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My ABC, some of the time

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 9 January 2020


I have written about the ABC before. It is an organisation and a service that has been important to me throughout my life. Our radio is tuned to Classic FM and its music is 'the soundtrack of our life' from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. But the ABC vexes me. Yesterday one of the presenters, doing one of the Corporation's far-too-frequent recorded self-promotions, told us that New Year's Eve would bring in not just a new year but a new decade. It wasn't long at all before a listener sent in a message to the effect that the new decade would start in 2021. 'I guess you're right,' said the actual presenter. How did someone get away with that boo-boo? It was still on air today. A commenter on this website, some days earlier, had asked 'How far has the ABC fallen. "Two firefighters died after a car was struck by a tree".

For what seems like weeks now, I have been told over the air how 54,000 people responded to the ABC's call for Australians to respond to a survey, and how the results tell us what is really important to Aussies. Well, I wasn't one of those who responded, time being short, but I did reflect that the ABC has about 14 per cent of the television audience and about 20 per cent of the radio audience, so that those who took part in the survey presumably represent about twenty per cent of the nation. What did the other eighty per cent think? I guess we'll never know.

Tony Thomas wrote an essay for The Spectator on indigenous quotas on the ABC. It is a fascinating piece, based on the ABC's Reconciliation Action Plans. In 2017, apparently, more than one hundred Aboriginal focused programs, perspective or issues ran across the full gamut of the broadcaster's domain. Thomas says that his family times how long it takes to sight an Aboriginal-identifying Australian on ABC TV at 6 pm. 'Typically, it's under three minutes…' he writes. Why so many? After all, there are about as many Buddhists as Aboriginals, and three times as many Chinese. Ah well, despite the ABC's need to show impartiality, Reconciliation is somehow more important. My listening to Classic FM means I can't comment.

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What can or should be done about this? In Britain it seems that the new Government of Boris Johnson is considering whether or not to decriminalise evading payment of the TV Licence (£100 a year) which provides the BBC with funds. Why is it doing that? The Conservative Government thinks that the BBC was blatantly partisan over Brexit and indeed in the recent election campaign. We have no equivalent to the fee here, though there is no doubt that many members of the Coalition Government see the ABC is biased against it, and in favour of trendy left-wing causes. I think it is easy to show that their feeling is justified.

What to do about the public broadcaster that decides its view of the world is the right one is something that troubled Antony Jay, one of the authors of Yes, Minister.. He wrote the Foreword to Christopher Booker's GWPF report The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal. What follows are some extracts that are relevant to Australia as well as the UK.

Anyone familiar with large organisations knows that over the years they develop and perpetuate their own ethos, their own value system, their own corporate beliefs and standards. The police, the Army, the National Health Service, the Civil Service – they all subscribe to their own central orthodoxy, even if not every member accepts every item of it. Connoisseurs of Whitehall are aware that different Ministries have different and even conflicting attitudes… Those at the top of the tree are the custodians of corporate orthodoxy; they recruit applicants in their own image, and the applicants are steadily indoctrinated with the organisation's principles and practices. Heretics tend to leave fairly early in their careers.

It would be astonishing if the BBC did not have its own orthodoxy. It has been around for 85 years, recruiting bright graduates, mostly with arts degrees, and deeply involved in current affairs issues and news reporting. And of course for all that time it has been supported by public money. One result of this has been an implicit belief in government funding and government regulation. Another is a remarkable lack of interest in industry and a deep hostility to business and commerce.

[Jay explains that his first real job was with the BBC, and he imbibed all the culture.] …[W]hen our colleagues, who we had thought were good BBC men, left to join commercial broadcasters, they became pariahs. We could hardly bring ourselves to speak to them again. They had not just gone to join a rival company; they had sinned against the true faith, they were traitors, deserters, heretics.

This deep hostility to people and organisations who made and sold things was not of course exclusive to the BBC. It permeated a lot of upper middle class English society (and has not vanished yet). But it was wider and deeper in the BBC than anywhere else, and it is still very much a part of the BBC ethos. Very few of the BBC producers and executives have any real experience of the business world, and as so often happens, this ignorance, far from giving rise to doubt, increases their certainty.

We were masters of the techniques of promoting our point of view under the cloak of impartiality. The simplest was to hold a discussion between a fluent and persuasive proponent of the view you favoured, and a humourless bigot representing the other side… The issue of man-made global warming could have been designed for the BBC. On the one side are the industrialists, the businessmen, the giant corporations and the bankers (or at least those who are not receiving generous grants, subsidies and contracts from their government for climate-related projects such as wind farms or electric cars), on the other the environmentalists, the opponents of commercial expansion and industrial growth… The costs to Britain of trying to combat global warming are horrifying, and the BBC's role in promoting the alarmist cause is, quite simply, shameful.

So what do we do about the BBC? One course of action that would be doomed from the start is to try and change its ethos, its social attitudes and its political slant. They have been unchanged for over half a century and just about all the influential and creative people involved in political programme commissioning and production are thoroughly indoctrinated. So do we abolish the BBC? After all, we do not have any newspapers or magazines that are subsidised with nearly four billion pounds of taxpayers' money; why should broadcasting be different?

Of course no government would actually face up to the problem of privatising the BBC. And there are strong arguments for keeping it: some of its production units are among the best in the world. There is also a case for leaving its news and current affairs operation alone; it may have a built-in liberal/statist bias, but there are lots of other news channels which are commercially funded, so there is no great damage done if one of them is run by the middle class liberal elite.

No, what really needs changing is the size of the BBC. All we need from it is one television channel and one speech radio station – Radio 4, in effect. All its other mass of activities – publishing, websites, orchestras, digital channels, music and local radio stations – could be disposed of without any noticeable loss to the cultural life of the country, and the licence fee could probably be cut by two-thirds.

There's a lot of thoughtful stuff in this Foreword. In my view it applies in large part to our own country, but, like the late Sir Antony, I can't see any Australian Government having the nerve to privatise the ABC, let alone to abolish it. How big should it be, though, and what should its core activities consist of?

And a Happy New Year to all. The past year was not a great one for me, so I'm hoping for the best!

Endnote The BBC asked Charles Moore, the editor of The Telegraph, to act as a guest editor (Greta Thunberg is to be another). He gave the BBC a hard rap over the knuckles:'The BBC has decided to be a secular church and it preaches and tells us what we ought to think about things. So it tells us we shouldn't support Brexit and we should accept climate change alarmism and we have to all kowtow to the doctrines of diversity."

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Jay wrote in 2011, Moore in 2019, Nothing seems to have changed in Britain, or here, for that matter.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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