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On balance, Aunty is unworthy of our hard-earned

Somebody wrote recently that the ABC's critics would never have raised their voices had the state broadcaster leaned Right rather than Left.

This prompted an examination of conscience. I found myself free of mortal sin and comfortably able to grant myself absolution for minor lapses.

In clearing myself of guilt, I took into account a reluctance to switch on Fox for fear of its uncaged extraterrestrial Bill O'Reilly eating my brain. O'Reilly is a gruesome example of the consequences of searching overzealously for a right-wing Phillip Adams.

Having decided, in pectore, to restrict myself to one ping a year at the ABC, it is financial rather than political considerations that cause me to expend my ping ration this early in 2006.

"Give us more money," was the parting message from ABC managing director Russell Balding as he left for another job. Even when they are neither coming nor going, ABC chiefs ask for more. The present bid is for an additional $60million over three years.

I see no reason why we should cough up. Nobody is putting big money into free-to-air television. It's a mature business, as investment bankers euphemistically describe enterprises with dim growth prospects. James Packer is reportedly keen to offload Channel 9, and John Fairfax Ltd has apparently decided that it won't be on to it.

Certainly nobody is writing cheques to boost free-to-air news and current affairs programs. It is they, not print, that will take the heaviest hit from the delivery of news by internet and round-the-clock satellite TV services.

David Marr, who brings welcome wit and daring to Left causes, noted in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald that a Reader's Digest poll ranked the ABC sixth among the most trusted government services - 18 places above federal parliament.

Marr has a writer's eye for detail so he is likely to be aware that neither parliament nor the ABC is a government service. I guess he is trying - with a quick, even idle, wave of the hand - to expose the effrontery of our agent, the majority parliamentary party, in denying a more highly esteemed institution the money it wants. Not to mention our agent's attempts, as Marr puts it, to bust the ABC's culture.

In my opinion, the ABC is undeserving of support because of the grand opportunity it has thrown away. Free of pressure from advertisers, unconcerned with ratings, standard bearer for Australian cultural activity in its early days, the ABC might have prepared itself with a rock-solid record of impartiality to create a place for itself as one of the arbiters of authenticity and reliability amid the torrent of information and misinformation engulfing us.

Print newspapers with online attachments are the anchoring element in the 4500 sources incessantly scanned by Google's up-to-the-minute news summary. Papers that have established a reputation for probity and reliability over the years serve as third umpires in helping us determine what we might believe amid the information cacophony, including the buzz of countless blogs.

This doesn't mean reliable newspapers are tediously contrapuntal, or lacking a point of view, or free, even, of specific biases. The New York Times is untrustworthy on Catholicism and George W. Bush. Even under the ownership of an ultra outsider, Britain's The Times retains a ruling-class outlook. Japanese think the Asahi Shimbun tacks to the Left but it is sufficiently broad in its scope to satisfy more than 20 million readers.

The point is that reliable newspapers know when to rein in their prejudices, are generous with space for countervailing opinion and quick to identify news that needs to be delivered without embellishment.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, is sophisticated and informative. The Jerusalem Post, while committed to Israel's cause, is an excellent source of expert commentary on Middle Eastern affairs.

Not surprisingly, two of the steadiest, if fairly narrowly focused, information bearers are The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Their pragmatic readers know what they want: cut the crap and get it right every time.

By committing itself almost exclusively to an advocacy/adversary culture - right down to dark-green propaganda in children's programs and miniseries "drama" designed to get Jeff Kennett - the ABC has forsaken the credibility required of third umpires in the information era.

It is a role the ABC needed. Since it accomplished, admirably, its foundation task of bringing radio broadcasting to Australia in the absence of entrepreneurs willing - and financially able - to take the risk, the state broadcaster's mission statements have sounded pretty fuzzy.

When advocacy/adversary positions dominate your repertoire, you make many wrong calls on important issues. Its record disqualifies the ABC for the late career opportunity to be an arbiter. The information tide is likely to sweep it up as just another blog, albeit a large, very expensive one.

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