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Are you now, or have you ever been, a public service broadcaster?

AAP/Lukas Coch

Not for the first time, and surely not for the last in this parliament, the prime minister attacks the ABC, this time for its alleged lack of patriotism. We can assume that he is softening up the Australian public for a substantial cut in the ABC’s budget down the road, chipping away at the corporation’s much-prized reputation — its legal obligation, indeed — for neutrality and balance in its news and journalism. The Australian today reports that ABC International may be in the firing line for Coalition cuts.

The ABC remains popular with the Australian public, and can probably ride out this latest wave of contrived outrage, just as it has survived criticism from previous governments. Given that Malcolm Turnbull has distanced himself from the prime minister’s remarks, and Mr Abbott’s accusations therefore lack the weight of a united cabinet behind them, supporters of public service media needn’t be alarmed.

Not that the ABC is beyond criticism, nor immune to cuts in public spending at a time of budgetary belt-tightening. Like other media organisations in Australia, and all around the world, new communication technologies allow substantial savings to be made in key areas of the news production process without the need for compromise on quality. If Mr Abbott were to say that, rather than alleging that the ABC was in some sense ‘un-Australian’, he would have a much more persuasive point.

But he has his commercial media backers to appease and they expect that the ABC receive a good prime ministerial kicking at every opportunity.

As I’ve noted previously in this space, all governments think the ABC is giving them an unnecessarily hard time, and appear to govern on the premise that public service in journalistic terms should actually mean ‘propaganda apparatus’, or ‘cheerleader-in-charge’. So, no coverage of alleged military abuse of asylum seekers, if you please. No reporting of aussie spying on its neighbours and ‘friends’ in the region, thank you very much. People might get the wrong impression, and come to think that the lucky country is something other than heaven on earth.

Let’s be clear. If, like the BBC in its coverage of the ‘sexed up dossier’ of 2004, or its more recent handling of the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal, the ABC makes basic journalistic mistakes, or covers up internal wrongdoing, or in any way breaches the trust of Australian tax payers in its reporting, its managers should be held to account. But there is nothing like that going on here. Rather, the ABC offends Mr Abbott simply in doing its job — that is, giving an account of the world that deviates a little from what he and his government would like us all to think.

E.g., Australian service men and women are capable of bad behavior from time to time — a small minority of them. The prime minister thinks that reporting this possibility is practically treasonable. Who cares if it’s true or not? It shouldn’t even be mentioned in polite company, seems to be his argument, because it damages ‘Australia’.

Well, nothing would damage Australia’s reputation for a rigorous democracy and free media system more than turning the ABC into a compliant mouthpiece for the government of the day. Other news organisations can do that if they wish, but the ABC must represent the people as a whole, for their sake upholding the integrity of the state’s institutions (including its military), and not cheerleading for the transient pollies who run the show at any given time. A public service broadcaster is not the servant of the government, but of the public.

Mr Abbott knows all this, of course, and his rabble rousing is mainly for political purposes. Let’s hope that the Australian public treats his comments accordingly, and continues to value the ABC as a news organization which, in choosing not to sweep the country’s dirty linen under the carpet, actually serves Australia well, and strengthens its democratic reputation in a transitional region where there are already too many constraints on free media.