Australia at a Turning Point

As I began writing this speech, Media Watch's first program on Channel 2 in about a year was shown. In this program David Marr pointed out some of the important facts about the One-Tel Enquiry that had been left out of the Channel 9 news that week. Most of them were severely critical of Mr James Packer. Yet, as Marr quite correctly pointed out, they were news - important news, especially to those of us who care about such old fashioned values as corporate governance.

By coincidence, the Radio National Program began its program on the same week with a quote that I have been using in speeches for the last five years. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was no media then we could all have a quiet life and no one would know anything."

Who said that? - Well it was that famous democrat Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson in 1986.

What has this to do with the ABC and democracy? Well, United States Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader is quoted as saying that information is the currency of democracy. The media delivers information which educates us about what is happening in our country. It is to the media, whether public or commercial to which we turn to find out important issues about our world.

I believe that in Australia democracy is taken for granted. In many other parts of the developed world, democracy is seen as a passive process - an entity which is just THERE and which will always remain. Many people believe that if they vote every three or four years, they have fulfilled their democratic duty. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. One of the most important safeguards for our democracy is the ABC, our taxpayer funded, independent public broadcaster, especially at a time where most consumer watch dogs have had their teeth pulled.

Last year I delivered a speech to the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (a citizens group interested in public broadcasting in the United Kingdom) International Conference in London. I talked about citizenship groups and their involvement with, and commitment to public service broadcasters and how important this was as an aid to the democratic process.

At that conference were some broadcasters and university lecturers from Southern African States, who had come to find out about the role of citizenship groups in supporting the fledgling public broadcasters in infant democracies. Research done by the education section of the United Nations shows that countries with a public service broadcaster are better informed and that democracy as a principle is easier to explain on radio.

Public service broadcasters frequently are the means whereby important health and safety information is given to populations which are largely illiterate. In areas where HIV Aids and Hepatitis C are a really huge problem, the radio is often the only means to disseminate this information widely and quickly.

Many of these countries are just emerging from long and bloody fights for democracy against brutal dictatorships. Journalists in these countries are in very real danger of being kidnapped and killed if they report unfavourably about their governments. So, the establishment of citizenship groups to aid the formation of national broadcasters in many of these areas can help save journalists' lives.

Close by, journalists in Malaysia are jailed if they insist on printing articles which criticise the current government. In Indonesia the same thing has happened and in both countries the editors of papers, radio stations and television channels, self censor all the time or risk losing their licenses or worse.

After the establishment of East Timor as a sovereign nation, one of the earliest groups to go there to help was a group of journalists who assisted locals organise radio, television and newspapers to broadcast and inform its citizens as well as making them aware of how a democracy works. I was very sad to hear the other day that East Timor's finances are in such a parlous condition that it does not have enough money to keep the transmitters going after tomorrow (May 2Oth) the day that the United Nations rule ends and East Timor rule begins. I hope that soon funds will be made available to continue this essential service.

Here in Australia, journalists are more likely to have to put their principles aside rather than their lives on the line. In Australia, where media ownership is very concentrated, journalists may also put their working careers on the line, if they ignore management sensitivities.

A fairly obvious case in point was the dropping of Paul Barry and Media Watch during the Shier era at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Shier was astounded that Mr Barry could criticise the management of his own organisation on Media Watch. It wasn't long after that the show was axed and with it Mr Barry. Most of us would have read recent media reports of ABC Board member Mr Michael Kroger applying pressure on Mr Chris Masters about his report abort 2GB breakfast announcer Alan Jones on Four Corners.

In Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane and Darwin, the only major dailies are owned by Rupert Murdoch. Sydney and Melbourne have both Murdoch and Fairfax papers and the West Australian is independently owned. Most country papers are owned by Rural Press or Tony O'Reilly.

This concentrated media landscape in Australia, makes it difficult for the average person to get to see or hear a variety of viewpoints so they can get a broad picture of what is happening in their own country. Media moguls used to be just that - they owned media only. Nowadays a media mogul such as Kerry Packer owns meat packing works, casinos vineyards. Rupert Murdoch owns film studios, and a miriad of other businesses. No journalist who works for these papers or for Channel 9 ever needs to be told what to cover or not to cover. Many would be concerned, that if they want to keep paying the rent and feeding the family, that there will be some items over which they should glide fairly smoothly or not touch at all. To illustrate my point, when the Super League controversy was happening in New South Wales, Murdoch papers barely covered it, whereas it was all over the Fairfax papers.

Many of you may be aware that the Government has proposed changes to media laws which would allow a media mogul to own both television and newspapers in the same capital city. The minister in charge of the media, Senator Alston remarked if the media laws are changed, editorial freedom could be ensured by having different editorial teams at newspapers and television stations. This is total nonsense.

Because the ABC is not tied to commercial entities, it alone is able to investigate without fear or favour any and every business and political decision made - who what when where and why, are the five important journalistic questions that need to be asked when important decisions are made. It is a strange paradox that the ABC in fulfilling its charter by seeking to inform the public, is often charged with bias against the government.

