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.
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.