Vicious sustained campaign against ABC: Fiona Stanley

ABC board member Fiona Stanley has spoken out against News Limited’s campaign against the ABC in a column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

She says the ABC finds itself in a situation where “a major commercial news organisation is denigrating the ABC with a vicious, sustained campaign which is extremely damaging to our public broadcaster and to the nation.” 

Professor Stanley is patron and the founding Director of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. She has been an ABC board member since 2011.

In her article Stanley says many Australians take the ABC for granted. Her hope is “that readers will realise how valuable our public broadcaster is and fight to save it from further cuts and harassment.”

The article says:

If you only read The Australian, or listen to the views of some politicians, you would think that the ABC is struggling to provide fair coverage of events, is biased in its politics and its science, and that it is wasting tax-payers’ dollars. Have you noticed that journalists critical of the ABC have started to call it “the taxpayer-funded ABC”? 

Well, what do taxpayers actually think about “their ABC”?   The most recent independent Newspoll shows an extraordinary level of support and enthusiasm. Over 84% of Australians believe that the national broadcaster provides a valuable service to the community. Moreover,  84% believe that its reporting is accurate and fair; 80% think that it does a good job on country and regional issues and 78% that ABC TV is of high quality. 

If any other organisation had such high proportions of people valuing it across the country it would be very happy indeed. I suggest that it is evidence that the national broadcaster is providing value for the money invested in it. 

So how much does it cost and what do we get for that? It is interesting to compare the ABC budgets from almost 30 years ago to now  in terms of real funding.

In 1986, with $906.3M the ABC employed 6092 fulltime equivalent staff, had one analog television channel, 38 radio sites, Radio National and ABC Classic FM with  90% coverage, and 2JJ, as it was known then, servicing  only  Sydney. 

Last financial year, with $825.7 million, the ABC had 4,679 staff  with four major digital TV channels (ABC1, ABC2/ABC4Kids, ABC3 and ABC News 24) and an incredibly successful online catch-up service.  The average audience reach varies from nearly 10 million for ABC1 to just over 3 million for ABC3, with an astonishing 20 million plays a month for iView.  There are 60 local radio sites, nationwide RN, Triple J and Classic FM, plus ABC podcasts  downloaded 71 million times.  ABC online has 19.5 million visits per month and there are now over 25 smart phone and tablet apps…

Why is the ABC so important for Australian democracy?  Society faces a number of what are called “wicked problems” – complex in their causation, having  major impacts on people and nations, costly and difficult to manage, and demanding  whole of government responses. These problems include climate change, environmental degradation, mental illness (including problems caused by substance abuse), obesity and inequality. 

Citizens need to be informed about these issues to support appropriate political and whole of government policy solutions.  Australian citizens depend upon the public broadcaster to present the issues and the science in  critical and clear ways so that we can make the best decisions and help our politicians and bureaucrats to do the same; spending taxpayers funds on policies and solutions that work now and in the future.  The ABC is crucial because  we are poorly served by other parts of the media. Too often, problems become politicised, the science is discarded and rational debate and decision-making go out the window.  

Science is not perfect, particularly when you are dealing with the kinds of complex problems mentioned above. What we need is the best science to guide us as we continue to research and improve policy responses as more becomes known.  

Critics allege the ABC is biased in relation to climate change. I give one recent example: on 11 August, The Australian reported that media analysis of the ABC’s coverage of coal and coal seam gas mining suggested that these industries had a negative environmental impact and that investing in renewables should be prioritised. The Australian‘s response was to assume bias and demand,  the ABC  be privatised. In reality, the ABC’s reporting accurately reflects the science on coal and CSG and the lower environmental impact of renewable, (particularly with regard to the emission of greenhouse gas. The requirement for ‘balance’ does not mean that bad science should be reported with the same emphasis as good science. 

We are now in a situation where a major commercial news organisation is denigrating the ABC with a vicious, sustained campaign which is extremely damaging to our public broadcaster and to the nation.  The ABC has already had to make compromises:  the Government has cut the Australia Network so the Charter obligation to broadcast news and entertainment to countries outside Australia has to be fulfilled by making cuts elsewhere. We have lost some of our top journalists in this process. Further cuts have been announced and these are just the beginning. 

Australians must realise what implications there are for the nation’s capacity to be a well-informed and therefore competent country. 

Read the full opinion piece here.



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