Bernard Lagan in Sydney: what price impartiality?

by Bernard Lagan / 12 December, 2013
Australia's public broadcaster is in the gun for publishing spy revelations.
Australia – like New Zealand – has watched its national icons wither. A state bailout saved Air New Zealand and now Qantas looks as though it, too, will need taxpayer assistance. New Zealand lost its local car-building industry in the 90s. Ford is leaving Australia in 2015 and General Motors has reportedly made the decision to follow Ford.

“Son, your mother and I, Grandpa Jack, Grandma Kate, Uncle Danny, Aunt Sue, Grandpa Sy, Grandma Jenny, Cousin Rhonda, Tugger, and Sprinkles are gay.”


One icon Australia has kept is a well-funded public TV and radio network – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Ad-free and funded by taxpayers at $1 billion a year, the ABC has come under increasing attack from commercial media organisations – notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd – for allegedly encroaching into commercial media’s space, particularly by offering masses of free online news content.

The chagrin of News Ltd is understandable, even if misplaced; although newspaper publishers in Australia have laid off thousands of staff, the ABC’s generous funding has remained intact and it has enlarged both its online news presence and free-to-air broadcasting. Yet the ABC can hardly be blamed for the biggest problem facing newspaper publishers – the collapse of their advertising revenue to niche and nimble competitors on the internet. The ABC is not even in the ad business.

Murdoch’s stable of columnists has, however, opened a new front for assault on the ABC after the ABC’s decision to publish, along with the Guardian’s Australian website, the revelation that the country’s Defence Department spies bugged the cellphones of the Indonesian President and his wife.

The information was in the tens of thousands of documents that Edward Snowden gave the Guardian. There are up to 15,000 that pertain to Australia’s intelligence-gathering activities – and perhaps New Zealand’s – and only 1%, according to the Guardian, have been processed. Clearly, more is to come.

The ABC’s managing director – former Sydney Morning Herald journalist and editorial executive Mark Scott – has come under strong attack from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull for joining the Guardian in publishing the Snowden revelations. They argue the ABC, as a government-funded broadcaster, should not have published material so damaging to relations with Indonesia.

News Ltd’s columnists have been far more strident, arguing the ABC published stolen national secrets, put lives at risk and jeopardised Australia’s efforts to curb people-smuggling from Indonesia. Miranda Devine, an influential conservative Sydney columnist for the Daily Telegraph (a Murdoch paper) fulminated: “The ABC’s agenda-driven journalism has become more flagrant and better-funded under Labor, with extra millions doled out on top of a $1 billion annual budget, like sweeties to a favoured niece.”

Scott has countered that the Snowden revelations went centrally to the developing worldwide story on intelligence-gathering in the digital age. Most journalists can be expected to side with Scott. Indeed, had Murdoch’s newspapers got the Snowden leak first, surely they would also have published.

The difficulty for the ABC arises because some powerful people see its reliance on government funding as bestowing a special caution for Australia’s national interest. Certainly, many Conservative Government MPs take that view.

It will be fascinating to see what the ABC does when the next Snowden documents dealing with Australia’s spying activities are released.

One might also ask what Radio New Zealand – also a public broadcaster – might have done if it had access to information so adverse to New Zealand’s foreign relations. Radio New Zealand’s charter would appear to provide room for critics to question such a broadcast. It says Radio New Zealand must “exhibit a sense of social responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates”.

And what of those in the Government baying for cuts to the ABC? For now, Abbott says he has no such plans. They still call it Your ABC. For now.

Bernard Lagan is a New Zealand journalist who writes for theglobalmail.org

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