How to kill a public broadcaster

What is the difference between democracy and dictatorship in 2017?
Trick question, there is no difference.
After the news that Israel’s President, Benjamin Netanyahu shut down its public broadcaster, The Israel Broadcasting Authority, with only hours notice, soon to be replaced with a semi-privatised, more compliant organisation, one would do well to remember how easily democracy can be dismantled.
No doubt Israel’s very public exit from the Eurovision song contest is only the tip of the political iceberg. Though that it seems the government is now backing away from its initial claim  it was quitting the contest after 42 years.
Despite its interruption of the contest to make a very public statement, Yigal Palmor, Director of Public Affairs and Communications and former spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs now claims the new government run Israeli public broadcaster, Kan, would continue to broadcast Eurovision, once it was granted membership to the European Broadcasting Union. But this on its own is problematic as it is thought the broadcaster would be ineligible to join as it would not be broadcasting news.
Now more than ever, public broadcasters around the world need protection from political interference.
Israel may be many things, which I will not get into at this time, but it has always been a country which has prided itself on scholarship. For centuries the country’s Rabbis have committed their lifetimes to reading and arguing about the true meaning of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. Israel’s continued existence is partly the result of its coordinated opposition to Hitler’s WWII propaganda campaign.
That Bibi has borrowed a page straight out of the fascist’s handbook is proof of how quickly democracy can be subverted for more craven, political purposes.

While there are obvious differences between Israel and Australia, I cannot help but think about some of the striking similarities. We off-shore refugees on security grounds. Israel subjugates an entire race of people on security grounds. And then of course there are the strong religious themes which govern both countries. And like Israel, Australia’s public broadcaster is not immune to or even very well protected from interference.

The ABC’s charter which is less than 400 words long, was written more than a quarter of a century ago and lacks the public policy framework to ensure its continued independence.

The ABC is not immune to political pressure, as evidence by more and more of its programming becomes dedicated to promoting talking heads, pundits and lobbyists from the neoliberal think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs and its PR arm, Newscorp. This includes Tom Switzer who has a weekly column along with two weekly radio shows, and former Murdock executive, Kim Williams who has an on-air role with Radio National, all ultimately controlled by CEO Michelle Guthrie, herself a former Newscorp lawyer. And yet it still does not escape accusations of lefty-bias, despite two independent audits which not only exonerated these claims, but found evidence of right-wing bias.

Unlike America, Australia has no enshrined right either to freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, making our public broadcaster ever more vulnerable to interference. In fact the only thing close to guaranteeing  freedom of speech, is that of Parliamentary Privilege, the law which provides immunity from prosecution for anything that is said within the confines of Parliament. Talk about check your privilege.

The only privilege that exists in this country is the government’s enshrined right to protect itself from defamation and libel prosecution, which is why Tony Abbott could stand in the chamber and say before the Government, the Opposition and the Country, that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father died of shame. Had he said those very same words on the steps of Parliament, he would have opened himself up to significant legal liability.

In an era where it is increasingly difficult to tell truth from fiction, now, more than ever, the independence of ABC – and all public broadcasters around the world  – must be protected.

For those who claim it could never happen here, I remind you it took two years for Germany to descend into fascism. It took Poland half that time. 

By contrast – as was pointed out recently by Kim Dalton,  ABC’s television director from 2006 to 2013, the BBC’s Royal Charter is renewed every 10 years. The 60-page agreement establishes an open and transparent “public interest test” should the BBC consider significant changes to its broadcasting service. Equally the Parliament must justify public in changes in funding for its public broadcaster. Similar agreements exist in countries such as Canada and Ireland. The Australian Parliament should do the same.

Israel is, at least, superficially, a democracy. But as former Secretary of of State, John Carey recently said: “Israel can either be Jewish or it can be Democratic, but it can’t be both”.

Turkey, like Russia, was tricked into voting for autocracy, in a referendum massively expanding the powers of Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and significantly dismantling the administration built to preserve the separation of powers. Equally, President Vladimir Putin was democratically elected. But Israel now joins these two countries (and many more) whose broadcasters are tightly controlled propaganda machines. And increasingly, Netanyahu is expanding his political control over the country. Seizure of airwaves, tv stations and media publications is almost always the first stage in a political coup.

In the US, Donald Trump has already banned publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN from attending press briefings and granted access to publications such as Breitbart, Alex Jones’ InfoWars, and white nationalist radio program, The Political Cesspool. He even floated the idea of getting rid of White House press briefings altogether, on the grounds that “it is not always possible to tell the truth”,  following his dismissal of FBI Director, James Comey. Trump has even, *sigh*, tweeted about amending The Constitution by ‘opening up’ libel laws so that newspapers can more easily be sued. 

If it can happen in Israel, or America, it can happen anywhere. The dismantling of democracy the world over should not be a precedent setting enabler for countries like Australia which, thanks in part to compulsory voting, have better odds of resisting the slide towards fascism.
The best way to preserve our democracy is to enshrine in legislation that Australia’s public broadcaster remain independent, always.A strong, endowed, free press is the cornerstone of democracy. It must be protected from political influence.

Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months.