I wore a blue jumper the day I thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be elected the first female president of the United States. As the day went on, the jumper felt tight around my neck; too itchy, too warm. I tore it off as I sat at my computer, watching in abject horror as the results rolled in. I haven’t worn that jumper since – it sits in the bottom of my dresser, an unwelcome reminder of my optimistic naivety. Whatever Hillary’s faults, I had assumed it was an undeniable truth that Donald Trump was unfit to be the leader of anything, let alone the free world.
I had forgotten, momentarily, that there is no such thing as an undeniable truth.
This has become increasingly obvious the longer Trump’s presidency drags on. From the use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’ to explain away blatant lies regarding inauguration attendance figures, to Trump’s catchcry of ‘FAKE NEWS’ at any and every story that portrays him in a remotely critical light, the importance of truth-telling has seemed to slip further and further into the background of US political dialogue.
Perhaps it’s not that the truth has become less important, but rather that reaching a consensus on what the truth actually is has become near-impossible. A study by the Pew Research Centre found a striking chasm between the types of news sources trusted by conservative and liberal voters in the US – 88 per cent of conservatives, for example, cited Fox News as a trusted media outlet, while 81 per cent of liberal voters distrusted the organisation. Liberals had a greater spread of trusted sources, including NPR (72 per cent), the BBC (69 per cent) and the New York Times (62 per cent) – none of which overlapped with the list of trusted sources for conservative voters.
Perhaps it’s not that the truth has become less important, but rather that reaching a consensus on what the truth actually is has become near-impossible.
This chasm has led to the largest partisan gap in approval ratings of any US President in history, with over 88 per cent of Republicans approving of Trump during his first year in office, compared to just 8 per cent of Democrats. It’s a divide that Trump, more than any candidate before him, has played into, widening it and deepening it with his consistent attacks on the free press, even going so far as to call them ‘the enemy of the American people’.
I’ve been thinking about the damaging nature of Trump’s attitude towards the press as I’ve followed the political debate in Australia over the cuts to ABC funding announced in the recent federal budget. The cuts – of $84 million over three years, in the form of a freeze on indexation – seem particularly punitive in the context of the rest of the budget, which manages, among other things, to find enough to cash to put $48.7 million towards the commemoration of Captain Cook’s landing in Australia (thereby managing to flip off both the ABC and Indigenous Australians in one fell swoop).
The cuts to the ABC bottom line are only the most recent example of a continuing diminishment of the organisation’s budget under the Coalition, coming on top of a $254 million cut in 2014, which led to the loss of 1012 jobs (one fifth of the ABC’s staff). If nothing else, the cuts are irrefutable evidence of the government’s lack of belief in the value of an independent public broadcaster.
And yet even more troubling than the financial consequences for the ABC (and the subsequent inevitable reduction in coverage) are the political motivations behind the move. As much as Scott Morrison might justify the cuts by lecturing that ‘everyone has to live within their means’, it is undeniable that the government has been facing increasing pressure to make cuts to the ABC or risk losing crucial crossbench support in the Senate, particularly from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
It is undeniable that the government has been facing increasing pressure to make cuts to the ABC or risk losing crucial crossbench support.
Before the 2017 budget, One Nation Senator Brian Burston declared that One Nation would refuse to vote for the government’s budget bills in the Senate unless the ABC’s funding was cut by $600 million. Though the party never followed through with that threat, both Burston and Hanson have continued to campaign relentlessly against the ABC, frequently berating the broadcaster for allegedly showing bias against them.
‘It’s about time we took a stand against the ABC, because if it’s us and they destroy us, what is it next, the government? They’re showing total bias against One Nation,’ Burston said in May 2017, following an ABC investigation into One Nation’s campaign finances in Queensland.
Mere months later, in September 2017, the government ceded to One Nation demands to hold an inquiry into ‘competitive neutrality’ at the ABC and SBS in exchange for Hanson’s support for changes to media ownership laws. ‘I think we have seen the ABC swing too far to the left over the years,’ said Hanson when the inquiry was announced.
It’s not merely the government’s reliance on One Nation’s Senate votes that makes it so eager to use the ABC’s bottom line as a political tool, however. In many ways, One Nation’s attitude towards the ABC is only a more outward expression of the government’s own feelings towards the broadcaster. Coalition politicians consistently perpetuate the myth of ABC bias towards the left, though multiple inquiries have found no bias to speak of (and indeed some investigations have unearthed a slight bias towards the right).
Despite this, Coalition politicians frequently express their frustration over the public broadcaster’s perceived bias, whether it be Malcolm Turnbull calling Q&A host Tony Jones ‘a very good spokesman for the ALP’; Tony Abbott claiming the ABC takes ‘everyone’s side but Australia’s’; or Eric Abetz suggesting that the ABC ‘is plagued by bias, has a fetish for running fake news as fact and is overrun by poor financial management’.
Never mind that the ABC’s annual audience satisfaction survey consistently finds that a majority of Australians (74 per cent in 2017) believe that the ABC ‘is balanced and even-handed when reporting news and current affairs’. Never mind that the organisation has an incredibly robust Editorial Policy that includes a 4000-word guidance note on the particular importance of impartiality in news coverage.
Seen in the light of Trump’s similar attacks on press independence in the US, the Australian right’s continual diminishment of the ABC becomes much more insidious.
Never mind, too, that the vast majority of the ABC’s funding does not go towards providing any kind of political commentary, biased or otherwise, but rather is part of the ABC’s charter requirement to provide broadcast services to the entire country, including to regional areas where other media coverage may be either patchy or non-existent. By stripping the ABC of funding for political gain, the government undermines the organisation’s ability to fulfil this obligation to audiences.
This is not just harmless political posturing. Seen in the light of Trump’s similar attacks on press independence in the US, the Australian right’s continual diminishment of the ABC becomes much more insidious. A well-funded, independent public broadcaster can act as a double-pronged defense against tyranny, serving both to hold the government accountable and to foster a well-informed populace. The government’s attacks on the ABC, both financial and ideological, attempt to drive a wedge between the ABC and its audiences, weakening press integrity and deepening political polarisation in the exact same way as is occurring in the US.
The media echo chamber, on both side of the political divide, must accept some blame for helping to create the polarised political environment that allowed Trump to rise to the presidency and extreme rhetoric to take hold around the world. That these attacks come at a time when our other national news outlets are increasingly buckling under commercial pressures is all the more troubling. Now, more than ever, we need a robust free press to speak truth to power in all its guises.
If the government’s continual contempt for the ABC’s integrity, impartiality and importance to the Australian political lansdcape was ever merely inconvenient, it is no longer. A robust, well-funded, public broadcaster is crucial to the functioning of our political discourse. In the wake of the astonishing breakdown of the political process in the US, we must guard the pillars of our democracy all the more closely.