News managers at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have struck back in response to my complaint, filed six weeks ago and reported on TMS, over their coverage of Australia’s Defence White Paper, which provides for a continuing rise in spending on the military at three percent above the rate of inflation.
As expected, they’ve come out fighting, with all the crushing might of an inter-galactic battle-cruiser. None of my points has the slightest validity, it seems: the ABC is fully satisfied with its reporting. “When the Government’s White Paper was released in May”, chirped a protocol droid from Audience and Consumer Affairs, “ABC Radio current affairs broadcast a wide range of perspectives on the matter, including the government, opposition and independent analysts. The ABC does not believe it has unduly favoured any one view on these matters”.
One of these analysts, Paul Dibb – formerly a public servant responsible for drafting a previous Defence White Paper, now an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University – described the present draft legislation as having performed a “lateral arabesque”. The droid seemed to been programmed to emulate this manoeuvre, since he carefully avoided giving an explicit answer to my specific question: why none of those chosen to comment on air on this subject had put the case for a reduction in defence spending, instead.
A second email, pressing this point, was met with another devastating volley of return fire, from deep inside ABC Headquarters, the legendary ‘Death Star’ on Sydney’s Harris Street (all right, I’ll stop that now). A total of ten links were supplied, to the transcripts of individual items broadcast on Radio National, to back up the ABC’s claims. So whose were these voices, supplying balance in the treatment of this story, and what did they say?
Where better to start than with the official Opposition, the Liberal-National Coalition, beaten at the ballot box just eighteen months earlier, whose blink-and-you’d-miss-him leader, Brendan Nelson, had formerly served as Defence Minister? The White Paper “sets Australia’s defence capability in the right direction”, Dr Nelson told Peter Cave, presenter of The World Today, on Monday May 4.
In a parliamentary system, it is the prime function of the Opposition to oppose, of course, and Malcolm Turnbull, who took over as leader after Dr Nelson’s ill-fated tenure, has even attracted some criticism for not being more constructive towards the government’s agenda. This was one topic, however, on which such a charge could not be leveled. After all, as Dr Nelson helpfully pointed out, the draft bill “basically restates commitments that had already been made by the previous Howard government in the 2007 strategic update. It’s really an extension of that that we’re seeing”. (Howard was the Liberal leader before our Brendan got his hands on the wheel. Keep up at the back there).
Nelson commented on the feasibility of saving billions of dollars from the costs of running the Australian Defence Force, to pay for more “front-end” capabilities, but nowhere was it pointed out that this was in the context of continuing rises in overall spend. The average listener, tuning in with what’s been called the “distracted gaze” typical of our post-modern condition, could have been forgiven for inferring that defence spending was actually being cut: the opposite of the case.
Next up was Allan Behm, billed, by Canberra reporter Sabra Lane in a contribution to the AM program on May 2, as an “independent consultant on risk and strategy”. At least the presenter’s script, teeing up the package, specified that Behm is “a former Defence Department Strategic Chief”. Whether the Australian public would be prepared to foot the steadily increasing bill to implement the White Paper was, Behm said, “a conversation the government will have to have with the electorate”; neither he nor anyone else was asked to comment on the substance of that conversation, however. Still no-one, then, putting the argument for defence spending to be reduced, rather than raised.
The initial complaint was triggered by an episode of the drive-time PM show, when a procurement plan to buy the war-fighting kit on the government’s shopping list was unveiled, and the same Sabra Lane reported from its launch in Adelaide, with contributions from just two speakers: the Defence Minister, John Faulkner and his deputy, Greg Combet.
Never mind, the ABC say: the next morning, we interviewed Kim Beazley! So, what did the former Labor Defence Minister have to say? Ah yes: “Minister Faulkner and Minister Combet [are] the two men in Australia I envy most”. He repeated Behm’s observation that it might be difficult, given the general fiscal position, to persuade Australians of the merits of raising defence spending, but opined that it could be done, as long as savings were simultaneously made by cutting bureaucracy as ministers planned. The difference between this view and that of the government itself was, no doubt, clear to ABC cognoscenti; perhaps, one day, they will explain to the rest of us.
Attack of the drones
Then there was a long interview with Brookings Institution fellow Peter W Singer, broken up into two chunks and broadcast on successive evenings on PM on May 5 and 6. Singer spoke critically about the increasing use of drones by the US to carry out air strikes, and drew attention to the discrepancy between the “message” policy-makers in Washington believed they were, thereby, sending to recalcitrant rebel groups in far-off countries, and the way it was decoded on the ground. “It makes us look like the evil empire from Star Wars”, he told presenter Mark Colvin, “and the other side look like the rebel alliance”.
This provided an interesting general context: more interrogative, in many ways, than the debate being conducted by the ABC over Australia’s defence plans, but that is rather the point. Without relating this philosophizing back to what is actually going on here and now, its potential traction, as a contribution to that debate, is lost. Look in the transcripts for any discussion of the implications for Australia in continuing to align itself with a military machine relying increasingly on remote-control killing devices to attack Pakistani villages, and you will look in vain.
