Non-commercial ABC serves the common good

On Wednesday, ABC managing director Mark Scott (pictured) warned Senate Estimates that content diversity would suffer if the ABC was privatised. This follows the Victorian Liberal Party's recent revival of public discussion of selling the ABC and SBS to help retire public debt.

Diversity of content refers to program material that caters for those who might be called the 'media poor'. That includes audiences in rural and regional Australia, or with specialised cultural or educational interests that commercial media deem unprofitable.

The ABC has a charter obligation to serve these 'unloved' audiences, and to 'take account of the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors' by not duplicating what they offer.

Scott said accepting advertising 'fundamentally changes the nature of the content you create, the content you purchase and deliver and fundamentally it dilutes the impact and the quality of the broadcaster'.

But it's more than that. Maintaining the distinction between ABC and commercial content is just as fundamental, because the ABC's own efforts to compete with commercial media can undermine the diversity of its content. 

To this end, the ABC might do well to withdraw from participation in audience ratings surveys in favour of juries that are committed to fostering diversity. Ratings surveys are mainly relevant to commercial broadcasters because of the link between audience size and profitability. They are not geared to measure specialist audiences.

Yet ratings are a significant influence in ABC programming decisions, and their increasing prominence in the news affects the public's perception of whether the ABC is successful and should be maintained. Currently there is no comparably robust and prominent measure of the diversity of the content. 

If ABC and commercial media management use the same tool to measure the performance of their content, it follows that the programs are likely to become similar. A good case will emerge for selling the ABC because it is not focused on offering alternative non-commercial content.

Critics of the ABC have a point when they urge the removal of 'a government-funded goliath that is interfering with the market in the media landscape'. The ABC, they argue, 'has overstepped its raison d'être'.

In its early decades, it was usual to refer to the ABC as 'the National Service', with the implication that its programs were broadcast in the national interest. 'National' distinguished the ABC not from local broadcasters, but from the commercial stations whose legitimate business it was to maximise audiences and make a profit.

The future of media in Australia will be much different to what we know today, and if the ABC has a future, it will be about serving the common good rather than competing for audience share. 

Paul Keating and Sorry Day's indulgence with a purpose

At the beginning of National Reconciliation Week, we observe Sorry Day as an expression of remorse for our historical mistreatment of the nation's Indigenous citizens.

Sorry Day has been on the calendar since 26 May 1998's first anniversary of the tabling in Federal Parliament of the Bringing them Home report. The report documented the forced removal of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families for much of the 20th century. The children who were removed have come to be known as the Stolen Generations.

There are a number of commemorative days that focus attention on the needs and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, such as National Close the Gap Day in March and Mabo Day on 3 June. Paradoxically Sorry Day is not one of them.

It is instead a day for non-indigenous Australians to dwell on themselves and their failures. To think about such important issues as how we can improve Indigenous health in this country is always a good thing. But actually it defeats the purpose of Sorry Day, which, if we are non-indigenous Australians, is all about us.

As an exercise in secular soul-searching, former Prime Minister Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern Speech does exactly what Sorry Day encourages all non-indigenous Australians to do. Its most memorable lines are not about Indigenous Australians at all, but the Europeans who stole their land, their children and their dignity.

We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. 

Keating says 'the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all'. By 'affects', he means that it penetrates not only our minds, but our hearts as well. So our action to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians is not based in ideology or something we think we should do to pay our dues. It's much deeper, something we want to do for the fulfilment of our own lives as well as those of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Importantly Keating implores non-indigenous Australians to acknowledge their guilt and then to quickly move on and 'see the things which must be done — the practical things'. Guilt on its own, he says 'is not a very constructive emotion' because 'what we need to do is open our hearts a bit'.

It is significant that Sorry Day comes at the beginning of Reconciliation Week, not the end. Timing and sequence are important. Those familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius will know that the First Week's dwelling on sinfulness is only a means to the end of making the person on retreat ready to be of service to others.

