In the history of, and current public pressure against, public service broadcasting in Australia, similarities can be seen with the British context. Originally set up by an act of parliament the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s mandate was to “provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs”. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation shares characteristics and features with the BBC, such as an international division similar to the BBC World Service in Australia Network and Radio Australia, and a history of fierce devotion to editorial independence.
However, there are a couple of key differences which may help to understand why the ABC has been the focus of some vehement verbal attacks by Prime Minister Tony Abbott – attacks his own ruling coalition's Communications Minister disagrees with.
Our public service broadcasters include a separate entity to the ABC, the hybrid-funded Special Broadcasting Service whose aim is to ‘provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society’. Few countries in the world can boast anything like SBS, which broadcasts in 68 different languages and exists specifically to reflect multiculturalism.
Another crucial difference is that the ABC is funded entirely by taxpayers (lending weight to the ‘our ABC’ slogan) through government funding instead of license fees from a much larger population. With a much smaller budget than its UK counterpart, production over time at the ABC has diminished and many of its imported shows comprise of BBC drama and comedy.
These differences are key to understanding why a newly-elected conservative government has gone all out in attacking the ABC. While the ABC has always been accused of having a left-wing bias (an accusation with little hard evidence to support it), and while commercial media interests have always been against its production of news and current affairs, two specific comments made recently by prime minister Tony Abbott suggest that as far as attacking the ABC, this conservative government is putting its game face on.
In late January 2014, Mr Abbott questioned the patriotism of the ABC saying it should ‘show some basic affection for the home team’, after it extensively covered claims of Australian spying against Indonesia by American whistleblower Edward Snowden. His implicit suggestion that the broadcaster should only cover national affairs in a way that portrayed Australia positively was called 'absurd' and 'laughable if it wasn't so dangerous' by a former ABC managing director.
In early March, Mr Abbott commented on a case that was before the courts (a defamation action brought against the broadcaster by a News Limited columnist, who was the target of a satirical skit depicting him having sex with a dog), warning the ABC that it would be investigated over spending money to defend itself in the case.
Globally, budgets for public service broadcasting have diminished. While the ABC is not immune to this trend, it is part of a current, broader political attack against the broadcaster that very much reflects the dominant argument made against taxpayer-funded media (that a free market is more effective than a government at serving the public interest). Because of SBS’s very explicit mandate to cater to Australians as a whole through fulfilling the media needs of a multicultural audience, and because of its hybrid model of funding (where at least a fifth of its revenue comes from commercial advertising and activities, and where it can be said to be at least partially funded by the market), SBS has largely escaped the wrath of the current conservative government, for now.
Meanwhile, the prime minister has since confirmed that the government is considering getting rid of the Australia Network altogether, following coverage by the ABC of claims the navy mistreated asylum seekers picked up at sea. But although Mr Abbott has quickly become an unpopular leader six months after his Coalition was elected, there are two and a half years to go before Australia heads to the polls again, which leaves plenty of time to see what punitive shape or form his attacks on the ABC might eventually take.
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