Chris Taylor: I’m Old Enough To Remember An Independent ABC

Chris Taylor: I’m Old Enough To Remember An Independent ABC

Our Imposter-In-Chief Chris Taylor gets nostalgic for the days when independent broadcasters had the audacity to be independent.

Two weeks ago, those of us lacking an interest in English football would have been hard pressed to tell you who Gary Lineker is. It sounds like the kind of name you might find on one of those plumber fridge magnets that are perpetually being left in your letterbox.

But recently the name Gary Lineker was catapulted into the consciousness of even the most soccer-agnostic Australians, after the BBC sports presenter tweeted criticism of the UK government’s new asylum seeker policy, comparing the language being used to the language of 1930s Germany. Lineker was being generous with the comparison.

The actual language being used by the British Home Office – “We must stop the boats” – owed far more to recent Australian governments than it did to Nazi Germany, but even Lineker knew it was too low a blow to compare anybody to Tony Abbott.

To most Australians, Lineker’s tweet would have seemed fairly unremarkable: the kind of thing Craig Foster pumps out on a quiet, unopinionated day. (And side note: what does it say about the rest of us that soccer presenters are now our most ardent, vocal defenders of human rights? At this rate, I won’t be surprised if the new head of Amnesty International is Mark Bosnic.)

But the quivering suits at the BBC, who engage Gary Lineker to host its flagship Match Of The Day broadcast, took a much dimmer view of the tweet. In a tactic not unlike those used in 1930s Germany, they sought to punish the popular host for voicing opposition to government policy. Lineker was suspended from his job, and his name became instant shorthand around the world for government overreach in public broadcasting; or, perhaps more accurately, for the way public broadcasters now live in endless, jittery fear of upsetting their government overlords.

I’ve witnessed the same cowering mindset consume the ABC. Decisions increasingly are made not in response to government displeasure, but – worse – in the pre-emptive expectation of government displeasure. And this is one of the lesser-acknowledged legacies of the Coalition’s decade or so in power. There’s a blunt but common view that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years were largely a policy wasteland; a succession of aimless, compromised governments which left little mark on the nation beyond a widening normalisation of ineptitude and unaccountability. But I think this sells them short. For all their collective misfires, they achieved at least one significant bullseye: the weakening of the ABC.

And I’m not talking about the constant funding cuts, as damaging and ideologically targeted as those were. I’m talking about the more sinister hand of editorial interference, hovering just high enough above the organisation to still appear to be at arm’s length, but close enough to form an intimidating fist if required. It was essentially gaslighting by drip-feed. A little feedback here, a little backgrounding there. Maybe even some playful rebuking after hours. Bit by bit it added up to create an impression in the minds of management that something needed to change. And where a less besieged ABC might once have seen pissing off the government as a sign it was doing something right, the current battle-weary guard largely saw it as a headache they could do without. So, at the risk of evoking 1930s Germany again, appeasement became the new strategy.

If you want to see just how much the ABC’s independence has eroded in the last 10 years, compare these two documents below. Each contains the transcript of a phone call between a government minister and a senior ABC manager. The contrast couldn’t be starker.

PHONE TRANSCRIPT – 2012** (Note this is a fictional transcript)

Minister: I wish to express in the strongest terms my unhappiness with last night’s report on 4 Corners.

ABC Manager: I’m sorry you feel that way. But the piece was an accurate and balanced report that met all our editorial and legal guidelines, as required by the ABC Charter.

Minister: But I don’t think you –

ABC Manager: Sorry, I’m on deadline for another story. Would you mind fucking off?



Minister: I wish to express in the strongest terms my unhappiness with last night’s report on 4 Corners.

ABC Manager: Oh god, I’m so sorry. Tell me everything that was wrong with it.

Minister: Utterly contemptible, the whole bloody lot of it.

ABC Manager: I quite agree.

Minister: I mean, who the hell gives the ABC the right to just –

ABC Manager: Sir, I’m just taking it down from iView as w speak – consider it gone.

Minister: I mean, who even approves this crap in the first place – was it you?!

ABC Manager: Me? God, no! I didn’t even watch it. I refused to. Haven’t watched anything on the ABC in years, I swear.

Minister: This has Laura Tingle’s hands all over it.

ABC Manager: I wouldn’t doubt it. I mean, technically she doesn’t work on 4 Corners. But I’m sure you’re right. You always are.

Minister: We want a full retraction of all the allegations, and –

ABC Manager: Of course, sir. And I’ll go one better – why don’t we just axe 4 Corners altogether? Extinguish the whole wretched show.

Minister: Well nobody’s asking for that…

ABC Manager: We should have done it years ago. And I’ll appoint six more independent ombudsmen to conduct a review into how awful we are. Sound good?

Minister: I’m not sure that’s necessary…

ABC Manager: And we’ll obviously sack the reporter. In fact we’ll sack all our reporters, just to be safe, yes?

Minister: Are you feeling ok?

ABC Manager: I’ve just done it – they’re all sacked. And as an extra sweetener, I’m going to bring back Chris Uhlmann to host every single show.

Minister: Woah, steady on! We just want the ABC to be balanced, not completely unwatchable!

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Chris Taylor

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