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The Schism and the ABC

The ABC and SBS provide tangible social benefits to Australia and contribute hugely to our cultural and intellectual life, writes Loz Lawrey. But because they aren’t profit-driven, they don’t fit nicely into conservative ideology.

Does the language used by those who speak for the Abbott government make you ill? Physically nauseous? Rhetoric can do that. You’re probably what they call a “leftie”, the term conservative neoliberals use for people who don’t subscribe to their dog-eat-dog worldview.

Those of us tarred with the “leftie” brush tend to see the world through a different prism to those on the far right, where belief and ideology often carry more weight than evidence-based analysis. We tend to care about our fellow-citizens and demand measured decision-making based on documented fact. Our aspirations encompass fairness, social justice and inclusion for all.

These concepts, which we regard as absolute necessities in a healthy democracy, are often dismissed by the right as cheesy socialist idealism, the naïve language of dreamers.

On social media platforms, when progressives and conservatives try to communicate, what begins as civil discussion quickly breaks down and turns into mutual vilification. This is why we tend to gravitate to groups of the like-minded, where our views are supported and encouraged. We like our feathers stroked, not ruffled.

Consensus is an impossible dream as long as those trying to reach it hold opposing views of the world, or the world they would like to see, and base their arguments on differing and often contradictory premises.

It is clear that any debate about the future of our government-owned media group the ABC and the hybrid-funded SBS is constantly subverted by diametrically-opposed and irreconcilable views of what these organisations actually are, what their purpose is and what they should be doing.

The conservative view is that they are businesses in pitched competitive battle with other privately-owned media outlets. So the argument from the right tends to go: “They’re businesses, so the government should privatise them. It’s not the job of government to run businesses”.

This very limited vision implies that the ABC and SBS exist solely for the purpose of making money. Naturally, those running the privately-owned broadcasting media share this perspective – they see the taxpayer-owned platforms as stealing their viewers, listeners and readers. In other words, as their competitors, stealing their income.

The progressive viewpoint is that the ABC and SBS are not businesses by any definition. They are community service-providers. They are not profit-driven organisations, but rather were created to serve Australian society by educating, informing and entertaining our citizens. They are, and should remain, taxpayer-funded services. The fact that some taxpayers are disengaged and unappreciative of the benefits of properly-funded public broadcasting shouldn’t play into this debate.

It’s as simple as this: the ABC and SBS provide tangible social benefits to Australia by their very existence and contribute hugely to our cultural and intellectual life.

The social awareness that becomes a possibility when governments support the arts and the exchange of ideas is an asset to the country as a whole, whether people choose to avail themselves of that awareness or not.

This is why all taxpayers should be pleased to contribute to the funding of healthy independent public broadcasting. It quite simply makes our country a better place, a place with a raised awareness and hopefully, a heightened social conscience.

It could be argued that the function of taxpayer-owned or partly-owned media has nothing to do with profit-making, rather that the charter of these organisations is to raise the consciousness of the nation by teaching our children and involving our adult population in an ongoing national conversation while keeping us informed. In other words, smartening-up the country and acting as a cultural facilitator. Making things better, and making Australia a better place to live in for ALL its residents, bar none.

Profit-driven media share no such lofty aspirations. Here the focus is on attracting passive viewers to absorb and assimilate the endless stream of mind-numbing advertising which is commercial media’s bread and butter.

So here it’s about dumbing-down, not raising up. It’s not about serving the consumers, it’s about using them to extract financial profit. People who submit to exposure to privately-owned broadcasting allow themselves to be mentally herded like sheep, to be manipulated by a form of social engineering controlled by money-men.

Image by @KieraGorden on

Image by @KieraGorden on

It’s true that neoliberal rhetoric tends to reduce every issue to the level of money: “Does it make a quid?” If it does, it’s seen to be of value.

So when progressives say “This is a wonderful organisation that delivers measurable social dividends for the Australian community”, the conservative response tends to be: “Yes, but does it make a quid?”

The Abbott government sees government itself as a business, hence the ongoing obsession with budget surpluses. If a surplus is achieved, money has been made and the “business” has proven itself successful. A budget deficit implies business failure. In the mind of the Coalition, “government” means “corporation”.

Opponents of the conservative regime paint a different picture of what government should be: a system-operating body that exists to serve the people who installed it by responding to their needs domestically and representing them fairly and equitably on the world stage.

