The ABC’s independence is a global concern. AAP/Joel Carrett

A public broadcaster that bows to political pressure isn't doing its job

Johan Lidberg

The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.

Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.

If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.

So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?

Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.

And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.

High level of trust

One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.

That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.

There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.

There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.

A serious case of self-doubt

The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.

A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.

The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.

But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.

A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.

Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.

So, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.

Comment on this article

Johan Lidberg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Monash University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

Victoria State Government provides funding as a strategic partner of The Conversation AU.