Hugh White was another ‘independent analyst’ to feature in the ABC coverage of the White Paper itself – “White on the White paper”, how very droll – but his view, too, differed little, if at all, from that of the government. “The risk”, he told reporter Michael Edwards, on the May 4 episode of AM, “is that as China’s power grows, as America’s primacy erodes, Asia will move from a very stable US-dominated era into something less stable, more contested and potentially more violent”.
Which, given that America’s attempts to dominate East Asia have brought us the Vietnam war, including the carpet-bombing of Cambodia which laid the ground for the rise of Pol Pot; the Korean war, which bequeathed today’s unpredictable security situation on the Korean peninsula, along with decades-long support for dictators in Indonesia and the Philippines, might be another message understood very differently by many on the receiving end.
This, at least, was an attempt to address the central issue raised by the White Paper itself: is China to be regarded as a potential threat, which Australia should be equipping itself to resist militarily? White – another defence official-turned-Professor, from the ‘Strategic Studies department’ at the Australian National University – also put the case in favour of higher military expenditure in response: “It seems to me likely that we’ll need to spend a larger share of our GDP on defence”.
Among White’s credentials is a stint as inaugural director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and one of those who followed him, the Institute’s ‘Operations and Capability Program Director’ Andrew Davies, was another contributor to this same broadcast. At last, a truly independent voice, I hear you cry. Actually no – ASPI is funded by, er, the Department of Defence. Its job is to provide “contestability in advice to ministers”.
This turned out to play an important role in a row behind the scenes, which broke briefly into public prints as tempers frayed in Canberra, over the conceptual framing of the White Paper. The view that security horizons in the Asia-Pacific region are closing in on Australia, with rivals nurturing malign intent now surrounding the country and stepping up their preparations for war, is the ASPI stock-in-trade. But various other voices were raised in opposition to this. The government’s own Defence Intelligence Organisation does not believe that China intends to begin throwing its weight around, viewing its military build-up as, instead, essentially defensive in nature.
The Phantom Menace
Peter Singer made the point that drone aircraft had dropped as much ordnance on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the previous 12 months as rained down on Kosovo ten years earlier, but with a tiny fraction of the political fallout. During that episode, of course, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed, in what was described as an ‘error’ by NATO. Today, the US is busy escalating its own military build-up in the Asia-Pacific, notably with the multi-billion dollar upgrade of its naval and air bases on the island of Guam.
This raises what is perhaps the most important argument against Australia’s own escalation, comprising, as it does, the acquisition of 12 submarines fitted with land-attack cruise missiles, eight new frigates, 24 naval helicopters and 100 combat aircraft. It can only add to the perception of threat, and trigger further escalations by way of response. The ‘Strategic Studies’ orthodoxy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That view surfaced obliquely, in a question raised in another Sabra Lane piece on the PM program of May 7, but the speaker chosen to address it was Air Marshal Angus Houston, Chief of the Defence Staff, who – surprisingly – pooh-poohed it.
The alternative is for Australia to help address the root causes of instability in its own neighbourhood, by stepping up genuine cooperation on human rights and more equitable arrangements for sharing the benefits of globalised trade. I say ‘alternative’ because cooperation depends on trust, and you have to show you trust your interlocutor before you can have a dialogue: shaking hands requires putting down your shield. Preparations for war-fighting need to be scaled down, not scaled up.
The Australian National University – yes, the same ANU that opens the door of academic respectability to apologists for the military-industrial complex – also commissioned a comprehensive opinion poll recently, which revealed that a majority of Australians now don’t want any further increases in defence spending. Of the interviewees in the material the ABC drew to my attention, in addressing the complaint, all of those who gave a view on the issue – Messrs Nelson, White, Davies, Beazley, Behm, Houston and Dibb, as well as Ministers Faulkner and Combet themselves – stand on the opposite side of that argument.
To refresh our memory of articles 5.2.2 (d) and (e) in the ABC’s Editorial Policies that cover such complaints:
(d) Be impartial. Editorial judgements are based on news values, not for example on political, commercial or sectional interests or personal views. Do not unduly favour one perspective over others.
(e) Be balanced. Balance will be sought but may not always be achieved within a single program or publication; it will be achieved as soon as reasonably practicable and in an appropriate manner. It is not essential to give all sides equal time. As far as possible, present principal relevant views on matters of importance.
I asked the Empire to “inform me of any occasion, in any of your coverage of this story, on any radio or TV program, when an opponent of increased defence spending has commented”. All the evidence supplied in return has supported the complaint, not refuted it.
The case will, I am told, now be “escalated” to the Complaint Review Executive. It may conceivably find its way, in the end, across the desk of ABC Board members. I met one recently: Professor Julianne Schultz of the Centre for Public Culture and Ideas at Griffith University, who was speaking at a conference in Melbourne. From the floor, I asked her why it was impossible to hear, on any ABC output, the case for a reduction in defence spending, or indeed the case for pulling Australian troops out of Afghanistan. I must be wrong, she replied airily: such views can often be heard on the ABC. Let’s hope she and others are open to be convinced by the evidence, as distinct from their own assumptions.
What can you do, in the meantime? Follow the 10 links supplied by the protocol droid for yourself, and make up your own mind:
If you feel it’s warranted, add to my complaint with one of your own, by email to:
And may the force be with you!