It's similar for National Reconciliation Week — Sorry Day is getting us ready to take whole-hearted constructive action that will help close the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Angelina Jolie's pain is a gain for all of us

The week's news of actor Angelina Jolie's pre-emptive double mastectomy has shown that science can improve human wellbeing with the use of highly specialised surgical techniques. Jolie went through the operation in order to reduce her chances of contracting breast cancer from around 87 per cent to 5 per cent.

In recent days, we also heard that scientists have provedit is possible to increase our wellbeing by turning skin cells into embryos that can be used to create tissue cells for transplant operations. This act of human cloning would lead to the cure of a range of debilitating afflictions including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.

We can marvel at Jolie's short-term pain for long-term gain, and hope that we would have the courage to do likewise in comparable circumstances. But while hers was an entirely rational choice towards saving her life, there are instances where we would baulk at making a rational choice to save our life. 

An example might be eating human flesh in the absence of other food sources, which is considered taboo. The same can be said for human cloning. We could create a super race of human beings if we cloned intelligent people and sterilised imbeciles. But we wouldn't. There are certain actions that are considered uncivilised because to do them is to undermine civilisation and our collective human rights. 

Many would contend that it hardly undermines civilisation to simply reprogram human skin cells to become embryonic stem cells to produce tissue for transplants — especially if the rest of the embryo is is be destroyed — if the intention is to save human life or eliminate chronic suffering. It's said that the risks can be managed.

Others would argue that this is a form of NIMBYism that threatens what we all share in order to satisfy our own private needs, even if it is the ultimate need to save a life.

A 1997 resolution of the European Parliament acknowledged the need to ensure the benefits of biotechnology are not lost, but insisted that:

the cloning of human beings ... [for] tissue transplantation or for any other purpose whatsoever, cannot under any circumstances be justified or tolerated by any society, because it is a serious violation of fundamental human rights and is contrary to the principle of equality of human beings as it permits a eugenic and racist selection of the human race, it offends against human dignity and it requires experimentation on humans.

There is nothing wrong with the aspiration of eugenics to ensure desirable qualities in human beings, but not at the cost of our humanity. Angelina Jolie's use of science in such a courageous manner enhanced her dignity and inspired others to do likewise. But even judicious use of a cloning technique would threaten to undermine it.

Sex abuse justice cannot be fast-tracked

Victims of church sexual abuse have suffered a setback, with reports that the NSW Victims Rights and Support Bill proposes a statute of limitations for people claiming compensation for violence including child abuse or sexual assault. Under the legislation, applications must be made within ten years of the act or, if the victim was a child when it occurred, within ten years after they turn 18.

The Catholic Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council issued a media release on Thursday urging the NSW Government to reconsider the change because of the special circumstances of sexual abuse victims.

The Council's CEO Francis Sullivan said that for many reasons, victims of childhood sexual abuse often do not report the crimes for many years, and that to place any time limit on disclosure 'seems like an inappropriate way to encourage victims to come forward'.

To come to terms with such a traumatic experience as sexual abuse — and to resolve to act — is a delicate process that is likely to be undermined if there is a clock ticking.

The victim may lack the psychological strength to meet the deadline for reporting the crime, and end up feeling worse as a result. Sometimes a church culture intimidates victims into remaining silent, and this has often led to adult victims waiting until their parents have died before reporting the crime. 

Following the announcement of the Royal Commission, there was widespread concern that the scale of the response would overwhelm the process, but there is general acceptance that it should not be rushed. While the Commission itself is not involved in prosecution and sentencing of offenders, the state court systems need to work in harmony with the Commission. Legislation should provide for courts to act expeditiously in order to get their job done, but a ten year statute of limitations is likely to get in the way of a just outcome. 

Pat Walsh, who worked with East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), wrotein Eureka Street last year that the CAVR was faced with similar challenges but opted to take a victim-friendly approach that 'informed every aspect of the CAVR's design, structure, operation and reporting'.

'Its enabling legislation required the Commission "to assist in restoring the dignity of victims" and it employed a number of strategies to achieve this. ... The centrepiece of this victim-friendly approach was listening to victims.'

Listening to victims involves waiting until they are able to speak. If they are forced to speak before they are ready, they may undermine the justice system by speaking half-truths or declining the opportunity to report the crime. It's often said justice delayed is justice denied. It can also be true that justice hastened is justice denied.

