Unprofessional Conduct: Abbott and the ABC

Earlier today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke in a radio interview with 2GB about what he believes is the bias in the ABC’s political coverage.[i] He remarked that the ABC “instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s”; he said of the network’s Edward Snowden coverage that it “seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor”; and he said of the recent controversy over the Navy’s treatment of asylum seekers that “You can’t leap to be critical of your own country”. I will leave it for others to explain exactly why it is so wrong to imply that a news service should be on anybody’s “side” at all, let alone the side of a nation state. Plenty of journalists are already at work detailing what is so dangerous about the suggestion that the media ought to take national loyalty into consideration when reporting the news. Plenty of people have already pointed out that for Abbott to pressure the ABC to alter its coverage is for him to compromise its independence, because he has the power to slash its budget if he so chooses. There are a great deal of very serious reasons why the Prime Minister’s comments today have made my blood boil.

Instead of focusing on these, however, I’d like to take a moment to add something else to the discussion. There is also another reason, a much less important but still noteworthy reason, why Abbott should not have made these comments. This is simply that as the Prime Minister of Australia, it ought to be beneath him. A government that publicly complains about its national media is a very, very unprofessional government indeed.

Personally I think the ABC is among the least biased news services working in Australia; but as I’ve said, that is not the issue I want to address here. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this article, that the ABC is everything that Abbott and his more extreme colleagues accuse it of being. Let’s imagine we live in an Australia where the ABC broadcasts left-wing propaganda, deliberately sets out to sabotage the Australian military and intelligence services, and slanders or ignores all of the Liberal government’s laudable achievements. I believe that even if this were the case, it would still be wrong in every way for the Prime Minister to speak out against a news provider as Abbott is doing. No national government should ever attack its own media. That is primarily because it endangers journalistic independence, but it is also because it belittles the government, and robs the Prime Ministerial office of its proper dignity.

Complaining about a news provider simply looks petulant and small-minded. Skilled governments learn to handle the press to the best of their advantage; that can be a dirty business, but it is a necessary element in the art of politics. To appear threatened or even discomforted by the press, however, is in most countries a massive political faux pas. This is true in purely pragmatic terms: seeming to be afraid of the media makes the government look weak. Yet it ought also to be true as a matter of principle. It doesn’t matter how biased a particular media outlet may be; for a Prime Minister to speak out against it is for him to imply that countering negative news coverage is more important to him than doing his proper job of managing the country. How is it acceptable for a government to be publicly paying such attention to how its doings are reported in the national media? Shouldn’t the Prime Minister be above such concerns?

Look at America: Barack Obama is constantly hounded by a voracious and deeply biased right-wing press, but when was the last time you heard him passing comment on the problems with the conservative agenda at Fox News? He doesn’t, because he knows he has to be above all that. He has enough sense not to look like he’s bothered by negative press. He has enough political awareness – and enough dignity – to be conscious that he would only diminish his own stature, and the stature of the office of President, by appearing to care what any part of the national media says about him. Obama needs to be seen to get on with the business of government, not to waste time accusing domestic news outlets of biased journalism.

Ultimately this is yet another case of Abbott behaving as though he is still an Opposition Leader. He cannot seem to snap out of opposition mode: he persists in devoting more energy to attacking his political opponents than to his proper business of delivering sound leadership for Australia. Complaining about the ABC is not the Prime Minister’s place. He should learn to turn his attention away from domestic criticism, and onto the vast array of real issues that truly demand his attention.


[i] The ABC’s (helpfully unbiased) report on the interview can be read at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-29/tony-abbott-steps-up-criticism-of-abc/5224676

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