The ABC needs enough core funding to do its job according to its charter. Of late, tied funding has been used to boost the ABC's coffers, however tied funding proscribes the uses of that money, and can be a means by which the government of the day controls what programs are made. So stretched for cash was the ABC last year that it permitted the Department of Defence to fund the production of a documentary on Duntroon. This type of funding means that thorough investigation is very difficult to achieve, as the department giving the funding wants more of a public relations exercise than a complete picture.

I often have to answer the charge of "bias against the government" from viewers and listeners and I always say that the main purpose of the Friends of the ABC is there to make sure that there is a well funded and editorially independent ABC. Not surprisingly, it is the supporters of Government of the day who mainly claim "bias against the government". As the Opposition is not able to make policy or laws, then it is not usually in the firing line. One thing both Labour and the Coalition have in common is that when they are in Government, they both hate being asked the hard questions by the ABC. That is precisely why the ABC is so important to our democracy.

In the Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday November 25th 2000, media journalist Anne Davies wrote that during the period 1998-2000 - a period when there was a Federal election, the republic referendum and the waterfront dispute, of the 80 letters of complaint received by the ABC about anti-government bias, more than 75 per cent were written by the Federal director of the Liberal Party Mr Lynton Crosby.

We pay the salaries of our politicians. Contrary to popular belief they are our servants and they owe to us explanations of what they are doing, how they are spending our money and why. Transparency is very important in the decision making process, as is

Freedom of Information. A publicly owned media organisation has to be well funded and completely independent of the government of the day or other influences, in order to do its job effectively. It is not nor should it ever be a government information service. Our Federal Governments of either flavour, seem to want the ABC to behave like the old Soviet Union newspapers, Pravda or Izvestia - just toe the government line and all will be well.

We often hear about the dumbing down of society. Interest in news and current affairs programs on commercial channels is waning. When these programs concentrate on diets, teenage behaviour, shonky builders and never look at the broader picture, we are left with wondering why anyone watches them at all.

There are many causes of this phenomenon. Lack of respect for the audience. A lack of facilities such as archives and lack of researchers to help the journalist investigate. The imperatives of the advertising dollar, fitting as many commercial breaks as possible into programs, plus a huge romance with the bottom line which equates fewer staff with bigger profits. This trend means that the population who have to vote in both local, state and federal elections are less well informed about what is going on around them.

Viewers of commercial television and listeners to commercial radio are regarded as consumers. The object of commercial media is to make money for its' shareholders.

Consumers purchase, citizens care about democracy. They vote but are active in their own area between elections. They care about their neighbours. They are communally minded. They coach the under sevens footie team. They form a driving pool for the netball away games.They volunteer to be Arkela to the local brownie troop. In short citizens are involved, they are part of a community - they help form the people into a community and they care. They fight to save remnant bushland and koala habitat, they belong to the volunteer fire fighters. In short, they are engaged. They know that we live in an economy, but they also care that we live in a society.

Another aspect of today's world is that most of us are time poor In an information age, we barely have time to digest the information which is bombarding us from every angle. Organisations like the ABC are often the key to understanding the plethora of information that assaults us. ABC journalists and researchers check and verify information to ensure it is correct A busy student today, working part time, studying, going out has little time to read the newspaper. When my daughter was a busy student, I would often begin to tell her some important piece of news about what was happening in the world and she would usually be ahead of me. I asked how this was possible, given her lack of time to be informed. "It's simple, Mum," she said. "I just listen to JJJ."

The ABC makes a difference to everyone who listens its radio stations or watch its television stations or use ABC Online. I was at the birthday party of a friend and Robyn Williams happened to be attending. A guest buttonholed Robyn in a corner. "I just wanted to thank you," he said. Robyn looked puzzled. "About 10 years ago my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer," he said. "I had heard about the latest treatments on the Science Show. As an informed member of the public, I was able to insist that her doctors look at new treatments. She lived another 10 years. I just wanted to thank you for making such a difference." Robyn turned to me after the man had gone and said, "that's what it's all about, isn't it?"

When people are active, informed citizens, rather than passive consumers, it is harder for any political leader to erode their democratic rights. Many of the people I speak to in my role as FABC president, who listen to and watch the ABC are citizens. The Friends of the ABC is not the only organisation they are involved with. They care deeply about the fact that we are a democratic nation. They care deeply when any of those democratic principles are threatened.

At the very beginning of my presidency of the Friends of the ABC I was called upon to make a speech to the Rotary Club of Narrabri. I went there the day before and was taken in hand by one of the burghers of the town. This gentleman was a crusty farmer very conservative and a keen National Party member. He and i were touring his cotton fields and chatting about this and that and then suddenly he said. "This is my new ute. I commented that it was lovely and comfortable and he said - forget the comfort, I had to buy it because the radio in the old ute couldn't pick up Radio National!"