Mary MacKillop's advice for today's politicians

'Never see a need without doing something about it.' That is the principle which famously guided Australia's first saint Mary MacKillop. The 'seeing', and the resolve to act, are the primary drivers. Then comes the secondary task of working out where the necessary funding and resources will come from. 

The order and the timing are crucial, and it appears that is how the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is evolving, ahead of this month's Federal Budget and the final legislative session of the current Parliament. The public is on board, and the politicians are acting while they can. 

It appears most Australians see the need for disability care and are prepared to accept the 0.5 per cent levy as the best way to commence the scheme as soon as possible. Whatever the politics, there has been decisive bipartisan recognition of the need, and commitment to act.

As a result, the quality of life for Australians living with disability is likely to improve substantially and without further delay.

Conceivably Labor has learned the lesson of what happens if we see a need and don't do something about it. We lose an opportunity to secure something that matters, and often the faith and trust of the team that supports us.

That is what occurred in 2010, after Kevin Rudd had seen the need to act on climate change as 'the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation', and then effectively failed to do something about it. He had led the public to a shared vision of the need to reduce carbon emissions but did not act while this was still firmly within the public gaze. 

Politicians these days believe they can only act if and while the public sees the need. If this is the case, it is up to them to recognise the difference between real and spurious needs, and convince the public accordingly.

For example, we can view the 'need' to 'stop the boats' as a false need that obscures a deeper 'real' need to help refugees in situations of desperation. The politicians manipulate perceptions of need by politically expedient fear mongering instead of promoting public virtue that is linked to real need. Decades ago we were able to see and act on real need when boat people were arriving from Vietnam. 

It's regrettable that perceptions of need change over time, and sometimes quite quickly. This is often on the basis of fatigue or fashion, rather than any objective criteria such as new information. Scientists maintain that the real need to do something about climate change is more acute now than it was five years ago, yet it is effectively regarded as unnecessary and therefore off the political agenda.

A political agenda tied to real need is the only way to ensure a better society. Unfortunately it is difficult to find leaders that can see real need and successfully legislate to do something about it.

Aged care dirty work done dirt cheap

The Federal Government's $1.2 billion plan to lift the wages of aged care workers from July is in danger of collapsing. This is due to employer dissatisfaction with an increased role for unions, and frustration that the package falls short of the Productivity Commission's recommendations for aged care reform.

The ageing of the population will require the size of the notoriously underpaid workforce to treble by 2050, and the Labor Government is offering to contribute towards pay rises above the award wage. But the industry is unhappy with the condition that employers sign up to enterprise bargaining agreements, which is deemed necessary to ensure that employers do not pocket the funds. 

An industry body argues that the plan discriminates against the 65 per cent of the aged-care sector that are small and standalone providers, with nearly half the large Catholic component of the sector unlikely to sign up. But inaction that leads to failure to reach an agreement to secure the earmarked funds amounts to discrimination against one of the most vulnerable groups of the population.

What is often regarded as 'basic' nursing care is actually a demanding and complex role, dependent upon both an often unrecognised level of skill and discretion on the part of the worker. As Sydney University health educator Professor Mary Chiarella argues, these workers are invariably the ones who make or break the dignity of a person in aged care, by how sensitively they choose to perform their role.

Despite what those who don't do this work might think, it is not basic — it is extremely psychologically complex. Cleaning patients who are soiled with excreta, blood, or vomitus, who feel ashamed of themselves for being 'dirty' or for 'losing control, and restoring both their hygiene and their sense of self worth in the process, requires the highest order of skill.

Chiarella describes much of what nurses do as 'invisible', performing the most private of functions for a patient, such as washing genitalia. Nurses do things which have the potential to strip patients of their dignity, but most of the time they choose to enhance it. Managing sensitive issues to do with the body is not given the same status as a psychiatrist handling sensitive issues of the mind, because it is considered 'dirty' menial or domestic work.

As is the case in many workplaces, there is an important link between pay and performance. If the workers are treated with dignity, they are more likely to treat the patients with dignity, which is what aged care is all about.

