Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Is the ABC being fatally dumbed down?

Last night's 4 Corners on the ABC saw Aunty flirt with commercialism in a way that has become more and more common. The program took its normally forensic focus ... to the beach. It was all to look at how sharks have become more of a problem for authorities in recent years. The verdict? It doesn't matter how much effort is made to mitigate shark bites, nothing statistically makes a difference. You're on your own.

But that doesn't change the fact that this story could have been covered as a regular segment in the evening news just as well. Unfortunately what has happened to the ABC in recent times is even more worrying than attacks by great whites at our famous beaches. The station is becoming more and more commercial. Think A Current Affair. Think Bondi Rescue. These are programs that are supposed to be good for kids and adults alike, so that both classes of people can watch them at the same time. (It's good for families ...) But these types of programs are not the reason why people have come to respect brands such as 4 Corners as it has built its reputation over many years. What people have come to expect is in-depth and interesting coverage of topical but little-known issues. Not shark attacks.

The poor form started off even earlier in the evening with the Australian Story program on a pair of sailors who went to sea while only one returned. There were suggestions of cocaine smuggling and foul play. The survivor came on-camera to defend himself from libel. But again it's not the kind of program people watch the ABC to see. This is more of the type of ostensibly "current affairs" but really just sensationalist programming that commercial TV stations put on in order to maximise eyeballs. It's not serious journalism. It's vicarious fluff and has no place with Aunty.

But Aunty has been suffering in many ways of late, and it's all got to do with the pressure brought to bear on the national broadcaster by the government and rival media organisations. The government says that the ABC is "taking sides" and is "on the wrong team". Rivals say Aunty is "benefiting from its public funding" and is "catering to the elites". You hear these slurs from time to time. They never really go away.

It's very troubling when the pressure from the government is so intense that it prevents the ABC from covering certain stories, as happened recently when the broadcaster's technology editor Nick Ross claimed that he had been "gagged" when he wanted to run a story critical of the government. It's likely in this case that the ABC made an agreement with rival media outlets not to run the story and to let others take the scoop. It's not beyond the limits of credibility. There was also yesterday the story of a Liberal Party MP who allegedly misused travel funds that was not covered on the evening news although you would have expected the ABC to do this even a year ago. The rot has well and truly set in.

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