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TUMBY BAY - The first hint that everything was not well at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) came when the seven o’clock evening television news began to include reports about car crashes and house fires in its line-up.

Not long after that stories about football began to appear in the main bulletin. Suddenly the impact of Covid-19 on the sport, and where the finals would be held, seemed of significant import.

This is the grist of the commercial networks that specialise in sensation, celebrities and stories with little substantive content (as long as they have dramatic pictures) - distractions from what is really important.

Then the ABC imported a journalist from Sky News and gave him the job of anchoring the influential Sunday morning program, Insiders.

Instead of reasoned discourse with the week’s senior political guest we were presented with a kind of binary duel where the host tries to elicit simple yes or no answers from his guest, which everyone knows no politician is capable of delivering.

What on earth is going on here, I began to wonder.

Then it crept into 7.30 Report, the current affairs program following the 7 o’clock news. The host of the program and interviewees seemed uncomfortable with the combative style but it continued.

In retrospect this creeping dumbing down of the national broadcaster shouldn’t have been a big surprise.

In 2019 prime minister Scott Morrison had bypassed the recommendations of the usual independent process and appointed Ita Buttrose as chair of the ABC.

Buttrose spent most of her career working for either Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch. Her major claim to fame was editing The Australian Women’s Weekly.

The Coalition government began stacking the ABC board with its mates from commercial media and industry as soon as it won government in 2013.

In 2018 the Liberal Party’s peak council voted to privatise the ABC. The conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, fully endorsed the idea.

It was only pragmatic rejection by cabinet ministers who saw the idea as “total madness” that buried it. Ministers were more interested in a stealthier plan to subvert and cripple the organisation.

The ABC has lost $783 million in funding since the Coalition came to power in 2013. In June 2020, the ABC announced cuts to programs and 250 staff redundancies.

Important television programs like Lateline were axed while major radio programs like The World Today had their programs halved. State-based current affairs had disappeared long before.

International news bureaus were closed down, shortwave radio services ditched and spending on drama production contracted significantly.

For countries like Papua New Guinea, an early casualty of the government’s cuts was the crucially reliable Australia Network which disappeared in 2013.

There are still some valiant and dedicated journalists working for the ABC who understand objectivity and holding the powerful to account.

Some of these people personally experience the vitriol emanating from the government, ranging from cloaked suggestions they be sacked to full-blown defamation court cases.

How they manage to maintain the quality of their reporting under such trying conditions, I find hard to imagine.

TruthPerhaps we should have realised what would happen to the ABC long before the deterioration became apparent on our television screens, radios and digital devices.

After all, the conservative politicians and right wing think tanks have long signalled what they’d like to do.

Like many things wrong with Australia today our only hope seems to lie in a change of government.

Whether that is a justifiable hope is another matter.


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Ed Brumby

It is more difficult, surely, to maintain established standards when, thanks to the Smirker, funding constraints come into play.

Neverbtheless, I remain an avid ABC watcher and listener - and thank whomever, especially for ABC Classic FM which provides such necessary calm during times of lockdown.

That aside, funding constraints provide no excuse whatsoever for the alarming decline in the standard of spoken and written prose by a growing number of ABC presenters and writers.

The current descent into 'sloppiness' of oral and written expression is quite simply alarming.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've been puzzling over Leigh Sales for a while now Keith and couldn't make up my mind where she's coming from but I think you are right. I wonder how much of it is related to self-preservation.

Laura Tingle also seems very constrained when she hosts the program, which is why I found her segment on Phillip Adam's program such a contrast.

7.30 would be an excellent venue for someone like Natalie Whiting, ABC's PNG correspondent, but she never turns up and seems to be confined to occasional articles on the ABC website.

Oh for the days when we had Kerry O'Brien and Barrie Cassidy!

Bernard Corden

Dear Keith - Our discussion was very brief as you were picking up some relatives at Brisbane airport and I merely mentioned a deterioration in the overall quality of ABC news and current affairs.

I cannot share your views on 7:30 and Four Corners. They were once good programs but following savage cuts to the ABC budget they have degenerated into formulaic sludge underpinned by simplistic cause and effect ideology and are reminiscent of A Current Affair and Sixty Minutes.

In the past few years the only program worth watching on the ABC has been Utopia.

In PNG it is best summarised by the appointment of its sports minister who was formerly The Happy Gardener.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Leigh Sales is valiantly battling on despite some of the silly segments she seems forced to include in the 7.30 line-up. It's quite unsettling. Good quality investigative journalism interspersed with crap.

