Over the past two weeks, the flagship current affairs program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Four Corners, ran a two part series under the title “Fox and the Big Lie” investigating how Fox News in the United States became complicit in spreading false and misleading information about the 2020 presidential election. The program’s argument was that Fox News was an influential actor in the events of January 6, when an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election result.
To most observers the program was unremarkable. The transformation of Fox News from a news organization — with a particular political lens — to a propaganda outlet has been quite obvious and well documented by numerous reputable sources. However, to the Australian media outlets owned by News Corp — Fox News’ parent company — the program was instead a demonstration of the ABC overstepping its role as a public broadcaster (to put their hysterics mildly).
News Corp in Australia runs an incessant campaign of belligerence against the ABC. They do this for reasons related to their own business model, as they don’t like having a competitor that is publicly funded, believing this to be an unfair advantage. But they also do this for ideological reasons: They believe that the ABC is a den of left-wing degeneracy, unwelcoming to “conservative” political parties and perspectives.
This, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. To those who believe that news should be partisan and ideological, any media organization that does not share the same operating perspective is automatically deemed to be opposed to their preferred political team. Traditional journalistic standards, and the essential processes of scrutiny, are instead interpreted as hostility and unfair political favoritism.
However, there is an argument to be made that in our current political environment, the ABC is not an entirely neutral actor. Public broadcasters are distinct from state broadcasters as, although they are publicly funded, they are independent from the government of the day. What protects their right to exist and their right to operate with independence is an adherence to the principles of liberal democracy. This makes it necessary for public broadcasters to be staunch defenders of these principles.
But at present these very principles have become a partisan issue. It is no exaggeration to state that liberal democracy is suffering a crisis of confidence. This is occurring globally, but most influentially in the United States. Liberal democratic societies have reached a stage of complexity that is proving difficult for many people to handle. This is leading to a suspicion toward long-standing norms and institutions as now being incapable of providing emotional certainty. Somehow this need for emotional certainty found its expression in the chaotic personality of Donald Trump, and led to the events of January 6.
Admittedly this is less of a direct concern in Australia, where the guardrails on the political system are strong and current public trust in the system makes it less easy to undermine. However, given the cultural dominance of the United States, the keen and highly invested interest Australians have in its developments, as well as the influence that its media and political parties have on local politics, the behavior of the Republican Party and of Fox News is an essential subject for Australian current affairs programs to be covering. The actions of these organizations have the power to alter Australian conditions.
At the heart of the ABC’s Four Corners program was a concern for the epistemological nature of journalism: whether we should govern ourselves by verifiable information, or reduce our public space to a brute competition over who has the more powerful feelings. Four Corners made the case that Fox News has succumbed to the latter. It also demonstrated — with Fox’s influence on the events of January 6 — the dangerous consequences of this lack of media responsibility.
The wider, implicit argument Four Corners made was about the ABC’s crucial role in the health of Australia’s own democracy; being a key institution that helps Australian society remain well-informed and socially cohesive. Public broadcasters have both the right and the obligation to cover major political events that some might find personally uncomfortable, especially those that are so crucial to the health of liberal democratic societies.
We’ve seen with the emergence of illiberal governments in Poland and Hungary how public broadcasters have been converted into state broadcasters. This transformation is also happening in India and Hong Kong. Although there is a different media ecosystem in the United States, the unprincipled, raw power approaches to politics that have led to these developments are now obvious within the Republican Party and its media backers. This presents a significant problem for Australia’s own political landscape, its foreign policy, as well as its media environment.
In its defense of liberal democratic principles and norms, the ABC is actually acting as a conservative body: adhering to long-standing conventions and known institutions, reporting with sobriety, and informed by deep concern for the political and social stability of the West. News Corp, however, has become a radical actor, hostile to the societies it operates in and displaying a revolutionary zeal for chaos and unrest.