There would be no “me” if not for the ABC

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of the value of our public institutions, as embodied in familiar faces.

Anthony Green on election night

Every election in Australia, the figure of Anthony Green appears as a friendly reliable face on the ABC to help us navigate political changes. He is like a classic transitional object which always remains the same, despite the trauma of uncertainty.

Our world is now facing changes far greater than we experience on election night. Thankfully, the ABC has provided another familiar face in Dr Norman Swan, the host of Radio National’s Health Report. As we as answering some of the 1,000s of questions that come through to his Coronacast podcast, he also reflects on the very platform that enables people like him to exist.

The founder of Juice Media was interviewing Norman Swan about the coronavirus when the conversation turned to what this crisis tells us about the importance of trustworthy information. Norman Swan then states that there is nothing special about his own intelligence, what matters is that there was an institution like the ABC who could develop his expertise over the decades: ‘There would be no “me”, if not for the ABC.’

Swan contrasts what would happen if he was working with a commercial network: “If I worked on commercial television they’d have me selling cholesterol-lowering margarine because that’s how they make their money.”

In her Sydney lectures, US sociologist Bonnie Honig spoke about the importance of “public things” in our democracies. These were those shared objects that often have little immediate purpose but offer a taken-for-granted guarantee of connectedness, such as a public park, telephone booths and figures like Big Bird in US public broadcasting. These public things are often threatened by the forces of neoliberalism that would reduce common goods to private interests.

Bob Hawke and Molly Meldrum

The Australian Broadcasting Association is one of those “public things” that has underpinned Australian democracy. Since its inception in 1929, the ABC has acquired the familiar name of “Aunty”. Like a big family, my generation came together every Sunday evening to watch Molly Meldrum on Countdown help us navigate the wild ride of social change in the late twentieth century.

While the Coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc on our health and economies, it is also the time to reconsider what is valuable to us. Without the lure of holiday cruises and public spectacles, we may be reminded of the support of family, friends and neighbours the underpins our well-being.

At the same time, we may appreciate the figures from the broadcast era that provide a reliable picture of the world. Those columnists and trolls that played with our emotions in social media may now seem like strangers seeking to take advantage of our desires. We seek refuge instead at home with aunty and the uncle Anthony and Norman we’ve learned to rely on over time.

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