It's time to step up negotiations. Wage increases for aged care workers should not be allowed to become yet another laudable but failed Gillard Government initiative that an incoming Coalition government refuses to countenance because of its stated commitment to fiscal responsibility.

The dignity of older Australians is not expendable. 

Australia's 'comfortable' racism

In a week of racist and xenophobic reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings, 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones said he believed foreign students were responsible.

In the US, there was a series of racist smears on innocent dark skinned individuals sighted close to the finish line. There was no factual basis to any of the imputations, but certain media commentators and editors simply exploited the hysteria of the moment to make a facile link between dark skin and foreignness, and terrorism.

For Australians who abhor racism, this was another example of other people's prejudice. We're not racist.But this week, John Oliver, host designate of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the US, begged to differ. Hetalked about the easy racism he observed during a recent visit to this country.

'Australia turns out to be a sensational place, albeit one of the most comfortably racist places I've ever been in. They've really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper.'

The point he was making is that while signs of racism are a source of shame in the US, they're part of the culture in Australia. The difference between attitudes to racism in the two countries was highlighted in 2009 when the infamous 'Black Faces' skit on Australian television shocked visiting US crooner Harry Connick Jr. Australians simply did not understand what the fuss was about. 

Ethnic jokes and prejudice are a fact of life in every nation. But the reality that visiting Americans find it remarkable that Australians find it so easy to laugh about racial stereotypes can be explained as a product of our history as a nation. 

Racism was embodied in the Australian Constitution in 1901, and it was officially mandated by the White Australia Policy. The policy was finally dismantled in 1973 but it remains in our psyche. This analysis may be simplistic but it does provide one explanation for why 'stopping the boats' has become a political imperative. Politicians know their electorate like Alan Jones knows his audience.

We asked a US friend of Eureka Street who frequently visits Australia what he made of John Oliver's comment on Australia's 'comfortable' racism. He said that he does see racism in the political discourse here.

'The language that both parties use to talk about immigration is simply stunning to me. We certainly have those elements in the US, too, but to have both major parties speaking in such similarly hostile, dog whistle terms ... I'm just not sure that could happen in the US.'

If we consider ourselves a society rather than a country of individuals, we need to own this racism. Moreover most Australians are racist or xenophobic without realising it. If ethnic jokes amuse us, it's because we ourselves are agents of racism and xenophobia.

Turnbull's NBN will disempower the poor

If completed, Labor's rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) would represent a triumph of social inclusion. Future-proofed high speed internet access would be available inside the homes of nearly all Australians living in built-up locations irrespective of their income or social status.

The week's good news was that the Federal Coalition has decided to back down from its previously announced plan to trash the NBN if it wins the 14 September election. It now intends to retain the NBN, but using a model that discriminates against the poor.

A Coalition government would deliver high speed internet access to street cabinets (pictured) located up to a kilometre from users' homes and business premises. The need to retain Telstra's old copper wires to complete the link would reduce speeds by a factor of around three quarters.

It would remove for most Australians the option to take advantage of broadband applications such as home medical examinations for the elderly and infirm.

But super-fast access would not be lost for those who can afford the internet equivalent of a business class flight. In many locations, it will be possible for users to pay between $3000 and $5000 to secure a high-speed fibre connection from the street cabinet to their premises. The majority would still need to endure the slow speeds of the Telstra copper wire cabinet to the premises connection.

This would effectively exclude them from the health, education and other benefits of the digital economy. 

It is significant, and pleasing, that the Coalition has now acknowledged that some version of the NBN is necessary for Australia's future development. We may still lack the city metro or high speed intercity rail connections our peers in the developed world take for granted, due to the lack of vision of previous governments. But at least those of us who can pay will benefit from the new economy.

Those who cannot will make up the large new underclass of the digitally disadvantaged.

Opposition Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull frequently cites Britain's inequitable fibre to the cabinet (FTTN) as a model for Australia. It is a revealing coincidence that the Coalition made its NBN announcement during the week of the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who championed user pays as part of her often quoted principle that there is 'no such thing as society'. 

