I’ve argued before that debates about ABC funding are poorly constructed. The nutshell point: we should have a clear vision of what we want from the ABC before we get embroiled in arguments about its funding:
That clear vision of the public good might sound subjective, but a pluralist approach is amenable to reasons. That is, a clear vision of the public good should inform programming and editorial decisions and we can engage in criticism where we can argue that decisions are clearly not motivated by the public good. Calling a person standing for office a ‘c-word’, for example, seems to fall outside anybody’s reasonable articulation of the public good. The jester liberalism nonsense that pollutes Wednesday night ABC in general is very difficult to justify with a reasonable conception of the public good.
The argument also works to motivate a defence of the ABC. If there were a clear vision of the public good articulated by the ABC, the public would be more inclined to defend it against budget cuts.
We still don’t have that clarity of vision in the debate, but we do have a new element: the role of the Minister in running the ABC. The prevailing wisdom is that we need an ABC that is independent of the ABC, with a few voices (like that of the former Chair, Justin Milne) saying that there needs to be a ‘conduit’ between the Government and the ABC. It’s a point worth interrogating.
As a general point, the public intuition is that ‘politics’ is bad and it should be kept out of important things. The rhetoric is about putting things ‘beyond’ politics, with independent statutory bodies taking over more and more executive functions. I don’t think this is an inherently stupid idea, but it comes with a lot of baggage. If you think that democratic control of power is a good idea (which lots of people do), then transferring that power to an organ beyond democratic control seems counterintuitive. But you might not trust democratic control over lots of things, and you might want to strike a balance between democratic control and ‘expert’ control. So we don’t elect judges, for example, because we don’t trust the rabble.
For my part, I don’t want parliament to lose its grip on the steering wheel. I like the theory of being able to hold ministers to account for the performance of our institutions. I want the Attorney-General to be an advocate for our legal system, with the ability to lead discussion about the performance of our judges and courts. In exactly the same way, I want our Minister for the Arts to be an advocate for the arts and to lead discussion about our cultural development, and our Minister for Communications to be an advocate for the ABC and lead a discussion about its performance.
I think this is inconsistent with the idea that the Government should keep its hands off the ABC. The Minister for Communication should be able to articulate a vision for the ABC and be part of its development. I don’t think (as many do) that the Government should just hand over the cash and then pipe down.
Perhaps a better way of illustrating this is to look at the National Indigenous TV channel instead of the ABC. I think it is a deep failure of the Government that it hasn’t championed NITV to grow into an essential part of the Australian media landscape. NITV should be a central part of our national conversations and a site for Indigenous Australia to broadcast their messages and demonstrate the diversity of views across Australia. The Minister for Communication should have done more to advocate for NITV, and I feel like we should be able to hold him accountable for the fact that he hasn’t.
The above paragraph doesn’t appear to be controversial in any major sense, but it relies on an intuition about being able to hold ministers account for institutions within their portfolios. It’s not possible to do that if you think those institutions should be completely independent of the minister.
In a similar way that I feel the Minister has failed NITV, I think that the Minister has failed the ABC. The Minister should be leading a public discussion about the development of the ABC and guiding that development.
So why don’t we get that? It is strange that we do not experience the same kind of horror about the Minister denigrating the ABC as we do when the Attorney-General denigrates the High Court. Indeed, we have historically been troubled when the Attorney-General simply failed to defend the High Court against uninformed public criticism, such as when Daryl Williams refused to support the High Court from weird criticism about the Wik decision. And there’s certainly no clear barrier between the Judiciary and the first law officer of the Commonwealth: the Attorney-General recommends judicial appointments to the Court, and takes an active role in the administration of the Court (even having the power to intervene in the administration of cases).
The Minister should be hands on in developing our media landscape, and we should hold them to account when they fail to defend our broadcast institutions. We can’t do that if we continue to insist on an impenetrable wall between the Minister and the ABC.