There’s probably a great deal more to Prime Minister Toby Abbott’s criticism of the ABC on Sydney commercial radio on Wednesday.
It is less likely to have been some off the cuff comment born out of frustration that the ABC may have got the odd story wrong and more likely to be the launch of a new attack on the public broadcaster.
This is certainly not the first time an Australian prime minister has criticised the ABC in the way it handles its news and current affairs. Practically every prime minister since Bob Menzies has at some stage complained that the ABC either got it wrong, or demonstrated bias in reporting a story.
We all remember Bob Hawke’s accusation the 7.30 Report coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 was “loaded”, “biased” and “disgraceful” because of an analyst invited onto the show.
However, Mr Abbott is going a lot further by now suggesting the ABC should censor its news coverage and withhold information to the public when it portrays Australia in a bad light.
On Sydney commercial radio station 2GB on Wednesday, the Prime Minister suggested the ABC “instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s” and he wanted to see “some basic affection for the home team”.
He criticised the ABC for running a story alleging the Australian navy was the cause of some asylum seekers being burned and that the navy should have been given “the benefit of the doubt”.
In the same interview, he made it clear the ABC should not have broadcast the revelations Australian spy agencies had tapped the mobile phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati because the information came from documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
According to Mr Abbott, the ABC “seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor”.
The inference to be drawn from this is that patriotism should now become part of the ABC editorial responsibility and the ABC should deny the public access to news and information that would portray Australia in a poor light.
There is no doubt Mr Abbott and his more conservative Coalition colleagues genuinely believe the ABC is too left wing and needs to be brought to heel. Privately, they still grumble that the likes of Kerry O’Brien was once a young press secretary in a federal Labor government and Barrie Cassidy was once the press secretary for Mr Hawke.
They also feel a frustration at not being able to change what they see as a culture within the ABC that is hostile to the Coalition. Even stacking the ABC board in the Howard years with arch conservatives such as Michael Kroger, Janet Albrechtsen, Keith Windschuttle, John Gallagher and Maurice Newman failed to change the organisation.
No doubt Mr Abbott’s recent comments are the first of a series of assaults we can expect on the ABC in the coming months.
In March, the ABC funding for next year goes before the federal cabinet’s expenditure review committee and the ABC would be wise to brace for a new round of cuts.
And then there is the ABC international TV service contract, which is almost certain to be handed over to a commercial operator.
It is a great shame governments don’t recognise the ABC’ s greatest patriotic duty is to continue to hold governments to account by the provision of independent, unbiased and honest news.
David Hill is a former chairman and managing director of the ABC.