Four Corners is still producing quality journalism but I suspect its days are numbered and it will slowly transform into a Sixty Minutes style irrelevancy.

Here's an interesting exercise. Listen to Laura Tingle on 7.30 and then tune into her segment on Phillip Adam's radio program Late Night Live on Monday night.

The contrast is amazing. One presents a controlled and measured presentation and the other is a let her rip, this is what I really think, account.

Leigh Sales has considerable influence on her program. Her bias towards the Morrison/Berejiklian stance is pronounced. Addressing WA premier Mark McGowan - "Why don't you follow Gladys Berejiklian‬'s example". A bit of freelance editorialising - "Lockdowns don't work". And her constant slagging of Victoria has been a disgrace (now it seems her wishes have come true). Investigative journalism? I have observed none from her - KJ

Arthur Williams

Phil - Your comments on Australia's ABC mirror much of what I would write about the BBC.

Since getting a Chromecast dongle to fit to my TV I can readily get YouTube which gives me free access to a lot of news channels that include BBC, Al Jazeera (my favourite), RT (Russia TV), CNN, CNA, DW, France-24, Euro News and a few others. As well I watch the major movie channels most require subscription though.

My normal 0800 breakfast routine is turn on BBC News, check out its headlines and then quickly run away to Al Jazeera. It is often like I'm living in two different worlds.

The latter covers many stories worldwide while the BBC co-broadcasts with its The Breakfast Show which I can only say is a poor man's version of the crazy American styled news.

In my channel swapping I have to be careful because once I clicked on ABC and it was the US one not Oz.

The BBC licence fee (licences are free at the moment for over 75s) has been gathering criticism for a long time now and the mandatory principle for the under 75s looks like it will turn into subscription in the not too distant future.

Sky of course dominates sport on TV and if I tune to BBC on most Saturday afternoons in winter there are no league soccer matches nor either of the rugby codes.

Bernard Corden

Dear Richard - In November 2019, after Murray Bladwell's funeral in Brisbane, I had a brief discussion with the PNG Attitude editor regarding the deterioration of ABC news and current affairs.

The TVSN 24/7 and Spree telemarketing channels provide far more integrity than the turgid hogwash and air-brushed newzak regurgitated on programs such as The Drum, ABC News, 7:30 Report and ABC Four Corners.

Back in the 1980s The Age was a fine newspaper and rivalled Le Monde for its quality journalism but it is now no better than a red top rag tabloid.

The following link provides access to an article by Quentin Dempster back in June 2016:

Can't recall the content of that conversation with my friend Bernard, on that sad day we said goodbye o a dear fiend, but I doubt I would have savaged Four Corners, which remains something of a beacon of hope. Since that sad day 21 months ago, 7.30 (under Leigh Sales) right wing propaganda or (under Laura Tingle, a journo of the old school) still capable of holding power to account, and The Drum is either informative or gossip depending on its guests. And here are a couple more recent Dempster articles - KJ

Richard Jones

What planet are you on Phil, Bernard and Lindsay?

Our ABC-TV news in Victoria is still first class. The evening presenters Tamara Oudyn and Mary Gearin do splendid jobs.

Alan Kohler or Ian Verrender are the finance experts summing up the day's trading on the ASX and telling us what the coming weeks and months might hold.

Sport on ABC Victoria, Phil, doesn't surface until 7.24 or 7.25 pm. Unless of course it relates to a Covid-impaired major sports event.

I recall two or three years back when a major fire at an industrial plant in Melbourne's western suburbs was reported on.

As we had a family living in that region who aren't avid ABC fans like my wife and I, we were able to text and tell them that huge clouds of toxic smoke could be heading their way.

On 7.30, normally hosted by Leigh Sales, many excellent pieces go to air. Currently Leigh is finishing up a four-part series on harassment and mistreatment of women in the workplace, 'Why Women Are Angry'.

Can't comment on Sunday morning ABC-TV programs. I'm not an insomniac so have never seen those shows. I wake at 11 or 11.30 and read the hard copy Sunday Age - in bed.

I'll raise a glass of red to you at dinner this evening, Phil.
And hope that your normal even-handed approach returns.

Bernard Corden

Since the departure of Mary Kostakidis from SBS back in 2007, the integrity of independent television news broadcasts has rapidly degenerated into passive vicarious infotainment and is better termed Newzak.

Lindsay F Bond

Well put, Phil. Time-filler-tainment dumbs democracy.

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