The frosty relationship between the ABC and the Government

By Felix Trenbath 

The Australian Broadcast Corporation has been serving everyday Australians for over 90 years, during which time it has received intense scrutiny by many a government administration – surviving controversy, political scandals, defunding, police raids and all sorts of maligning by the political class.

The ABC is a government-funded news agency, with editorial independence and no government oversight. Aiming to benefit all Australians equally, no matter what.

This makes it rather difficult to not make enemies of powerful people and garner scrutiny by those that may wish to see it be reduced to but an information wing of the government.

Andrew Probyn, twice named Journalist of the Year and a Gold Quill award winner, is a veteran of the news industry, working in all sectors of the Australian media landscape from the Herald Sun to the West Australian and, up until recently, he was the Chief Political Editor for the ABC.

And he kindly obliged to talk about ABC-government relations with this writer.

When a government decides on what they’re going to spend the country’s money on for the next four years, the ABC’s funding has always been a tendentious issue. No government wants to look like they’re against an impartial, for-everyone broadcaster, but no government is particularly eager to talk it up.

“The ABC always has to be on guard. Whereas some Liberals think the broadcaster is against them, some in Labor might think they own you,” said Probyn.

This apparent Catch-22 is shown in how the ABC over the last decade has endured a domestication campaign by constant attacks and accusations of a “left-wing bias”. Former PM Kevin Rudd even wrote that because of this, many ABC journalists can feel forced into “self-censorship to avoid these labels”.

The ABC has both staff and government-appointed board members, and upper management’s bureaucrats can cause frustration for journalists trying to do their job.

Some Liberals think the broadcaster is against them, some in Labor might think they own you

While some of that is a necessary consequence of editorial oversight, excessive red tape is a good way to burden the journalistic process.

“Oh yeah, there can be some frustrating moments in any editorial process, wherever you work in journalism, and the ABC’s no different,” said Probyn. “The push and pull over what should be in a story is part of news process, but it can stall the process too, while I just want to get stuff done.” 

It’s only natural to wonder how the underlying power the government has – to freeze the ABC’s funding, cut or increase it when the budget comes around – might affect what the ABC says or chooses to report on.

“You’re under much more scrutiny, you need to be absolutely sure that you’re being impartial in every story you make,” he said. “You need to be conscious of your own views. Offer analysis as opposed to your own opinion.”

But for all the never-ending government scrutiny the ABC may receive for every feature it makes, when a new government comes in after an election, it can be a source of respite for the ABC’s operations.

After much heated reporting during the election cycle, the first few months of a new government can be seen as the calm after the storm.

“After the tumult of an election, it can fairly quiet in the early days of any new government, especially one that’s relatively stable, like Anthony Albanese’s, but in time every government eventually experiences strain.”

Even a little too quiet.

“Journalism, political journalism especially, thrives in chaos and conflict. There’s nothing like a good leadership spill.”

It makes sense, but it does beg the question of how the organisation changes at all when a new government is voted in. Surely the ABC would be in no hurry to annoy their new financial arbiters.

I just want to get stuff done

But according to Probyn “it honestly doesn’t change much; the government changes while we’re still here”.

And if the 2019 raid on the ABC’s Sydney HQ by Australian Federal Police over some leaked Defence documents on war crimes in Afghanistan is any indication, the ABC is very much not afraid to explore topics and report on things that the government may not want them to.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton certainly doesn’t seem to treasure the ABC’s methods, retorting recently to an ABC journo’s request for evidence as “such an ABC question”. Not the first-time open contempt has been shown for the ABC and certainly not the last.

The ABC has been around for many years, and it seems that its relationship with whichever government that’s in power will always be a frosty one.

Being around for so long and the idea of profit never being an issue has made the ABC an institutional news organisation. Being for everyone gives the organisation a lot more reach than most because it is trusted.

And lack of funding does not mean a lack of resources.

“Like any public broadcaster, funding is tight at the ABC, but it has extensive resources that can be used,” Probyn said.

“There’s a documentary I’ve been working on about cyber spies (Breaking the Code: Cyber Secrets Revealed) and I was able to use the ABC’s reach to talk to many different people and organisations from the intelligence world, Including ASD, ASIO, the NSA and GCHQ.”

It seems that the ABC provides a unique situation for journalists and the public, expressly because of the way it is run and funded.

And now that the recent federal budget has given the organisation an increase in funding for the next five years, it looks like the ABC will press on with their purpose.

Featured image: The ABC has been consistently under siege over its reporting. Photo: J Bar/CC/Wikimedia Commons

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