Does the ABC have anything close to the kind of vetting process you experienced when making your documentaries for PBS?
No—but that was a question of the fact that most of the funding was coming from an outside body which wanted to exercise editorial oversight that went with that funding. To the extent that the ABC co-produces, which it does occasionally for documentaries, though never for news and current affairs, there is quite a bit of a battle of shared editorial control. But largely speaking, and certainly for news and current affairs, there is no oversight much above the level of executive producer for almost anything.
Of course, the government, which is your sole funder, must have had some issues with ABC content over the years and attempted to interfere?
There have been occasions in which the government has made it clear that in its view what the ABC is doing is not satisfactory. There are two famous examples. The first was during the Gulf War in 1991. The then-prime minister, Bob Hawke, who is very pro-Israel, was furious at the amount of prominence the ABC gave to an American Middle East expert who was known for his pro-Palestine views. His expertise in this instance was all about Iraq, and he was very good, and I thought pretty impartial in terms of what he was talking about regarding the war in Iraq. But because of his history of anti-Israel comment the pro-Israel lobby, which included the prime minister, became very incensed. The outcome was that the ABC didn’t really give way—the prime minister called for the sacking of various people who weren’t sacked—and it blew over in time.
The second and rather similar row was in the coverage of the current Iraq war. The Howard government had taken Australia into that war and the communications minister, Senator Richard Alston, was incensed by what he saw as biased political coverage, particularly on radio, and he basically wrote a formal complaint to the ABC—which is kind of bizarre, as though he were just another viewer, when he was the minister in charge of the ABC ultimately. The letter had around forty-five very specific complaints about what he claimed was biased coverage and it went through the normal ABC complaints procedure, through the independent review panel, and on from there to the official government regulator of broadcasting, at that time the Australian Broadcasting Authority. These people found various elements of the complaint justified, and most of them not justified.
But the government does not have the power to instruct the ABC board and through the board to instruct ABC programmers to do one thing or another. Even in that instance, there was no other real way he could make note of his displeasure.
Here the complaints are more than that. There’s a very loud movement to see the Corporation for Public Broadcasting defunded. Are there similar calls in Australia from the ABC’s attackers?
There is a small lobby, mainly from the libertarian right, led by a couple of sort of militant Friedman-esque think tanks, largely on economically ideological grounds—a deep dislike of state funding of anything that doesn’t have to be state-funded. They would argue there that if people want the kind of programming that the ABC provides these days they can pay for it through cable, or whatever, and in this age of media plenty there is far less justification for the existence of the ABC than there was when there was a real restriction of waveband.
It’s a very respectable argument in its way but it doesn’t have a chance of getting much headway given the ABC’s popularity with the public as a whole, which is considerable. Every time they do surveys of what people think about the ABC, asking whether they think it’s biased, there’s a massive majority who say they don’t think it is. When they ask whether people value the ABC as an institution, there are massive majorities in favor.
Even though it has a smaller audience than the commercial media in television, for example, its spread in radio means it’s very widely listened to—in the bush, etc. And its television audiences are respectable—they channel 15 percent when a popular commercial station will get 23, 24, 25 percent.
Someone in the coalition [of the conservative Liberal and National Parties] once said, “The ABC is our enemies talking to our friends.” There is a certain truth in that. Whatever the ideological propensities of the people who work at the ABC, it is kind of middle class welfare—an awful lot of people who vote conservative prefer the ABC to commercial media because of the kinds of programs it makes and because it doesn’t have huge swathes of advertisements all the way through it.