It is not only the now "so called elites, or cafe latte set or Balmain Basketweavers - (all terms which are just a social construct by right wing columnists who don't care to do their research) who listen to Radio National. It is listened to avidly all over Australia by all sorts of people. From Weipa to Launceston from Sydney to Perth and many parts in between. You can drive around Australia listening to Radio National and keep yourself informed about the nation and the world Overseas listeners keep in touch through ABC Online where they can hear many ABC programs through their computers.

The wonderful part about the ABC is that, whatever network you listen to, be it local (i.e., 2BL in Sydney) or nationally like Radio National, the specialist talks station, Radio FM - the fine music network, JJJ the so called youth network or PNN the Parliamentary and News Network - you still remain informed about what is going on with the world.

Radio National, JJJ and FM are broadcast across a large part of Australia, and there are also 48 rural and regional network radio stations which keep rural and regional and remote listeners informed about local issues as well as statewide, nationwide and world wide issues. Keen overseas ABC fans can hear Radio Australia or track ABC on the net.

ABC listeners and viewers can interact with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as never before through ABC Online. Many programs are broadcast in real time over the internet and go world wide. The ABC now gets letters from all over the world as well as from those who visit the website. In addition after programs such as Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent, there are chat rooms where viewers can interract with program makers.

Last year, when the ABC seemed to be under the threat of implosion during the peripatetic rule of Mr Jonathan Shier, he said on air that the ABC's only shareholder was the government of the day. WRONG. You and 1, the taxpayers of Australia, are the shareholders of the ABC. We own it, not the Labor or Liberal Parties. We own it, not the government of the day. It is ours, it is a national living treasure and we hold it in trust for our children and grandchildren.

In 2001 the Friends of the ABC decided that we would help the citizenship process and that we would hold the first ever ABC Shareholders' General Meeting. Hundreds of people handed out thousands of leaflets at bus interchanges, train stations and ferry wharves. We booked the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, organised the speakers and the publicity, set up a board room table with the names of all the members of the ABC board who were formally invited by letter to attend the meeting. We received a refusal by the Chairman, Mr Donald McDonald on behalf of the Board.

The morning dawned bright and clear. The meeting was set to start at 11 am. At 10.45 a trickle of people started. Then they came and came and kept on coming until there were about 20,000 people in the Sydney Opera House forecourt, cheering and whistling at every speech. It was a wonderful day, it was democracy in action. To be there that day hearing, sharing and feeling the love, passion, respect and value that Australians feel for OUR ABC and knowing that such an outpouring of respect and love would be heard by politicians. The most important part was that the meeting got coverage in every daily paper in the country, including the Financial Review, on all television nightly news, many radio stations. I was interviewed by 2GB and 2SM as well as a large number of community stations. It was an example of the way that the ABC and citizenship and democracy are intertwined in this country and, members of parliament for the first time discovered how important the ABC was in the lives of many Australian citizens.

This meeting was a part of the democratic process and further on during the year, a number of smaller branches, all of whom had attended the meeting - from as far away as Canberra in the south and Coffs Harbour in the north, held public meetings to - "Meet Your CandidateR in a Federal Election Year.

It was, in a way, a return to the old fashioned public meetings of former days when local people met candidates in person, not just as a face on teievision, or worse, as campaigns have become now, just a presidential campaign where only the leaders are shown and local members do not appear.

Although the Friends of the ABC is NOT a part of the ABC itself the citizens who comprise our membership were out in the community doing their bit to interest members of the public in the democratic process. The ABC as a statutory body cannot do this, but as I said previously, their informative programs, their specialist programs, the variety of their programs, their internet access, all allow members of the public - with a radio, and/or television and with access to the internet, to become involved and knowledgable about their world. I hope one day that the ABC Open Days where ABC personalities appeared at such venues as Parramatta Park or the Sydney Cricket Ground will be re-instated. It was a great day for interaction.

Governments world wide are trying harder and harder to influence the way that news is presented and what is presented. The ABC and Libraries are two organisations which reach out all over Australia and are indeed natural allies with a common purpose to better inform Australians.

It is important to realise that every citizen who cares about freedom of information and the democratic process, needs to question what the Government is telling them and ask what they are not being told. Democracy requires that we are active and remain so.

What can you do? Every activity helps. When you are upset at interference in the ABC's ability to do its job, write to your local paper and see your local members. We can never be complacent and take democracy for granted. Look how quickly things changed at the ABC when Jonathan Shier took up his appointment. If each of you wrote to your local member about the ABC or went to see him or her once or twice a year, you would be fulfilling the old saying that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, together with its mother in the United Kingdom and its cousin in Canada as well as the many other public broadcasters throughout Europe and in Japan and other parts of the world, are a means by which the citizens of many nations can learn about the world, learn about their rights and learn about their responsibilities and most important, serve as a safeguard for their democratic forms of government

Friends of the ABC
(New South Wales) Inc.
Post Office Box 1391
North Sydney NSW 2059

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