In this context, what does a little debt matter when good outcomes are being achieved? Surely good outcomes, not financial gain, are the objective. Success and failure are measured on a different scale altogether, a scale which measures social benefits rather than profit margins. Clearly, in this view government is not a business, rather the clerical administrator of the nation.

Taking care of the nation’s affairs is not the enterprise of a business. Sure, the books need to reconcile and balance, but that is not the end in itself. A nation has no need to turn a financial profit. It’s not about the economy (although that needs monitoring), it’s about the people.

The schism between worldviews highlighted by the Abbott government’s assault on public broadcasting, underpins every argument between the political right and left and sabotages all attempts to find consensus on desirable outcomes.

Perhaps we need to revisit our definition of “government”. One accepted definition is that government is the system by which a state or community is governed. This means that those “in government” at any time are there to administer the affairs of the nation by maintaining law and order, funding infrastructure as needed and serving the needs of its citizens by acting in the public interest, while upholding social justice and human and civil rights.

No argument there from either side, you may say. But this is where perspective comes into play and rhetoric can skew the debate. The two sides of politics have differing interpretations of what it means to govern. The perspective of those on the right begins from the premise that people are stupid and that to govern means to control the populace, while those on the left start from the assumption that we’re not stupid and that to govern means to serve the populace.

With regard to the ABC and SBS, perhaps both sides need to align their assumptions before engaging in the funding debate. What is shocking to many ABC supporters is that those who are baying the loudest for its blood see it as a burden on the taxpayer rather than the iconic avatar of Australia’s consciousness that it has always been.


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  1. Peter F

    As someone raised in rural QLD, I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s not knowing anything but the ABC. I have remained an avid listener/viewer. For the past few days I have been visiting friends who watch the 9 network. So far I have not seen ANY political news/comment. If THIS is what informs Australia, no wonder we have the Coalition in power. Can anyone tell me what has been happening in the real world?

  2. stephentardrew

    Great article could not agree more.

  3. Ewan Cameron

    This is a great article, as it explains exactly why the Abbot LNP are trying to destroy the ABC and allow private media to misinform us, deny the public critical truths and dumb down the population. The IPA devotees are following their manifesto. Well done, AIM!

  4. Kaye Lee

    In Abbott’s world, value is measured by the ability to contribute to short term profit making. They do not value those who are not boosting profits – the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed, students, asylum seekers. Joe Hockey says we spend the most on these people so they would naturally bear the brunt of cuts. Apparently fossil fuel subsidies and tax concessions for investors are not seen as an expense.

    As I said on another thread, would you rather the $250 million spent on the ABC or on school chaplains?

  5. Anon E Mouse

    I was incensed with the likes of Uhlman openly siding with the LNP before the election, Sales giggling coy flirty behaviour with the LNP before the election, and totally disillusioned with the bias shown in the kitchen cabinet show favouring the incompetent Abbott.

    The Q&A clown, went to air with a dodgy story by a political player about the NT that led to the Howard govt intervention.

    The ABC did not ask the hard questions before the last federal election, and they were part of the lets-demonise-Rudd team. The likes of Uhlman etc never bothered to do any serious journalism, instead they pushed their own views as fact. Lets face it, there have been snippets of reporting that was soon lost by being ignored, that could have portrayed a far more informed approach.

    Just look at how any mention of Rudd gets the media running, but no one picked up the downright weird behaviour of Abbott, with his drinking to excess, wandering hands, etc. However if Rudd had a beer in his hand, it made news with a negative spin.

    I only hope that these deplorable cuts will rid of us these presenters (they are not journalists) who do not know how to research and report the news, and who prefer to sanctimoniously anoint their political preference.

    There are good reporters and, if any good can come from these outrageous cuts, a leaner ABC will hopefully be a meaner sharper ABC utilising the skills of the likes of Matt Wordsworth who is the most unbiased and astute reporter I have seen.

  6. Tony Bonnici

    Medibanl Private was profit driven so whats the excuse for selling it off?

  7. The AIM Network

    Tony, probably so their mates can make money out of it.

  8. Mercurial

    Conservatives can complain all they like about lefties and their “attitude” but, unfortunately, we have facts and evidence on our side, not religion and ideology.

    Politics tends to run on ideology, but unfortunately for the conservatives, nature doesn’t.

    Climate change is happening
    A market-based mechanism is the best way of dealing with climate change
    Trained youth counsellors are better than chaplains
    The ABC doesn’t compete with private news organisations
    Inequality is bad for society

    gee I could go on…..

  9. Erotic Moustache

    The ABC doesn’t compete with private news organisations.

