The management of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is in turmoil after revelations of brazen government interference in the nominally independent public broadcaster.
ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was fired on September 24, halfway through her contract. Attempting to justify the decision on air, ABC board chair Justin Milne refused to provide details, merely saying that “her leadership style was not the style that we needed going forward”.
Leaked emails divulged what was really behind Guthrie’s sudden termination. She had been removed after refusing to bow to pressure to sack leading journalists who criticised the Coalition government.
Emails sent by Milne singled out chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici and political editor Andrew Probyn as individuals the government “hates” and the ABC needed to “get rid of”.
The emails expose Milne’s role in trying to silence journalists at the government’s behest. This is in violation of the ABC’s charter, which sets out the organisation’s function as an independent public media outlet and prohibits direct government intervention in its affairs.
A former business partner and close friend to Malcolm Turnbull, Milne was seen by the Liberal Party as a reliable ally who could push a right-wing, pro-business agenda within the ABC. Following the leaks, Milne was forced to resign in disgrace.
These events shed light on the ABC’s poisonous managerial culture amid an escalating campaign against the broadcaster by sections of the Australian business and political establishment. Alongside budget cuts totalling $254 million since 2014, with $84 million more still to come, the ABC has faced continuous accusations of “left-wing bias” from conservative politicians and media commentators.
This is no doubt aimed at undermining the broadcaster’s authority in preparation for further cuts and the potential for future privatisation.
The attacks on the ABC stem from its role as a public competitor to the profit-driven conglomerates that dominate Australia’s media landscape. The ownership of Australia’s media is the most concentrated in the world, with 90% of all print media and 70% of free-to-air television revenue going to just four major firms.
With the decline of print – and advertising revenue with it – private media companies are under increasing pressure to cut costs and compete for market share. The last thing these profit-driven outlets want is a competitor that is a recipient of significant amounts of government funds.
Australia’s big media conglomerates are avid supporters of cuts being made to the ABC’s budget, and they hope that its more lucrative parts can be sold off to private interests in the years ahead. In response to the budget cuts already implemented, Guthrie oversaw a significant restructure that included hundreds of job losses during her tenure.
Protecting the ABC from further cuts and job losses, and ensuring it is free from government interference, necessitates that it be run democratically, with decision-making power in the hands of the wider community and its staff rather than appointed executives on million-dollar salaries.
Currently, members of the ABC board are chosen by the federal government; socialists call for the board to be publicly elected instead.
As long as the ABC is forced to compete with the privately-owned media giants like News Corp and Seven West Media, it will remain under threat. These interests will always seek to undermine, sabotage and privatise the state-owned network so that they can maximise their profits and control the flow of information.
It is a mockery of the free press that such a tiny number of companies, owned by a Who’s Who of Australia’s wealthiest people, largely determine the scope and content of what ideas are discussed in society.
The extent of their influence was highlighted when reports surfaced in August that Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp, was a player in the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader. That such allegations are credible at all speaks volumes about who really rules under capitalist democracy.
The big media companies in Australia should be brought into public hands and democratised to ensure that the information we receive is not determined by the vested interests of a small group of profiteers.
Their resources should be used to provide the widest possible number of people with a platform to express their ideas and views. Only on this basis will we put an end to government and corporate meddling in the media and create a truly free press.
By Jeremy Trott