The ABC’s relationship with the Howard government was never easy, and the 2001 cabinet papers, released by the National Archives on Saturday, reveal tensions between the government’s desire for budget cuts and fear of alienating its supporters who valued the national broadcaster.
Despite having promised during the 1996 election campaign that the ABC’s budget was safe, within four months of coming to office John Howard’s government cut it by 2% and announced a review of the role and scope of ABC services by Bob Mansfield, the founding chief executive of Optus.
Howard’s senior adviser, Grahame Morris, characterised the ABC as “our enemy talking to our friends” and Howard himself had accused the broadcaster of being left-leaning.
But the dilemma for the Coalition was the ABC was valued by its supporters, particularly in the bush, and cuts to the ABC often played badly in the regions. The cabinet papers released by the National Archives provide more evidence of the uneasy relationship.
The ABC responded to the 1996 cuts by announcing it would dispose of its international television service – seen as an important part of Australia’s soft power efforts in the Asia Pacific region.
Much to the Howard government’s delight, the international service was taken over by the Kerry Stokes-owned Seven Network in 1998, which hoped to use it to expand into Asia.
But by 2000 Stokes was losing money and sought a $15m-a-year subsidy from the government.
The cabinet papers record the frustrations of the cabinet in trying to keep the Seven-owned service alive. In March 2001 it approved Seven’s request for $15m, noting this was “not optimal” – only for Seven to pull out anyway.
At that point the foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, intervened. Downer had been unhappy with the cuts to Radio Australia and wanted to restore Australia’s broadcasting presence in the region. Cabinet ministers also complained about the Stokes service, having turned it on in hotel rooms to find it screening Humphrey B Bear.
Downer successfully pushed for funding to revive Radio Australia from near-death and for a new television service, to be tendered by his department.
The process drew an array of would-be broadcasters, including a start-up led by the former ABC chief executive David Hill. Seven and the ABC initially declined to take part, until the government persuaded the ABC’s managing director, Jonathan Shier, to join in.
The ABC’s bid won and the government reluctantly signed up, agreeing to its demand for editorial independence.
The papers show the cabinet musing over whether the decision to grant the service to the ABC would be seen as “a backflip”. But there were also concerns about going with Hill’s private proposal, and the risks of going with “an untried company”.
Relations between the ABC and the Howard government did not improve, however, as the 2002 cabinet papers may show. That was the year the communications minister, Richard Alston, lodged 67 complaints about bias with the national broadcaster.