I’ve twice watched the Q&A section on Zaky Mallah, and can’t come to quite the same level of indignation as our Prime Minister. But two things stand out. First, the Q&A host fed a question to him designed to provoke or embarrass the Government representative on the panel (who I thought did very well), and second, after that Mr Mallah was uncontrollable.

Mr Mallah was not a great choice by the ABC for whatever role he had to play. At best he is a muddled, mixed-up young man who has a great deal of growing up to do. He did spend two years waiting for a trial for a terrorist charge from which he was finally acquitted, apparently because the timing of the offences occurred before the law could effectively operate in his case. He was convicted on a lesser charge. He seems to have tweeted what could be described as ‘sexual violence’ against two female commentators. It isn’t clear whether he is a would-be terrorist or a terrorist hater. Why would any sane broadcaster put him on air in a forum like Q&A?

The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, had already decided to have an internal review of Q&A. After the Mallah fiasco, he has agreed to an external review. If you scroll back on the Net you will find that Q&A has been complained about over the past ten years or so because of a perceived left-wing bias. I don’t watch it as a rule, and when I have been a viewer I felt it had been stacked in favour of what you could call the ABC/progressive/left/ALP-Green view of the world. Maybe I’m over-sensitive, but I’ve had a long experience of all the mass media, and I am aware of my own prejudices.

Heaven knows what the external reviewer will report, but I expect that things will go on as before. It’s very hard to change the culture — and what would you put in its place? Malcolm Turnbull, the responsible Minister, has tried to calm things down, but made a couple of remarks that sent me off to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983. I have written quite a lot about the ABC over the past few years (for example, here), doing my best to suggest that its practices don’t match its own Code of Practice or its Editorial Polices (as in my article in the Sydney Institute Quarterly, 41, December 2012, which you can read here). And I’ve written to Mark Scott, trying to get him to see how he and his show is viewed by worried sympathisers outside. All I received, three times, were anodyne responses from an underling.

In talking about the Q&A program in which Mallah appeared Mr Turnbull passed by the ABC’s own Code of Practice and the Editorial Policies, and pointed instead to what the ABC’s Act says. The Charter of the Corporation includes these sub-sections:

(1)  The functions of the Corporation are:

    (a)  to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high    standard… that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community;

Further, Section 8, The Duties of the Board, says among other things that the Board is

 (c)  to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism;

Now if I were the external reviewer I think I would find it hard to say that the Q&As that I have seen (and of course for this purpose I would really have to view hundreds of them) were accurate and impartial, let alone that they reflected the cultural diversity of the Australian community. But, the defendant would plead, you have to look at the totality of the news and cultural affairs that is presented by the Corporation, for Q&A is only one program.

That is a much bigger task, but one could ask for examples of a program that appears stacked the other way, presenting what you might call the Coalition/IPA/climate realist/market perspective, though these are perspectives rather than a single point of view. To the best of my knowledge there isn’t one. You will get the occasional right-wing person on Lateline and Q&A, but there is no systematic portrayal of that part of our cultural diversity that sees economic growth as a good thing, is not all that happy about gay marriage, is glad that the boats have stopped, doesn’t think about climate change much and isn’t seeing any signs of it, is not worried about species extermination, and votes for parties other than Labor or the Greens. Add them all up, and my guess is that there is a majority there.

The more I look at what the ABC actually does, in the domain of news and cultural affairs, I come back to the view that the staff must see their role as to preserve what they see as the correct perspective on Australia and life generally. They perhaps see themselves as holding the bastion against Murdoch and his crew, flying the banner of humanity’ against those of ‘greed’, ‘destruction’ and ‘over-population’. And they perhaps cheer each other up as they do so. Perhaps they think that their real and proper audience consists of people like them.

The trouble is, that’s not what is said in the Code of Practice, or the Editorial Policies, or the Act. There the desired expression is one of impartiality, accuracy, and cultural diversity. It seems that cultural diversity is shown by having indigenous or immigrant views expressed on radio and television. But culture is much wider than that, and certainly includes political and ideological  differences.

