Yesterday, wide ranging cuts were announced to ABC services, responding to the Federal government’s 5% slash in the Corporation’s funding. 400 jobs will be lost, five regional bureaux closed, and programs like Lateline and state versions of the 730 report will be scrapped or moved. These cuts – actually well over what would have been necessary to absorb the government’s cuts, as Leigh Sales pointed out last night – are a tragedy for this nations media landscape, not to mention the 400 journalists, researchers and support workers who will now have to find work in a job market where pickings are very slim.
Yet, as some have pointed out, the focus of leftist media commentary has not been so much on the workers and their real pain, or even on the cuts to specific programs. Instead, we have a resurrection of the culture wars, with the ABC cuts framed as an ideological assault on the Corporation by a government who lied to the electorate about their intentions to carpet bomb the national broadcaster. Van Badham’s piece in the Guardian is particularly emblematic here – with feigned surprise at a government breaking an electoral promise (imagine that) mixed with anger at ‘the Murdoch press and the conservative “free market” think tanks”’ – the ‘ideological papas’ that inspired Abbott’s pogrom.
What commentators like Badham seem to mean by ‘ideology’ is twofold: the Abbott government’s undergraduate hatred for its political enemies as well as its deep commitment to free market politics, manifested in its desire to attack the ABC in favour of Rupert Murdoch’s king-making Newscorp Empire. But this isn’t well supported by the facts, which instead point to some issues which don’t fit nicely into the culture war nexus.
For starters, unlike attacks during the Howard era (appointment of right wingers to the board, targeting of ‘left wing bias’) this particular round of cuts has instead been framed in the language of public austerity – ‘Everyone needs to share the load’. In fact Turnbull, defending the cuts in last week’s QandA, has framed them as a type of harsh medicine which will only make the ABC stronger. Not exactly the language of attack, especially from a government who haven’t so far seemed to shy away from violent rhetoric. He – and probably Abbott as well – are too smart to take on an organisation whose approval ratings are more than double their own. Their cuts are, indeed, much less than those achieved by Howard, or even by Bob Hawke, who as the noxious but sometimes humorous asshat Nick Cater pointed out this morning, managed to trim the ABC budget by 7%.
On the other hand, if this was a Free Market inspired attack on the public broadcaster and its ability to compete with Newscorp, it has been a stellar failure, with Mark Scott taking the opportunity afforded by these cuts to actually increase ABC presence in areas where it is directly competing with the corporate media. The level of intemperance towards the ABC in today’s Australian editorial shows that the supposedly ideologically-based attack has utterly failed to force the ABC out of digital and online markets, leading Murdoch’s attack dogs to call for Abbott to completely overhaul the ABC’s charter to ensure that such competition is impossible.
We can trust Abbott, much like he did with the IPA’s much-touted ‘wish list’, to ignore these recommendations from his right wing bedfellows. The Abbott government is, in the end, more interested in saving money in some areas (welfare, environmental policy and now public broadcasting), to spend in others (infrastructure and increasing workforce participation, which is what the widely-castigated Paid Parental Leave scheme is actually trying to do), as Dave has previously argued on this blog and at With Sober Senses. Rather than framing these cuts as an attack on a supposedly leftist cultural establishment (a myth which would take a whole other post to rip apart), the left might do better to understand these cuts as part of a restructuring of the capitalist life-world itself, the implementation of a project to spend gargantuan levels of government money on private infrastructure.
The broader implication here, of course, is that if only politics was an ideology-free-zone, things would be better. In this pseudo-Fabian dreamscape, politics could be run by the experts – progressive ones preferably – who would know what is best for everyone else. The same seems to apply in left arguments around climate change, if only right-wing politicians would just step down from their political pedestals and accept some common sense; we’d all be the better for it. This is, however, fundamentally anti-democratic and opposed to any sort of politics which could get us out of the crisis – economic and political – we so clearly are mired in. As Naomi Klein has forcefully argued in her new book This Changes Everything, a scientifically attuned, ‘common sense’ government won’t save us, only a fundamental change in the way we structure society will.
Contrary to the liberal employments of this term, Marx talks about ‘ideology’ as the ideas in people’s heads which impose a distorted view on reality – making it appear that what we have now, or some slightly nicer but equally villainous version, is the best setup we can hope for. This is where the desire for an ideologically-expunged public arena is itself the most ideological notion of all. We actually need ideas, big ones that impose grand schemes and utopian futures onto reality, if we want to escape our current conjuncture.