Sarah Ferguson: will Malcolm Turnbull curb or befriend the ABC?

As communications minister, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that real innovation in digital media was within the ABC’s charter. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Former prime ministers Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott have in common highly negative views about the media, according to ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson.

Delivering the A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism, Ferguson, who presented the much-praised series The Killing Season, said that Gillard had arrived to discuss the program initially “hostile – as hostile as any potential interviewee I have ever encountered.

"It wasn’t personal. It was about the media generally whom she regarded as having played an egregiously partisan role during her prime ministership.

"She wanted to know how we were going to cover the media’s role. The series would be completely unsatisfactory without examining the media. She repeated the insistence after our last interview, walking through the bowels of the ABC.”

Rudd “had an equally jaundiced view of the media. And a particularly critical view of the ABC. It made the relationship tricky to manage”, Ferguson said.

Both “echoed Tony Abbott’s comments on leaving office when he said that journalists ‘should refuse to connive at dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife’”.

In her lecture, Ferguson raised questions about what might happen to the ABC, given what was occurring with the BBC.

“The world’s first public broadcaster is under threat. The BBC is facing perhaps the biggest challenge in its history and it comes from the government led by media-friendly, moderate, liberal-minded Tory MP David Cameron. A man, it should be said, in the same mould as our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, philosophically aligned as they are on climate change, gay marriage and innovative capitalism.”

Ferguson said the “general” in the campaign against the BBC was the new culture secretary John Whittingdale, a key figure in the Tory right wing, who said the BBC needed to be made fit for the new broadcasting age.

“The BBC’s ten-year charter expires next year and Whittingdale will oversee a root and branch review that will reconsider the scope and purpose of the BBC, the definition of public broadcasting, its independence and funding,” Ferguson said.

“In the past 24 hours Whittingdale opened up a new front. At the Tory party conference he announced that the BBC would be stripped of its power to adjudicate allegations of political bias. This comes on top of a leaked government green paper questioning the impartiality of BBC news. Sound familiar?”

Ferguson said Abbott had accused ABC journalists of being unpatriotic, taking everyone’s side but Australia’s, and lacking basic affection for the home team.

“What the ABC critics failed to understand is that it is not the ABC’s job to project the country according to their tastes. Nor is it the ABC’s role to boost or spruik for Australia, in peace or in conflict.

"No-one at the ABC looks for thanks from the government but is it unreasonable to expect the government to have some understanding of a major institution whose existence the public so overwhelmingly supports?”

Ferguson said that as the British government looked to narrow the BBC’s role to limit its competition with commercial broadcasters, it was worth recalling the echoes in Australia.

In November, News Corp boss Julian Clarke had called on the government to stop the ABC using taxpayer funds to compete against self-supported companies in the digital area, saying it should “stick to its knitting”. In response, Abbott had echoed Whittingdale’s call for public broadcasters to focus on core services.

“Here was a wider context for the accusations of ABC bias, of un-Australian behaviour and for the Q&A scandal ‘ABC of Infamy’ headlines” in News Corp tabloids, Ferguson said.

Then-communications minister Turnbull had stayed largely above the fray, working to manage the Q&A crisis, and stating that real innovation in digital media was within the ABC’s charter.

“Now he’s prime minister like his old friend David Cameron. Will he be tempted to follow the Tory lead in reining in the power of the public broadcaster? Or will he be, as in the past, a friend of the ABC?” Ferguson asked.

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