Gina's subpoena threatens press freedom

During the past week we've seen media power brokers assert their view that the Federal Government's proposed media reforms represent a massive attack on freedom of the press. Arguably these assertions are spurious and reflect fears that the changes would threaten the power of the press and other media. 

Freedom of the press is about freedom to report, not to dominate. It is a value that is cherished by serious advocates of democracy and denied by totalitarian regimes. It is a complex principle that contains a range of imperatives, some of which are contained in the Media Alliance Code of Ethics. These include upholding the confidentiality of journalistic sources where confidence is requested. 

During the week, in which the press freedom debate has raged, this core principle of reporting has been challenged by one of Australia's up and coming media barons. 

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart is pursuing legal action that has led to the issue of a subpoena to Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson, author of the unauthorised biography, Gina Rinehart — The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World. 

It demands she hand over emails, text messages, notebooks and any recordings of interviews made between Rinehart's eldest son John Hancock and the journalist since September 2011. Ferguson has until the end of this month to comply or be charged with contempt of court. A conviction could carry a jail term. She told the ABC she'd go to jail rather than violate the confidentiality principle.

There are appeals pending over other attempts to force journalists to reveal sources in various cases, including one involving Rinehart from a year ago. But the coincidence of last week's subpoena with the debate on press freedom highlights the hollow nature of the rhetoric of the media power brokers and indeed most politicians.

There has been scant coverage of Ferguson's plight in some of the major media outlets. Free speech defender Andrew Bolt, who is Rinehart's media commentator protege, was slow off the mark with a token reference. Meanwhile politicians from both the Government and Opposition have been silent with the notable exception of Malcolm Turnbull, who tweeted in Ferguson's defence. It appears other MPs are driven not by principle but fear of the media power brokers including Rinehart.

It's left to concerned citizens to fight for this important principle, which they are doing through a petition

Fear is the enemy of democracy

It's possible that future generations will judge the Bush administration's post 9/11 'War on Terror' as one of the most shameful and dangerous moments in American history. Crucial to this campaign were the 'enhanced interrogation' techniques that induced fear in order to bend the wills of those held captive. It was believed the end justified the means, and that the person's dignity, self esteem and grasp of their own reality were expendable.

We can look upon such forms of psychological torture as merely extreme manifestations of the damaging incidences of negative persuasion that are disarmingly commonplace in our society. There are still teachers and parents who prefer the pedagogy of the stick to that of the carrot. Also, political strategists are making increasing use of fear in order to persuade electors to vote for their party's candidates.

The most dramatic example of such manipulation in recent political history was the anti-Work Choices campaign that is credited with winning the 2007 Federal Election for Labor. It is widely believed that voters were paralysed by fear of losing their rights at work and their livelihood, and consequently voted the Coalition out of government because of the Work Choices legislation it had passed. 

This in turn spooked the Coalition, which is now afraid to countenance workplace reform, even though it is one of its core philosophical beliefs. Last week it shelved changes to the Fair Work legislation until the second term it hopes to win in 2016. This suggests that once fear becomes the currency, individuals and groups will abandon their values and hitherto perceptions of reality in a desperate attempt to avoid the imagined catastrophe.

For its part, Labor was thoroughly disarmed by the susceptibility of the population to the myths surrounding the Coalition's ongoing 'Stop the boats' rhetoric. It subsequently wound back the reforms to asylum seeker policy that it introduced during its first term of office.

Labor adopted the Coalition's terminology, embracing the delusion that 'breaking the people smugglers' business model' was the only way it could deal with our share of the worldwide challenge of refugee flows. 

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison showed last week that a population paralysed by fear of dangerous and illegal boat people ending up in its community could easily accept a premise that was blatantly untrue, and act and vote accordingly. After Morrison called for a suspension of asylum seekers being released into the community on the basis of a single violent incident.

Fairfax Media pointed out that these people are about 45 times less likely to be charged with a crime than members of the public.

The fact that the manipulative and misleading rhetoric of a fear mongering politician appears to have more influence and credibility than a set of statistics available on the Bureau of Statistics website and reported by a major newspaper group, is a worrying sign for democracy. The press may be free, but it is impotent in a climate of induced fear in which our democratic freedoms are an illusion.