To some, it’s a sign of a robust democracy when a public broadcaster subjects a government to scrutiny. To Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, it’s unpatriotic.
In an outburst, Mr Abbott accused the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of lacking in “basic affection for the home team”. Many people were “dismayed”, he told a right-wing shock jock, Ray Hadley, that the ABC “instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s”.
Two things have infuriated him. One was the ABC’s revelation, based on leaks by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, that Australia’s intelligence agencies tapped the phones of the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his wife.
The other was its reporting of allegations that asylum-seekers were mistreated by navy personnel who intercepted them near Darwin and towed their boat back to Indonesia. The asylum-seekers claimed they were beaten and punched, and suffered burns after being forced to hold on to hot engine pipes.
The spying story caused a rift in relations with Indonesia. In a reference to Mr Snowden, Mr Abbott said the ABC “seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor.” As for the allegations of mistreatment, which have been denied by the navy, the Prime Minister declared: “You can’t leap to be critical of your own country, and you certainly ought to be prepared to give the Australian navy the benefit of the doubt.” The ABC’s role, he added, should be that of “a straight news-gathering organisation”.
While his comments bemused some observers, others feared they might herald cuts to the ABC’s budget – which some of Mr Abbott’s conservative colleagues have demanded. He ruled out funding cuts during last year’s election campaign, but has already shown himself prepared to break campaign promises.
The acting opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek, defended the broadcaster. She said that “every government has been subject to the scrutiny of the ABC, and we should all welcome that”. The ABC declined to comment, but its managing director, Mark Scott, has previously argued that the spying story was in the public interest. Mr Abbott had accused him of “very poor judgement”.