I wrote in my Sydney Institute piece that the ABC Board seemed unable to deal with the perspectives of the staff, even when John Howard added new people to it who might be thought sympathetic to his point of view. Ron Brunton, who did serve on the Board in that period, felt that the Board was systematically flanneled by the management.

No doubt the Coalition would love to have a more accommodating national broadcaster rather than the one it presently has. To fiddle with it, as its supporters constantly request, would only be to stir up the community. But when the ABC itself commits yet another boo-boo, and one that goes round the nation in seconds, it is opening itself to surgery, without any say in the choice of surgeon.

Even now there is less acceptance from within the organisation than there ought to be, that the ABC did anything wrong. Mark Scott has explained that the ABC is almost obliged to put critical people to air, in the interest of freedom of expression: At times, free speech principles mean giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree…

I agree, and I’ll believe him, too, when I see Professor Bob Carter on the ABC explaining, in a half-hour well-supported prime-time program, how the fuss about global warming is grossly over-stated.

Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Felix Hayman says:

    You know Don, what has frustrated me by this has been no one no one, has looked at this event from a pragmatic point of view.As an ex insider what this reveals to me is the weak level of research that that TV has come to in recent years and this has been due to accepting journalism graduates who cannot research their way out of a paper bag at the best of times.In my day (yes, sorry about this) a researcher who missed out on a crucial fact would have been figuratively kicked from pillar to post by his/her executive producer. However, there seems to be a need to mirror the kind of so called journalism that A Current Affair produces (Haven’t these kids seen “Frontline”?) where the sensational rules. When I look at ABC Current Affairs and News I am not just looking at what burbles out of Sydney and Melbourne I see a wide ranging points of view from many areas. Just check out what comes out of Bega, or Broome or Alice Springs or Cairns and you will see a very wide of ideas across Local radio and Radio National as well as TV. Yes, I know everyone thinks that capital city television rules but it is a big organisation and in rural areas(in particular) the ABC articulates a vision across ideological divides. Just go out there and listen

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Felix,

      There is a weak level of research not only in TV, but in the newspapers as well. There aren’t enough people, or enough money, to do investigative work seriously. So we get a lot of fluff, and recycled media releases (sometimes not even recycled). It seems increasingly the case that the websites, of which there are now millions, are where the best debate and the best research appear. But it is hard to know where to go.

    • 70s Playboy says:

      Hi Felix – nice to see you here. None of us seem to be able to let go of our dark past under Aunty’s skirts. Phil Muscatello

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Or even more counter to the ABC’s “regressives”, Geert Wilders (for whom I carry no flag – but his appearance in a discussion would certainly demonstrate some balance in the ABC’s presentations of social and political issue.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, I think Felix Hayman has a good point, that the rot is as ascribable to a lapse in rigour at the factory floor as it is to a collusion of attitudes at the top, and one sees this lapse of rigour across the board in modern life from schoolteaching to public service report preparation. In fact, the rot is a nexus of these two things, and the quiet bias toward ‘running a line’ rather than ‘making a case’.
    Some years ago Maxine McKew, a most incisive interviewer and one from whom I usually felt I learnt something, interviewed Pauline Hansen. The interview was aggressive, Hansen characteristically feisty and outspoken. Then she was curtailed and McKew turned to a panel of experts who had watched the interview and proceeded to elicit an ‘analysis’ of the ‘Hansen Phenomenon’ from them. I was disgusted by this Soviet-like pillorying of Hansen, and did not trust Maxine again. In fairness, someone did tell me that MM later said she regretted this event more than anything eklse she had done in journalism, but until I have confirmation of that, I think I have seen what the National Broadcaster is capable of doing in terms of ‘show trials’and how quietly an institution with a brilliant reputation for guarding freedom of speech and openness of mind can grow over-conscious of itself as a custodian and censor itself accordingly. Its record on AGW is a glaring example of this, so I strongly endorse your last sentence, Don.

