Budget cuts are an attempt to bully the ABC into silence | Andrew Fowler | Opinion
The bullying of the ABC with the latest round of budget cuts is a stark example of how the federal government wants to kill questioning journalism. Vicious attacks on the ABC certainly came from both major political parties in the past, but whereas Labor, by its political orientation at least pays lip service to dissent, there are no such restraints on the Liberal National Coalition. And as the government has shifted to the right, the attacks on the ABC have been more overt, with the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, pointedly referring to the ABC (and the Guardian) as “dead” to him. Dutton was angry at the role of journalists in holding him to account.
There is a belief in the government that if they keep attacking the organisation, and cutting its funding, it will eventually blunt its journalism. Unfortunately these kind of sustained attacks do have an impact. Though the ABC supported its political reporter who described Tony Abbot as “destructive”, the buckling by the ABC to criticism of Emma Alberici’s reasoned argument that big business is not paying its fair share of tax, or the handling of the Asio cabinet files saga, where huge number of classified Cabinet documents were returned to the government without producing a story, suggests a lack of strong journalistic leadership.
Inside the ABC there has always been a struggle between what is known as the “pre-emptive buckle” where a “pragmatic” approach is taken to government criticism (and their views accommodated) in the belief that the organisation will live to fight another day, and those who believe in confronting the government, arguing that a bully will never stop until the organisation has become just a propaganda mouthpiece for whoever is in power in Canberra.
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What’s not helping the ABC at the moment is that many journalists have little faith that if they upset the government they will be adequately defended. Yet in spite of that, many of them continue to put first class journalism to air, even as jobs are cut, with more sackings to come.
The attack on the ABC through its budget is a clumsy and brutal onslaught against the one media organisation over which it has direct influence. Yet the ABC is not alone.
The federal government has presided over a raft of legislation designed to directly curb the work of all journalists. The latest: proposed laws which could jail journalists for 20 years for even being in possession of information which the government deemed might harm national security. These are laws aimed specifically at journalists, and the whistleblowers that provide such a desperately needed flow of information to counter the deceptive statements, and sometimes deliberate lies, from members of the government.
It’s necessary to look back no further than the Iraq war to understand the consequences of these new laws. Australian intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie, who walked out of the Office of National Assessments and told the truth about Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction on national television, could have ended up sharing a cell with the person he gave the story to, Channel Nine’s then political editor Laurie Oakes. They could have both been in breach of handling classified information. Yet like most reports about national security, their disclosure posed no danger to public safety. It simply caused embarrassment to the Howard government.
15 years later, there’s an eerie similarity in Australia to Trump’s America, where the president described journalists as the “enemy of the American people”. What is different here is that unlike many other western nations, journalists in Australia have scant legal protection for the jobs that they do. They are vulnerable, and none so more than those who work at the ABC.
Under repeated attack, ABC journalists must hold the federal government to account and at the same time rely on the protection of a weak and jumpy executive. If this budget has taught the ABC anything it is that the bully can never be appeased.
• Andrew Fowler is a former ABC Four Corners reporter. His latest book, Shooting the Messenger: Criminalising Journalism, has just been published by Routledge UK