    I would to see this claim fleshed out a little as I can’t immediately see any sense in which it could strictly be true.

  10. Kerri

    If the government, as it claims, is determined to maintain communication with our immigrant cultures and EVERYONE in “Team Australia” Then why are they reducing the only two media bodies who actively communicate in languages and with programs directed at the cultural and racial minorities they seek to woo?

  11. Roswell

    Nailed it, Loz.

  12. Lee

    Governments are not targeting agencies according to whether or not they make a profit. It’s a short-sighted way to raise some cash and return their budget to a surplus, with no concern for the long term negative effects. Australia Post operates at a profit and the LNP wants to sell it.

    There are some services that governments have a responsibility to provide, whether or not they are profitable. How often do we see good public services go down the toilet when privatised? Private companies must operate at a profit, so the service deteriorates, e.g. privately-run “public” transport.

  13. silkworm

    There are certain parts of the ABC that I would like to see cut. The ABC Religious Affairs Dept comes immediately to mind. However, I see no chance of this happening, because the cuts are ideological, and apart from neoliberalism, the other ideology driving the Libs and ABC management is Christianity, and in particular, Catholicism. The Catholic bias on Compass is quite evident.

  14. Anon E Mouse

    I see by media reports that the cuts are rather selective and targeted.
    Seems to me that the head of the ABC is playing politics with this.
    It will be interesting to see if his allegiance to his appointee (Howard and the Libs) will be enough to keep him docile for the Libs.

  15. Phil Gorman

    The very idea of public service broadcasting is anathama to The Corpocracy.

  16. philasophigas

    I tend to think suppression of the kind of balanced reporting we see on the abc is a greater motivation to Abbott and co. I agree in general but to say unburdening tax payers is the main reason is being too nice to them. Working to diminish public awareness is a key concern of neo liberals, not collateral damage.

  17. DanDark

  18. John Kelly

    The public fund everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ABC or advertising a car on television or taking a ride on a bus. The public fund it, either directly through taxation or when we purchase goods and services. So the argument supporting less funding for the ABC in favour of something else is spurious. The public pay for everything. The fact that the ABC and SBS are non profit organisations means they must be cheaper.

  19. Kaye Lee

    Privatisation works so well doesn’t it….

    Medibank slashed the amount it will pay for X-rays, MRIs and other tests on September 1.

    The fund has not informed its members of the policy change in writing and they will only find out when they get the bill or if they ring the fund before they go to hospital…………

  20. jane

    To paraphrase Fearless Leader, commercial media is crap! if they got rid of the ABC & SBS, there won’t be any more bums on seats watching mind numbing reality tv, we’ll read a lot more books or watch dvds.

  21. The AIM Network

    Or pay Rupert to watch Foxtel.

  22. donwreford

    Proposing anything other than profiteering, the right will be down on you, forget preservation of the planets species, the problem I have with simplistic notions such as you are a greeny, if you do not go along with the right, is the brain of these people are simplistic, in requiring simple out comes to environmental problem for instance, some how the normal measure of intelligence, is not so intelligent.

  23. Mrs Me

    China has probably been promised both stations and are waiting in the wings for the big buy up, next will be 7, 10 and 9, they want our country right or wrong and the politicians are letting them take over

  24. corvus boreus

    Disagree, Mrs Me.
    The Chinese, Japanese and Indians may get much of our resources and real estate(in partnership with Gina and Twiggy) but I reckon Rupert has dibs on the primest cuts of the ABC, which he will boil in bile and dishwater so it tastes like all the other dishes on his menu.

  25. Judith W

    Where else but the ABC would we see the sensitive treatment of the courageous battle revealed on Four Corners this week?!

  26. Anomander

    Great article Kaye and so true.

    The conservative viewpoint is that one’s worth to society can only be measured in terms of the money you make. Gina is a fine, upstanding person because she has lots of money, same to with Clive. Mega corporations who make billions are amongst the most revered, even though they don’t give anything back in return – the overarching principle in their tiny minds is that money is the only true measure of worth.

    The ABC doesn’t make a profit, in their eyes it is therefore worthless. Better to sell it off, get a swag of cash to make the governments profit look good in the short term, than provide a service to the public.

    Conservatives also don’t like anyone disagreeing with them, conformity and uniformity are paramount. It is not in the commercial media’s interest to challenge them or ask them tough questions – that falls to the ABC. And that makes the ABC an enemy, one to be vanquished, so only THEIR version of the truth remains unchallenged.

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