Mon, 07 Feb 2022 - 11:56

Funding boost will allow the ABC to be its best self

The Morrison government wants the ABC to become the best possible version of itself, and the $3.284bn, three-year funding package we are announcing gives it ample resources to do just that.

Contrary to claims from Labor and the Greens — and some ABC journalists — there has been no funding cut under the Morrison government during the existing three-year funding period, running from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2022.

As our announcement makes clear, for the next three-year funding period (or ‘triennium’ as it often called) from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2025, the Morrison government is maintaining our strong record of ABC funding.

Total funding for the ABC over the new triennium will be almost $90m higher than the current triennium.

Over the three years, SBS will receive $953.7m – an increase of $56.7m over the current triennium. This funding commitment reflects the Morrison government’s support for our two national broadcasters and the important work they do.

The evidence is clear: the Morrison government has provided strong and consistent support to the ABC.

But we are also clear in our expectations: we want the ABC to strive to be the best it can be as it discharges the mission the parliament has given it.

Today I have written to the ABC to request two additional forms of annual reporting. The first concerns the details of its Australian content.

At the moment, curiously, while the commercial broadcasters, Seven, Nine and Ten, face a formal regulatory requirement to report on, for example, the number of hours of Australian drama and documentaries they show each year, there is no such requirement on the ABC and SBS.

To address this, I am asking the ABC and SBS to report each year on the quantity and type of Australian content they commission and show. I have asked our media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to agree the format of this report with the two national broadcasters, and to align this as much as possible with the reporting requirements on the commercial broadcasters.

Second, I have asked the ABC to include in its future annual reports a range of metrics regarding its delivery of rural and regional activities, including the number of ABC staff employed in rural and regional Australia. Reporting publicly on these matters will help build public confidence in the work the ABC and SBS do.

Another area where it is important to build public confidence is in the accuracy and impartiality of the ABC’s journalism.

The ABC’s act says its gathering and presentation of news and information must be “accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.” If an ABC program fails to be scrupulously impartial in the treatment of different sides of politics, then the ABC is not meeting the parliament’s expectations.

For these reasons, in December 2020 I wrote to the Board, through the Chair, about an episode of Four Corners titled Inside the Canberra Bubble.

To ensure full transparency, I took care to make my letter public.

The tenet of this program was there is a “toxic culture” in Canberra, which poses a threat to the wellbeing of women staff, and which is exclusively a problem for the Liberal Party and the Nationals.

The suggestion issues of the kind canvassed in that episode occur exclusively within one side of politics is clearly nonsensical. The lack of balance in the choice of allegations that were included, as well as in the choice of interviewees, raises obvious questions about whether the duty to be impartial was met.

A critical foundation to an ABC which is, and is perceived to be, impartial is a robust complaints process. But all too often people who have complained about perceived bias or inaccuracy in an ABC story say they have received short shrift from ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs.

The ABC complaints process must not be perceived as the ABC simply marking its own homework and giving itself an A-plus in perpetuity.

I am encouraged the ABC recognises there are serious issues involved here and initiated an independent review into its handling of complaints. I have met with the reviewers and fully support that process, but it must lead to constructive change.

An organisation’s culture is shaped by place, and the ABC’s tendency to groupthink is increased because such a big number of staff are located in its Ultimo headquarters.

Sydney is not Australia and Ultimo is not Sydney. My view has been clear and public for some time: the ABC needs to move its staff, and its mindset, out of Ultimo. Diversity in location encourages diversity of people, in turn bringing diversity of perspective and opinion. The announced movement of 300 staff to Parramatta is a good start, but it should not be where this finishes.

In an election year, the ABC board will need to be especially vigilant that the ABC does not become a partisan political player. An independent report commissioned by the ABC on its performance during the 2019 federal election campaign found a bias towards Labor voices on some talk programs.

The report was made public only after it had to be provided to the Senate.

The Board and ABC editorial staff will need to resist the siren-call of the Labor Party. Labor will do everything it can to politicise the ABC and has, revealingly, launched a fundraising drive on that basis. When Anthony Albanese uses the #ourabc hashtag on Twitter we all know what he’s driving at.

The Morrison government is providing the ABC and SBS with the funding they need, and we are setting clear expectations about additional public reporting of how they use their resources.

And all Australians will rightly expect that where there are clear requirements set out by law, for example about impartial journalism, the board and management of ABC and SBS will take care to ensure those requirements are met.