, for most Australians, both issues are hugely important, but the point is to ensure both are covered and covered well.

Four years later when he left the ABC, he made a similar point, telling this newspaper that “there isn’t as much attention on the issues of the ‘Howard battlers’, working families, people in the suburbs” as there should be.

Three years after that, Gaven Morris seems to me to be essentially saying the same thing, and with good reason.

In my 23 years at the ABC, I saw lots of audience data. Much of it highlighted a generally understood challenge – ABC radio and television rated highly in the inner city (both traditionally progressive AND traditionally wealthy and conservative suburbs) and it rated highly in rural and regional areas, but more poorly in outer suburbs.

I have no reason to believe this is not as true now as it was then.

Former ABC Chairman James Spigelman.

Former ABC Chairman James Spigelman.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Anyone who thinks this isn’t an issue that needs to be tackled doesn’t understand what public broadcasting is. All Australians pay for the ABC out of their own pockets, and they are entitled to a service that is relevant to them. They are entitled to fair, accurate and impartial news about the issues that are important to them in their lives, as well as to entertainment, drama, comedy, children’s content, music and so much more.

It’s not about deciding whether to be left-wing, right-wing, conservative or progressive to feed the prejudices and preferences of the ABC’s critics and commentators.

It’s not about saying things the government might like in the hope that more funding might be forthcoming. The ABC is funded by the people of Australia. Governments more often than not just get in the way by trying to starve, bully, neglect or pressure the public broadcaster.

And it’s not about dumbing-down, avoiding difficult or complex issues, or replacing one issue with another. It’s about working to build the biggest possible audience for the kind of work the ABC is there to do.

If you look beyond the headlines, the occasional poor turn of phrase and the attempts that are constantly being made to enlist the ABC in a culture war that most of us don’t care about, you will find a consistent aim the ABC sets for itself, even though it falls short from time to time. That aim is to cover all of the issues that matter to Australians with the same level of integrity and independence.

And yes, that means being as relevant to and valued by the people of central Queensland or Tasmania as it is to the people of Melbourne or Sydney.

Alan Sunderland was Editorial Director of the ABC from 2013 to 2019.