Australian prime minister accuses national broadcaster of being unpatriotic
With censorship at back of his mind, Tony Abbott has ABC in his sights
Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, said he was “worried and concerned” by ABC’s reporting of leaks concerning Australia from US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
Australia’s conservative prime minister Tony Abbott was a journalist in the 1980s, but that hasn’t stopped him getting very close to calling for news censorship.
While some of Abbott’s more right-wing Liberal Party colleagues see a Marxist plot every time they see or hear anything on the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the prime minister plays a longer game by kicking the culture wars can on commercial radio.
In his latest interview with Sydney shock-jock Ray Hadley, Abbott said: “A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s. I think it dis- mays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but its own and I think it is a problem.”
Abbott also said he was “worried and concerned” by ABC’s reporting of leaks concerning Australia from US whistleblower Edward Snowden. The leaks revealed Australia’s spy agencies had tapped the phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudohoyono and his wife in 2009.
“The ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor,” Abbott said. “The ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said and that was a deep concern.”
The use of the word “advertising” was pointed. ABC doesn’t have ads and there is no TV licence fee in Australia. It is funded by the government, getting $1.2 billion (€788 million) this financial year.
Australia’s more moderate communications minister Malcolm Turnbull (whom Abbott deposed as leader of the Liberal Party while in opposition) said ABC’s “internal programming and editorial decisions” were the responsibility of the “ABC board and executive”.
Entitled to opinion
He said while politicians were entitled to their opinion, they could not tell ABC what to broadcast. “What’s the alternative . . . the editor-in-chief [of ABC] becomes the prime minister?” Turnbull asked.
Greens leader Christine Milne also defended the broadcaster. “What Tony Abbott is suggesting is that any news outlet, particularly the ABC, which is critical of any government policy, will come in for criticism from him. The ABC is independent. It is loved by Australians . . . it must be allowed to freely, fairly and fearlessly report the news.”
Milne’s comments are supported by a recent poll, which found that 85 per cent of Australians said ABC was valuable to them, while only 9 per cent said it was not valuable.
The Rupert Murdoch- owned Daily Telegraph tabloid (which backed the Liberal Party to the hilt in last year’s election) eased gently into the fray with a front page headlined “The ABC of treachery”.
Its News Corporation stablemate, the Australian newspaper, also unleashed the hounds, with several news stories and opinion columns lambasting the national broadcaster.
ABC hasn’t helped its cause with its reporting of a story where asylum seekers said they suffered burns when navy officers forced them to hold on to hot engine pipes on the boat on which they were seeking to enter Australia.
“You certainly ought to be prepared to give the Australian navy and its hard-working personnel the benefit of the doubt,” was the prime minister’s response.
ABC was furiously backpedalling this week, saying the wording of its story should have been “more precise”.
Round one to prime minister Abbott, who boxed for Oxford while studying on a Rhodes scholarship.