This is an edited transcript of a speech given by journalist Kerry O’Brien at a campaign event hosted by the ABC Friends and ABC Alumni in Sydney yesterday.
I have not seen an Australia so distrustful of its politicians, so cynical about their motives and their promises as it is today.
And I have never seen an Australia before whose beloved public broadcaster has been so devalued and under such sustained attack from those who would seek to neutralize it, or worse, destroy it. And yet, in these complex and difficult times, the ABC has never been more important in my life.
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During my years as a correspondent in the United States, I used to regularly visit American television stations across the country to edit and transmit my stories in Australia. The comparison of resources and infrastructure between the commercial stations I visited and the public broadcaster, PBS, was like a contrast between first world and third world. PBS was and is, with rare exceptions like NPR, the poor cousin of American media. And America’s commercial media are even less trustworthy than ours.
I have often wondered as I watched America – once the world’s great bastion of democracy – drift further and further away from the spirit of its constitution, and down the dangerous path of greater inequity and greater division toward authoritarianism, just how America’s story could be today if it had had a strong public broadcasting culture to reflect, enhance, and inspire its beating heart .
In Australia we would be fools not to see the frayed edges of our own democracy, not to see some of the same seeds being sown and to see some of the bare self-interest brought out to promote powerful vested interests against the interests of the nation.
To me, it’s reasonable to assume that when Clive Palmer, a bachelor who made his fortune from fossil fuels, spends a massively obscene amount of money on this election campaign – as he did on the last one – he’s looking to orchestrate an outcome that will facilitate his efforts to maintain and build his fortune away from fossil fuels. Regardless of its motive, the idea that a single individual can influence the outcome of a national election by the sheer weight of money is fundamentally undemocratic.
And when two former prime ministers publicly acknowledge that in government they lived in fear of the power and power of another individual – Rupert Murdoch – and when that individual’s bodies are given the opportunity to shut down or overthrow valid and important public debate, we must also recognize this level of media ownership and this type of power as fundamentally anti-democratic, both in principle and in practice.
For example, what chance is there of a fair election in Queensland against the combined influence of two men, Rupert Murdoch and Clive Palmer.
And as the realities of the digital age have increasingly drawn the ABC and News Corp into head-to-head competition, with the ABC embracing online news programming, applying the exact same logic that has seen it expand beyond radio when television arrived, we shouldn’t be naive as to why News Corp’s attack dogs are so voracious in their tiresome, repetitive attempts to smear the ABC as some kind of elitist, inner city, Marxist, fifth columnist. It is the most despicable misrepresentation of dedicated staff who live in all types of communities across Australia like no other media organization.
I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it for as long as it takes, ABC journalists, like those I’ve worked with for decades, are not driven by ideology but by desire to pursue their craft as they are supposed to – that is, to report and analyze the news faithfully, accurately and responsibly; and in the process, hold the powerful to account and maintain honesty in government.
When I was in the chair at 7:30 a.m. in the Howard years, John Howard’s office used to refer to the ABC’s relationship with regional and rural Australia as ‘our enemy talking to our friends’. Perhaps they meant that the ABC was poisoning conservative bush voters with its mythical leftist bias on the news. What I suspect this really reflected was a frustration that the ABC was harder to manipulate than most other media and was less inclined to be compliant, in its coverage of the bush and everywhere else.
I also think it helps in part to understand the mentality within the Conservative ranks that fueled the feeling of hostility and the desire to punish, reflected in the Howard years and in the last nine years of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. . The recurring pattern is weird. The big black-and-white pre-election promise not to cut the CBA’s money, followed closely and unashamedly in the immediate post-election budget by a significant cut to the CBA’s budget. Howard did. Abbott did. Turnbull and Morrison pursued him.
Since Abbott, the ABC has lost 10.6% of its budget in real terms. This represents hundreds of millions of dollars. And now, in the shadow of another election, suddenly the CBA minister, who declined Friends’ invitation to present you here today, is scrambling to undo the Turnbull government’s freeze on automatic annual inflation adjustments that amounted to actually cutting another $40 million a year. For starters, the government’s indexation formula does not reflect the true measure of inflation, but even if it did, why would we trust this promise given the track record of broken promises in the past?
The ABC has so far withstood both public attacks and depleted budgets, but anyone who has followed the dear auntie for any length of time knows that damage has been done. Hard-to-define and hard-to-measure damage, but real, ingrained damage to the psyche of the place and its programs that will be hard to undo.
Dare I say, Labor governments showed their frustrations, even their anger at the ABC coverage that also stung them, but at least Labor had a long-term philosophical commitment to the principle of public broadcasting – but if Labor wins this election, it has a serious catching up to do in demonstrating its adherence to this principle and restoring the ABC to a reasonable state of health. It means going beyond what it has committed to so far.
I do not claim sacred status for the ABC. He had his stumbles and his imperfections too. And given the level of trust placed in him by his audience, and given the investment of public funds as well, he should never resent a strong, sensible, justifiable level of public scrutiny – but I have to say that d ‘After my decades of experience in the place, I can’t think of any other institution more scrutinized than the CBA, other than Parliament itself. And the irony here, of course, is that the workings of government in Australia are becoming increasingly opaque, increasingly resistant to scrutiny – another symptom of our unraveling democracy.
So for all the concerns I’ve outlined, I’ve accepted invitations on behalf of ABC Alumni, from independent candidates in various electorates to voice the same concerns I voiced today – not endorsing a candidate individual, and certainly not to try to teach people how to vote, but to challenge them to think carefully about the value of their vote and how they can make it speak to their most important values and needs .
But I must say that I could not help but be impressed, not only by the quality of the candidates themselves, but also by the small armies of highly motivated and very articulate volunteers who emerged within their communities, determined to make their voices heard, protesting against what they clearly see as a decline in the quality of their traditional representation.
I couldn’t believe it when I heard John Howard so disparagingly refer to these women as “anti-liberal groupies.” Exceptionally clumsy for one of Australia’s most cunning post-war politicians.
What an appallingly sexist rebuke to the Zoe Daniels, the Zali Steggalls, the Allegra Spenders, the Monique Ryans, the Kate Hooks and all the other fiercely intelligent, independent women who have stood up to be counted because their communities are losing faith in mainstream politics. .
I would like to end by thanking the army of Friends who have been so loyal for decades and who have already started manning the voting booths with a message to all Australians as they walk past you to vote. Think. Think about your vote and why you have it. Think about how you can really make it count. I’ve had so, many people over the years, people frustrated with something that’s just not fair in the way they’re treated or mistreated, because of the breakdown of civil society in their community, who said to me, “What can I do?”
Well, that’s what you can do. Use your vote to speak for you. Really speak for yourself. Our vote is one of the most precious things we have. And our ABC is too.