On 1 February, Paul Toohey reported that an Australian lifeboat deployed to return asylum seekers had turned up on a beach in Indonesia. He also noted that the twenty men deposited in the vessel by the navy and then pushed back into the ocean had spent two days wandering lost in the jungle near where they landed, during which three had drowned in a river.
Here, then, was the predictable and lethal result of Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ slogan, an outcome that utterly discredits the rhetoric about harsh policies saving lives.
But that was four days ago – and since then the story has vanished. We don’t know the victims’ names or nationalities, let alone anything their circumstances. No major news outlet has investigated; the government faces no pressure whatsoever to explain a tactic that has just casually killed three men.
That’s why I can’t share other commentators’ confidence that Tony Abbott’s war on the ABC will fail. I think it’s already succeeding.
Ben Eltham argues that the ABC is ‘on solid ground’ in the argument against its critics, for the debate about its bias is ‘crazy’, while the broadcaster remains ‘one of the most trusted institutions in the country, unlike tabloid newspapers or talk radios’.
From a slightly different perspective, Guy Rundle calls Abbott’s culture war against the ABC and others a debacle, with most the damage has been inflicted on the conservative side.
The points they make are fair enough, within certain limits. But they miss the two central dynamics: the lack of an effective opposition and the ABC management’s willingness to preemptively surrender.
At one level, the Murdoch media’s animus against the ABC against reflects naked self-interest. The flying monkeys might screech about balance or accuracy but their owner openly acknowledges the ABC as a competitor. Back in 2009, James Murdoch explained that the BBC was:
incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country. Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling.
The British rhetoric – down to the insinuation of disloyalty – is instantly familiar in a local context.
Yet Murdoch does not expect Abbott immediately to privatise the ABC. Everyone knows that’s not going to happen. No, he’s playing the long game, confident that the incessant sniping at the broadcaster will wear down support for the broadcaster.
For his part, Abbott’s happy to push Murdoch’s agenda, both for the usual reasons that politicians toady to media proprietors and because he shares the old tyrant’s hatred of the public sector.
But, as a politician, he has other concerns.
Abbott won the election because of voter dissatisfaction with the Labor debacle. He came to power with no popular support for a program of his own – in fact, he never really presented a program at all.
That’s why media management has been such an obsession. If Abbott were pushing a manifesto endorsed by the electorate, he might seek to draw attention to his activities. But he’s not and so he doesn’t. Hence, right from the start, he declared that he wanted to get politics off the front pages of the newspapers.
The refugee issue illustrates why. Morrison’s bizarre press conferences might seem farcical but they’re nonetheless effective, in that they provide the media with no oxygen whatsoever. Precisely because refugees don’t actually affect ordinary people at all, if the media doesn’t report boat arrivals, the asylum seeker problem (which never existed) is neatly solved.
The ongoing crisis in the news industry makes the strategy much more feasible. All the papers are hemorrhaging money. Reporting on refugees is time-consuming and horrendously expensive (how many journalists are based on Manus Island or Nauru) and probably doesn’t contribute much to revenue. So, instead of digging for information, why not simply do a cheap and cheerful feature using the footage provided by the navy?
The ABC is – or should be – different. Even now, the broadcaster has substantial assets, assets expressly provided to investigate important stories that aren’t commercially viable for other outlets.
In other words, the ABC should be all over the refugee issue – even (or perhaps especially) when other journalists aren’t.
You can see, then, the advantage for Abbott in embroiling the broadcaster in an array of faux scandals. The more time the ABC spends responding to Murdoch attacks, the less time it devotes to holding the government to account.
But isn’t the ABC popular? Doesn’t that make attacks upon it by an unpopular government ill-conceived, almost suicidal?
Not at all. Approval for the ABC shows up consistently in polls. But those surveys reveal passive support – and passive support counts for very little against a concerted campaign backed by the Murdoch commentariat, who do this kind of thing with surgical precision.
To put it another way, abstract popular sentiment doesn’t matter unless it’s given some kind of organisational expression. And where will that come from?
Not from the ALP. Leaving aside the fact Shorten and his team shares Abbott’s horror at the Snowden revelations, everyone knows that Labor’s at least as enthusiastic about privatisation as the Liberals. Yes, the ALP might pay lip service to supporting the ABC but does anyone seriously think that today’s Labor Party would go toe-to-toe with Murdoch in support of a publicly-owned asset?
In any case, it’s not merely that the Labor leadership accepts the philosophical framework in which conservative hostility to the ABC is marinated. It’s also that the ABC management does too.
Consider the events of the last week.
As Ben Eltham says, the ABC’s behaviour in response to claims of asylum seekers being burned was
no more than journalism as it is normally conducted. The story was developing, and the ABC was reporting new evidence in the context of what was already on the public record. In other words, it was gathering news.
So how does the ABC management respond to the ginned-up outrage from the Right?
First, the head of news content, Gaven Morris, sends out an email warning senior staff to ‘stick to the facts’ when reporting on incidents at sea. They should, he said, refrain from ‘editorialising or seeking to add adjectives or any flourish.’
Second, Mark Scott and director of news Kate Torney publish a statement arguing that the ABC should have been ‘more precise’ and expressing ‘regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claim.’
It’s a clear victory for Abbott.
Just as new and disturbing information arises about what happens to refugees pushed back into the ocean, ABC staff have been publicly rebuked for what Eltham calls ‘journalism as it is normally conducted’.
Reporters wanting to uncover what’s taking place in the detention centre archipelago now know that if they embark on these expensive and difficult stories, they will be face a furious assault from the Right – and their management won’t support them.
No doubt, some journalists will do their job anyway. But could you blame them if, knowing what they were up against, they took a softer option?
Yes, Abbott might be attacking the ABC from a position of weakness. But he’s likely to succeed because the opposition is weaker still – both organisationally and in terms of ideas.
Today, we learn that Mark Scott has hired Nick Leys, the Australian’s media editor, and a man the Guardian calls ‘one of the public broadcaster’s most vocal critics’ as his media manager. In other words, the guy who has been formulating attacks on the ABC will now be responsible for defending it. Leys presumably shares the same pro-market agenda of the rest of the Murdoch chieftains. Is there any better way to demoralize ABC supporters than putting someone like that in charge of the broadcaster’s messaging?
Rundle is correct to that there’s a potential for a huge pushback against what he calls the government’s ‘metered out sadism’, precisely because almost nothing Abbott’s doing is particularly popular. But it’s a potential, nothing more – and realising it will be far more difficult than Rundle acknowledges.
His formulation implies that, because resistance is possible, Abbott’s attacks are risible.
That’s wrong – and the ‘calm down it’s all a distraction’ approach is quite dangerous.
In respect of the ABC, in particular, Abbott’s quite accurately assessed the balance of forces. He reasons that, when the chips are down, the ABC management will side with him against their staff; he realises he can create a climate of fear at the public broadcaster, so that the journalists spend all their time looking over their shoulders.
I think he’s right in both cases.
What does that mean?
Expect more of that obsession with ‘balance’ that sees an IPA stooge on every program. Expect a new emphasis on pursuing right-wing talking points about the unions or terrorism or whatever. But don’t think you’re going to find out what we’re doing to refugees any time soon.
No, the campaign against the ABC is not ‘a 3am knock on the door’. But if people are outraged about it, that’s a good thing. Rather than telling them to chill out, to not to worry, we’d be better off acknowledging they’re right to be angry – and then talking about how we might channel that anger into a strategy that might win.