The ABC, ‘Independent’ to a Fault

With Sinclair Davidson

It is appalling that a sitting government should have to complain that the ABC is repeating Labor lies as facts. The ABC itself should be ashamed to have received such a complaint. Yet that is precisely why the Labor Party supported the establishment of the ABC – to provide a forum for pro-ALP news and opinion. This points to questioning the precise meaning of what is meant by the ABC being “independent”.

The Charter describes the ABC as an “independent national broadcasting service”, and it is that independence which forms many arguments in favour of public broadcasting. But this notion of independence needs deeper examination. The ABC is a state-owned broadcaster, which is dependent on triennial funding arrangements drawn from the Commonwealth budget, which is set by the political discretion of the government of the day.

ABC supporters refer to the ABC’s independence in two senses. First, it has editorial independence from the government, insofar as it is a statutory agency that is self-managing and separated from the normal chains of political accountability. Second, it is independent of the interests of advertisers and private sector media moguls, providing the “independent information” that the commercial media might not.

Public broadcasting has always been defined against the evils of private broadcasting, and the theme of an independent bulwark against the commercial media (the moguls and monopolists) has been integral right from the start. In the early years it was claimed that a purely private media market would be simultaneously disorderly and monopolistic. In the debate over the 1932 bill, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie, Albert Green, warned of the “chains of newspapers … obtaining such a stranglehold over the eastern part of the Victoria, and disseminating its propaganda through the stations that it controls”. The private monopolisation of radio – “one of the most revolutionary additions to the pool of human resources” – was constantly invoked by Labor members throughout the early debates. This concern, they felt, was more than just theoretical. The 1931 election loss showed, they felt, that the private media was systematically biased against the Labor Party, and a public broadcaster would be able to right that wrong.

Control of the wireless was the high ground of the political contest. In New South Wales a few years earlier the Lang government had sought to establish a state government radio that would resist what Labor saw as the Nationalist Party-dominated private media. As Albert Green, the most forthright of the Labor members on this point in the 1932 debate, put it:

Some B class stations are controlled by newspaper combines, which use them to broadcast only one political opinion. I had hoped that the air would be free to all, and that at election time every party would be given an opportunity to express its opinions over the air. Unfortunately that has not been our experience. Certain newspaper combines are endeavouring to obtain a monopoly of B class stations, and I sound the note of warning that sooner or later some government will have to tackle the very difficult, but necessary task of dealing with the problem of metropolitan B class stations. Nothing short of a complete national scheme will do.

In this sense, independence was understood by the Labor Party as being pro-Labor – or, at least, not anti-Labor. The 1942 inquiry into wireless reiterated this concern, arguing that public broadcasting was needed “to prevent the service from being used for improper purposes”.

Similar concerns drove the introduction of television. The overwrought claims about the social and psychological power of television only intensified the concerns about the new technology’s political importance. The public position of the Labor Party and the ACTU emphasised the cultural good that public broadcasting television could bring, rather than its role countering political bias. But there is no doubt that politics was front of mind when the labour movement considered the significance of television.

A public disagreement between Arthur Calwell and H.V. Evatt as to whether Labor would nationalise the commercial television stations if they were returned to government pivoted on their different impressions of how sympathetic the ABC was to the Labor Party. Calwell, who had been Minister for Information during the Second World War, had a hostile relationship to the commercial press. He believed that Keith Murdoch, who controlled the Melbourne Herald and several other papers across the country, was “a fifth columnist”, “megalomanic”, and his network of papers “a law unto itself” and “Public Enemy No. 1 of the liberties of the Australian people”. Murdoch’s pernicious influence could not be let onto television. Evatt felt that if the hybrid system was maintained, at least the Labor Party would be able to buy a commercial station to air its views. For its part, the conservative parties were just as aware of the political significance of television, arguing in response to the Chifley government’s proposal to establish a monopoly broadcaster that Labor was “merely another milestone on the socialised road to serfdom”.

The modern ABC’s independence is often declared but in practice is hard to pin down. Unlike the BBC, the ABC was not established under a royal charter, and the 1948 move away from licence fees to funding through budget appropriations brought it more into the political window.

Yet how independent could the ABC be? Compared to private and non-government organisations, the fortune of any state authority is going to be closely tied to the government of the day. Public broadcasters have their budgets set by the same governments which they purport to keep a check on. Commercial broadcasters might be dependent on the goodwill of advertisers, but the fact that there are many potential advertisers is a protection against excessive advertiser influence. A public broadcaster has only one funder, and it is a funder whose interests are driven by political rather than commercial incentives.

Nor are commercial broadcasters required to constantly justify their activities to professional politicians. Public broadcasters are regularly brought in front of parliamentary committees to answer for editorial decisions, from the trivial to the significant. The Senate estimates committee procedure requires statutory agencies to present themselves in front of a committee of Senators three times a year. At her first Senate estimates hearing in May 2016, Michelle Guthrie was interrogated about the cancellation of livestock market reports on ABC regional stations, the ABC Fact Check program, how unionised the ABC’s workforce was, whether the ABC was too Sydney-centric, how many people it sent to the Cannes film festival and how long they were out of the office, and how much the ABC spent on a custom typeface to use across its brands. This sort of scrutiny is, of course, entirely appropriate for a state instrumentality. But the notion that independence is the ABC’s unique value as a media outlet is difficult to sustain.

It is not obvious that independence from a democratically elected government is desirable. The ABC is a state-owned organisation, and like any state-owned organisation it derives its legitimacy from its relationship to the democratic expression of voter preferences. Public broadcasters join a large number of other regulatory and bureaucratic agencies that have been deliberately separated from the normal lines of democratic accountability: rather than being the “arm of the minister”, in the classical Westminster bureaucracy formulation, they are protected from political interference and given independence. In an open market, private media organisations are subordinate to consumers and advertisers. In government, politicians and bureaucracies are subordinate to voters. Independent statutory agencies are, by intention, subordinate to neither. Even at their most benign, they are highly susceptible to capture by their employees and management.

Indeed, staff capture has been a longstanding concern of critics of public broadcasters. As Michael Warby writes, “‘Independence’ from government interference … comes to mean effective independence from whatever tenuous public controls over the ABC exist in practice—it amounts to independence from the direct legal owner”. One of the consequences of staff capture, of course, is political bias. The historical context shows that this political slant is a deliberate feature of public broadcasting, not a bug.