The ABC and its managing director Mark Scott are caught in a perfect storm.
Critics variously driven by ideology, commercial interests or a combination have found in the ABC’s decision to partner with Guardian Australia to publish the Indonesia spy story a big opportunity for the broader attack on the public broadcaster that is their recurring theme.
Conservative commentators, The Australian newspaper, and government MPs have all been outraged about the ABC co-reporting the story.
Crucially, they are as much reflecting their wider anger about the ABC, as well as other agendas.
The ABC came under fire in the Coalition party room this week, with Speaker Bronwyn Bishop among those flailing it.
There are two issues in its decision to join with Guardian Australia to run the revelation that Australia monitored the phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and other prominent figures.
One is whether the story should have been published at all. The other is: should the ABC have united with The Guardian?
Clearly the story, based on Edward Snowden’s material, has produced great difficulties in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
But to suggest it should not have been run for that reason is both wrong in principle and impractical. It did not compromise national security; it seriously compromised diplomatic relations – which is not sufficient reason for refraining from publication.
What should be the boundaries of spying is a legitimate issue (whether one thinks that particular bugging was reasonable or over the top). This is reinforced by the unrelated story now being reported of alleged spying on East Timor by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service during 2004 oil and gas negotiations between the countries.
Does anyone think that if outlets now criticising the publication of the Indonesia story had had it exclusively they would not have published?
At one time, such a story would have been covered by the old D-Notice system, under which publishers agreed not to run certain information (including anything relating to the Defence Signals Directorate, which did the spying on the Indonesians). But those days are long gone, not least for practical reasons.
In the digital world, if something is not published in one place it will be published in another.
The ABC has noted it often partners with other media organisations. The reason this partnership raised a storm was because of the content of the story (and that the co-partner was The Guardian, which the critics denounce for its leftist slant).
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seen as a champion of the ABC, has accused Scott of making an “error of judgement”.
He told a Liberal function last week that it was The Guardian’s story “and they just basically wanted a partner to help them amplify their publication.” The ABC should have declined to do that, Turnbull argued.
Tony Abbott echoed the words on Tuesday: “I think the ABC were guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia’s national security and long-term best interests. …. I think they were also guilty of poor judgment in acting as an advertising agent for The Guardian. I mean, why would Australia’s national broadcaster be in the business of touting for a left wing British newspaper?”
On an earlier occasion Abbott (a former journalist who hasn’t lost his news instincts) distinguished between the ABC reporting the story (ie following it up) and amplifying it. “I think it’s fair enough for people to question the judgement of the ABC, not in failing to cover the story … because plainly it was a story, but in choosing to act as … an advertising amplifier for The Guardian.”
Would the same point about initial reportage be made if News had decided to partner on the spy story? Or are the critics saying there should be different standards for the ABC from those that should apply to other media organisations?
Scott says: “Were we really going to walk away from that because it was controversial? Were we going to walk away from that [story] because it might generate some political heat? That’s a very tough thing for a public broadcaster to do, if in fact we are an independent public broadcaster.”
Scott might ruefully feel he made an error of “political” judgement, given the situation in which he finds himself, but it is hard to argue convincingly that he made any error of journalistic judgement.
The ABC satisfied itself the story was correct. Yes, the ABC “amplified” it but, given its explosive content, it was going to “amplify” pretty damn quickly, with or without the ABC.
Critics have seized on the ABC’s action as an opportunity to denounce what they see as its view of the world. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan wrote at the weekend that “the rank enthusiasm of the ABC in this story suggests it will go to great lengths to prosecute its endless war against the dark forces of conservative Australia”.
Another line of attack has been that the organisation that provides Australia’s overseas news service (the Australia Network) to the region has undermined the nation’s interests.
The Australian argued in an editorial: “The Australia Network means the ABC has a duty to foster the national interest in Asia. The Guardian and other commercial media outlets have no such duty.” The editorial wanted a review of the Australia Network contract.
It is not hard to see the element of commercial competition in this assault. In a very messy process under Labor, the ABC retained the Australia Network contract despite a strong challenge from Sky, which is part-owned by News Corp.
But what if Sky had had the contract and the opportunity to jointly break the story? On the editorial’s reasoning, presumably it would have had to decline it.
Some Coalition party room critics want an ABC that is constrained and shrunken, without the resources and the right to compete so effectively against increasingly financially stretched commercial media.
The more successful the taxpayer-funded ABC is in the competitive market place, the less that is liked by some who in other contexts preach a free market philosophy.
The ABC has become victim of its own success.
Conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has described the ABC as a “taxpayer-funded behemoth” and accused it of “cannibalisation of commercial media”.
He objects to the ABC’s online competition with the newspapers, which are charging for their content, and says there should be “structural separation”, with the online part removed from the TV and radio functions.
“The ABC has grown exponentially over the years. And now it’s basically encroaching into the newspapers of the 21st century, which is the online space,” Bernardi said today (on ABC radio).
Bernardi believes the online section should have to sustain itself in commercial terms, be shut down, or be sold off.
Tony Abbott, despite his criticism, is not showing any sign of doing anything drastic about the ABC (not that it would want to be asking for money any time soon).
It would be a foolhardy PM that went down the path of trying to emasculate the organisation. It is a highly regarded Australian institution. An Essential poll in August asked: “How much trust do you have in the way the following media have reported and commented on the election campaign so far?” ABC TV rated top (58%), followed by SBS TV and ABC radio. The newspapers and commercial TV and radio were well behind.
Abbott, who tempers his ideology with pragmatism, probably understands this point. Asked by Ten’s Andrew Bolt whether the ABC needed a new charter, he said “Andrew, I’m not in the business of making unnecessary enemies and I’m not in the business of further inflaming critics.”
The ABC also has an important ally in Turnbull, despite this week’s criticism.
Nevertheless the anti ABC crusaders will continue to push and it will be a risky time for the national broadcaster.
Michelle Grattan has a regular spot on the ABC’s Radio National.
Listen to Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.