Budget Cutting the ABC is Crony Capitalism

May’s edition of Quadrant Magazine gave Tom Switzer space to argue ‘Why the ABC Should Be Privatised.’ Tom Switzer is a fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, a free market think-tank that gave birth to the Liberal Party of Australia in the 1940s.

Assuming Tony Abbott and his Coalition win the 2013 election, Switzer argues “budget cuts will most certainly be on the legislative agenda if only to save tax dollars. But privatisation—or at least rationalisation—of the public broadcaster remains a sound policy option.”

What makes Tom Switzer worth listening to? Well, mainly because Tony Abbott and his Liberal Party listen very intently to anything that comes from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA is known affectionately as the Institute of Paid Advocacy as their research output usually supports the view of their secret financiers. From climate change scepticism to denying the health hazards of cigarettes, there isn’t much that the IPA can’t be paid to say.

What’s dangerous though is their influence in the Liberal Party. Vehement IPA opposition fuelled this week’s public split in the Coalition over their signature paid parental leave policy. One can expect to see the ABC’s neck on the chopping board.

The ABC currently runs on a budget of around $1 billion dollars annually. Funded mainly by the federal government through triennial agreements, the broadcaster cost taxpayers $2.85 Billion for the three years to 2012. That meant that everyone in Australia could enjoy the ABC for around 12 cents a day over those three years.

Historically, cuts to ABC funding haven’t been very dramatic. Both Fraser and Howard governments cut small chunks from the budget when coming into office. Most of the defunding is done by reducing the rate of growth of the budget rather than cutting a swathe to the broadcaster. It’s more a slow death by inflation rather than a quick neutering.

Why does the Coalition have a tendency to defund the ABC? Tom Switzer argues, “A soft-Left ‘group-think’ clouds its editorial content, which alienates large segments of the Australian public.”

When Howard was elected in 1996 an inquiry into the funding of the ABC was commissioned with Bob Mansfield, the head of McDonald’s Australia, brought in to conduct the report. This was going to be used to economically rationalise the ABC.

A radio host for the ABC recently told me that when Mansfield gave the finished report to the government he told Howard that he could do whatever he wanted – but not in Mansfield’s name. Bob Mansfield had never seen brand loyalty as strong as that for the ABC.

Rather than alienating large segments of the public, 88% of Australians believe the ABC provides a valuable service to the community, according to a 2010 Newspoll. 70% of Australia believes it is doing a good job and 73% believes it is efficient and well managed.

“A strong and effective ABC is still greatly valued by the people of Australia. It is seen as making a vital contribution to the social fabric of the nation and the development of a distinctive Australian culture,” said the Mansfield report. It recommended that the ABC remain comprehensive and robust, advertisement free and that the triennial funding be restored.

Is the ABC effective or does it suffer from a left-leaning bias? Tom Switzer says that this bias “makes the case for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster highly questionable.”

The short answer is no. The Mansfield report said that allegations of bias in the ABC were largely unfounded. That was over a decade ago, but the ABC’s charter demands balance and eschews bias. A presenter cannot provide one argument on a subject without giving the opportunity for response, nor can they really give opinion.

Recently, ABC radio presenter Jon Faine was found in breach of the charter and reprimanded for giving his opinion about the Slater & Gordon slush fund affair involving Julia Gillard. It was innocuous, but enough to warrant suspension.

Federal funding of the ABC constitutes less than half-of-one-percent (~0.3%) of the annual federal budget. A far bigger waste of money is the $112 billion of tax breaks that the tax code allows each year. Yet the IPA continues to rally aggressively against government spending of $1 billion on a service that reaches 99.97% of the population. Australia’s only source of independent news whose funding model isn’t in jeopardy.

The simple fact is that anything that doesn’t sit within the IPA’s economically libertarian worldview is considered leftist. Although it is indeed left of the IPA it doesn’t mean it is left of centre. Tom Switzer names ABC’s lefty agendas, being “same-sex marriage” (which currently has majority Australian support), silencing “climate sceptics” (though 72% of Australians believe warming is caused by humans), and “support for a republic” (that had majority support until Howard ran a scare campaign). When the overwhelming majority is said not to be the mainstream, something is definitely afoot.

There are two obvious reasons that the ABC is attacked for a perceived bias. Firstly, talk that doesn’t propagate neoliberal capitalism is seen as a threat to rich and powerful in the business lobbies who buy out opinions in think-tanks and newspapers. Secondly, a government funded news source is a direct threat to the profitability of other media organisations. For instance, if someone decides to use the ABC as their news source rather than buying a paper from News Limited, Rupert Murdoch will forgo any revenue in that lost customer. Attempts to discredit the ABC are simply attempts to bolster their own brand.

The strategy? Silence dissent. Economic agenda won.