“Relentless attacks” on the ABC from the Coalition have drained up to $600 million in annual funding from the national broadcaster and blunted its criticism of the federal government, according to a report released on Monday.
The report is co-authored by Fergus Pitt and veteran ABC journalist and board member – and The New Daily contributor – Quentin Dempster.
It argues financial, legal and editorial means are being used to exert pressure on ABC journalists, who are self-censoring their work as a result.
The issue of the ABC’s budget has recently returned to the centre of national debate after the government agreed to lift a pause on the indexation of the national broadcaster’s funding imposed by Malcolm Turnbull.
That freeze ensured the ABC’s funding would not rise with inflation; it has taken more than $80 million away from its bottom line in recent years and led to staff cuts.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced earlier this month that the indexation would be restored and nearly $3.3 billion in funding would flow to the ABC over the next three years, an announcement accompanied by a “statement of expectations” for the broadcaster.
But the report, published by the activist group GetUp, finds that the broadcaster’s funding has fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars a year since John Howard was PM.
Years of cuts
The review concludes that funding for the ABC has dropped every year since 2013.
In that year, ABC funding accounted for 0.21 per cent of the government’s budget, compared with 0.18 per cent in the 2019 financial year and a smaller proportion in subsequent years as COVID stimulus loomed large over public coffers.
That fall is even greater when measured against the proportion of resources directed to the ABC during 2002 to 2007, when it reached 0.33 per cent of government spending.
Had funding held steady since the second term of the Howard government, the authors conclude, the ABC would today receive more than $600 million, or an additional 50 per cent in allocations.
“The latest announcement to end the indexation ‘pause’ is another pre-election confidence trick that joins a history of dishonour from the Coalition,” Dempster said.
“When you cut through the spin and political point scoring, there is still no plan to restore the ABC’s funding of the millions they’ve slashed since being elected”.
Former news and current affairs veteran, the Gold Walkley-winning journalist Peter Cronau, says the cuts have affected staff’s ability to cover the news but also the mindset with which they approach the task.
“Hundreds of ABC news staff have been made redundant,” he said.
“The ones remaining [are] often left fearful and intimidated.
“ABC staff can fall vulnerable to the pre-emptive buckle, to doing the easier story, to giving our critics a free pass, to promoting pro-establishment stories, to not challenging orthodox views, to falling into a safe groupthink, all of which is in effect self-censorship.
“All of this occurs before a single intimidatory criticism, or angry phone call to the executive editors, or argument with senior news management, or secret discussion with members of the board.”
The report notes that the issue of alleged ABC partisanship has been pursued by several consecutive government ministers, who have taken actions including introducing the failed Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017 as well as attempting to force the publication of senior staff salaries.
In 2019, an inquiry into political interference at the broadcaster found that the ABC’s former chair, Justin Milne, had requested the sacking of journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn.
David Hardaker, a journalist formerly with Four Corners and 7.30, said government attempts to exert pressure on newsrooms quickly paid dividends in influencing journalists’ coverage.
“There’s an immediate benefit for the government in putting the ABC under pressure,” he said.
“It will put program makers on notice and jangle the nerves of editorial decision makers who might blunt their coverage of the government.”
‘Too hasty to appease their paymasters’
After Four Corners reported on problems with Parliament’s workplace culture in 2020, Mr Fletcher wrote to the ABC board questioning how the program met the broadcaster’s duty to gather and report news objectively.
Former Lateline host and economics correspondent Emma Alberici, who quit the broadcaster in 2018 after a piece she wrote on corporate taxation drew accuracy complaints including from then PM Malcolm Turnbull, argues that editorial staff have grown increasingly susceptible to such complaints.
“The seven years of the Coalition government were, without question, the most corrosive on the [ABC] corporation’s culture,” she said.
“Editorial leaders became timid and too hasty to appease their paymasters.”
GetUp’s election co-director Larissa Baldwin said the report had concluded that attempts to influence the ABC were now undermining the broadcaster’s key community functions.
“The relentless attacks, harassment and pressure must end,” she said.
“It is time that people in leadership understand the ABC is more valuable than ever, and it is essential that it is protected.”