The current stoush between the ABC and the government sees two competing perspectives on the role of public service media in play.
The Coalition, on the one hand, regards the ABC as duty bound to serve Australia’s national interests in its news coverage of stories like the Indonesian spying revelations.
As government of the day, it takes upon itself the right to determine what the national interest is – in this case, not having Australia’s intelligence efforts against foreign governments made public, and certainly not in cooperation with The Guardian, a private news organisation with a global reputation as a progressive, left-of-centre outlet.
The managers of the ABC, on the other hand, define the national interest to be broader than whatever the current government says it is, implying that it may include blowing the whistle on the state security apparatus, in the event that the spooks have behaved inappropriately, illegally or both.
The ABC, says Mark Scott, must have editorial independence in making this judgement, and cannot be seen to be dictated to by any government, regardless of ideological complexion. He says the ABC’s independence is crucial to the performance of its public service role, and to the ongoing credibility of its journalism.
This isn’t partisan
Had the Snowden revelations appeared during the Gillard-Rudd years – recalling that the ALP was in charge when the spying on Indonesia’s president is reported to have occurred – the response would have been more or less of the same: angry criticism from the prime minister, directed toward an organisation perceived to be unruly and disloyal.
In the UK, interestingly, the worst clashes between the public service BBC and the government over the former’s journalism happened under New Labour, during the war in Iraq.
Andrew Gilligan’s 2003 reportage of the allegedly “sexed up dossier” which gave Blair’s government justification to invade Iraq was condemned by Tony Blair’s communication director Alistair Campbell and others.
The fallout saw the suicide of the whistleblower, and the resignation of the BBC’s Director General and Chairman in what was the worst political crisis in the BBC’s 90 year history.
So this is not a left-right issue. Recent research has shown slightly more News Corp journalists than ABC staff support the ALP.
Nor is it only a consequence of a conservative right-of-centre government wishing to have a pop at the public service (although Abbott and his colleagues do enjoy a bit of that when the opportunity comes along).
And can the fact that News Corp media are engaged in a propaganda war against the ABC, as they have been in the UK against the BBC, is not good enough reason to dismiss the critics as motivated by the financial interests of the Murdoch family.
The ABC is publicly funded, and does therefore have special duties and responsibilities over and above the commercial news media.
It is legitimate to ask if those responsibilities permit collaboration with a foreign news organisation to report a US whistleblower’s allegations about the Australian secret service’s spying operations on a close and powerful neighbour like Indonesia.
I say that as a strong believer in the democratic importance of public broadcasting, and public service journalism in particular. I’ll happily pay my taxes to support the ABC, as I did the BBC, on the basis that it is excellent value when compared to the cost of pay-TV subscriptions.
In the UK, Sky charges nearly four times as much for a yearly subscription as the cost of the BBC licence fee (the equivalent of about A$200 a year).
More importantly, public broadcasters are key to the kind of consensual political culture enjoyed in Australia, where fairness, balance and a degree of journalistic impartiality are rightly regarded as essential underpinnings of pluralism and multi-party democracy.
The privately-owned news media is also an integral part of any democracy, but the news and journalism on which we all rely for information and analysis of events should not be the exclusive plaything of billionaires, which is what would happen in Australia if the ABC was marginalised or abolished.
To avoid that, the ABC must take care to preserve its special place in the hearts and minds of the Australia people. In the current stoush it must justify its reportage of sensitive matters which may indeed impact on national security, and be very clear that it is on the right side of the argument.
The stakes are too high for mistakes, and the enemies of public service media too powerful and cocky at this stage in the political cycle to be given a shot at an open goal.
After the Gilligan controversy in the UK the BBC was muted, and remains so, not least because of its obvious failings in the Jimmy Savile scandal. Its managers know how close the broadcaster came to a catastrophic loss of political confidence in 2003/04, and how vulnerable they remain at a time of financial austerity and wholesale cuts to the public services.
ABC managers know that they too are vulnerable to the cost-cutting agenda of a right-wing pro-market government, and cannot afford to take the moral high ground without regard to the bigger political picture. It is not a time for offending the Coalition, or even being vulnerable to the accusation of same.
The ABC must be scrupulously even-handed in its collaborations with the private sector. Co-productions and commercial partnerships on infrastructure are one thing – explosive journalistic exposes are another. The BBC, I suspect, would not have partnered with The Guardian on a story like this.
Its 2012 partnership with the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in which false allegations of child abuse were made against a senior Conservative politician, led to major errors, libel accusations and further political crisis for the broadcaster in the wake of the Savile affair.
The ABC, in partnering with the Guardian Australia, is not accused of journalistic failure like the BBC, but of raising the profile and commercial prospects of the latter. Is it the job of a public service broadcaster, ask the critics, to work so closely with one commercial outlet in a crowded market of struggling private providers?
The ABC should perhaps have contented itself with reporting the Guardian revelations second hand. That horse has bolted, however, so it might be prudent for the organisation to demonstrate soon that it can work in a similar way with News Corp Australia or Fairfax – that is, to cooperate in breaking a story that the powerful don’t want the Australian public to know about.
But the government is wrong to suggest that for the ABC even to report this story, with or without a partnership with The Guardian, is somehow un-Australian.
On the contrary, as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger insisted in London last week when asked if he “loved his country”, it is an entirely patriotic thing to blow the whistle on unaccountable national security agencies when they begin to infringe on individual freedoms and privacy rights.
The real damage to the national interest would be in ignoring Snowden on the assurances of the spymasters that, actually, everything is okay.
As long as no actual harm was done to Australian security personnel in vulnerable situations overseas or at home, there is no reason why this story shouldn’t have been told by the ABC. All over the world the NSA leaks have prompted high level reflection on the checks and balances which exist to rein in our intelligence agencies, and to prevent creeping authoritarianism.
But the ABC also has to think about realpolitik, and the risks of being seen to be in any sense partisan. Its survival matters too much to us all.