No media organisation is above criticism – even from a prime minister. That's especially the case when the media organisation in question is funded by taxpayers.
The reaction to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's criticism of the ABC has bordered on the hysterical.
The Age's political editor Michael Gordon labelled it “astonishing”.
The Guardian's Katharine Murphy warned darkly that things might “escalate”.
The ABC is not such a faultless organisation that it should be above criticism. As a media outlet totally funded by taxpayers, it deserves much greater scrutiny, and has special obligations to be rigorously fair, balanced and impartial. As an organisation, it has shown itself to be tone deaf when it comes to the legitimate concerns of many Australians, that it leans to the left and is not a welcome home for conservatives or classical liberals – particularly among its salaried employees.
In many ways the ABC has made a rod for its own back. Its defenders are right to argue that it should not be an uncritical cheerleader for Australia, and that it should place the pursuit of truth above nationalism. The ABC was perfectly entitled to report on revelations from Edward Snowden on the growing apparatus of state surveillance in much of the Western world. It was a legitimate news story unquestionably in the public interest, and ignoring it would have done Australians a disservice.
But at the same time as it claims to be a news organisation dedicated to the pursuit of truth at home, it also assures Australians that it is best placed to sell our wares abroad. In bidding – aggressively – for the Australia Network tender, the ABC opted to become a tool of diplomacy on behalf of the federal government. The ABC is set to receive $223 million over 10 years to promote Australia's interests in our region.
That's not an appropriate role for any media organisation – public or private. It hopelessly conflicts its news gathering operation and opens the ABC up to criticism that it undermines Australia's interests through its reporting. That's why it is in the ABC's best interests that the federal government is now considering axing the Australia Network service altogether. The Abbott government should go a step further, and privatise the ABC – but not because it is unhappy with their journalism.
Ultimately the case for reforming the ABC does not rest on one week of reporting. If there was ever a case for a taxpayer-funded state broadcaster, it doesn't exist today. Australians have at their fingertips access to more news from more varied sources than ever before. Online, every niche interest and point of view is well covered. And as private media companies continue to struggle with profitability, the continued lavish funding of the ABC only serves to undermine their business model further.
James Paterson is the editor of the IPA Review at the Institute of Public Affairs.