  • Dasher says:

    I agree Don. I am convinced the ABC and their supporters see the role of the ABC as balancing the forces of darkness in commercial media even though this is clearly not their role. I simply cannot believe that they are not aware of their left wing bias ( they are not dopes) which makes the smug groupthink on social and political issues (e.g. climate change) all the more galling. If I had the choice of not paying to fund the ABC I would be more relaxed but of course I do not.

  • aert driessen says:

    Thanks Don, an excellent piece. I am not in an overly strong position to criticise because I have turned them off in my home, beginning with ABC Radio (666). Female presenters, particularly one, shape their programs, including talk-back, as if they want to ‘mother’ everyone to make sure no ‘harm’ will ever come their way, blah blah — all a bit sickening. But I still watch some ABC TV and all I can conclude from that is that here the female presenters (7:30 and Lateline) are the opposite — rude, aggressive, and always interrupting people trying to answer the questions put to them. Both of them actually apologise in advance of their interruptions so they must realise that it is rude. So why do it, other than for the reason that they want their views to dominate the interviews. But this aggression is only directed to those with conservative values. And just to make sure that I’m not seen as a misogynist, I find the likes of Jones, O’Brien, and Cassidy even more appalling. Everybody agreeing with ‘left, socialist even Marxist, anti-market, anti-growth, anti-capitalist’ values gets not only encouragement but also plenty of free kicks. I would value your opinion on why the ABC should not be sold. They are simply not capable of meeting their charter obligations. There are alternative ways of tuning to ‘News’ and the arts can be supported via grants. Surely there are better ways to spend $1 billion.

  • Mike says:

    I am convinced the ABC is a victim of what some call the Australian disease. That is you reverse the normal organisational structure and then try to run from the bottom up. In other words it is not the management that is running the ABC they are being told what to do by the bottom rungs of the organisation. The staff determine contact according to their personal ideological viewpoint. Surveys have shown that inner city green voters are the core of the staff. The Australian disease is what killed Holden and Ford in Australia and it is well on its way to do the same to the ABC.

    I used to be someone that watched a lot of the ABC political commentary but no more. The boycott by Conservative politicians has started will it stop that’s up to the ABC. What if no Conservative will appear on the ABC we will that put them?

  • Margaret says:

    Chaps there’s always the consolation of The Bolt Report which has been on 10 for four years.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      If you wanted something like that, yes. But I don’t need it — there’s enough of that on the Internet.

      I suppose there are three points that stick with me. One is that the ABC is not impartial, but it’s Act and its own policies say that is its goal. The second is that it doesn’t appear to see the problem. The third is that everybody pays for it whether or not they watch it.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Oh dear — ‘its Act’

      • David says:

        Don,

        So how does all this fit with

        “The Growth of Knowledge depends entirely on disagreement” ?

        Beige is boring. 🙂

        • Don Aitkin says:

          There needs to be more than one perspective, doesn’t there, so that people can see that there might be an alternative (or two), and thereby agree or disagree.

      • margaret says:

        Its GOAL is to be impartial. Goals are sometimes unattainable. I’m not a blindfolded supporter of the ABC and I’m not a fan of Tony Jones. Q&A is very hit and miss and often a shout fest but on the whole I’m happy for my past taxes to have paid for most of ABC’s programming over the years.

        (Well that reads as if it was my taxes that paid for most of the programming when I was a teacher in public schools in the days when it was a poorly paid profession, a library officer in a public library and then a school, in between, stints of being a full time mother – so probably I paid not much tax in comparison to many but I didn’t avoid it like the big end of town is able to do) – end of ranting digression.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I would say that a systematic failure to be impartial in certain areas is more than you are suggesting. But it all depends on one’s own prejudices.. For example, I am unpersuaded that there is anything like a scientific consensus on ‘climate change’, whereas David Karoly, for example, may well think there is, and that people like me are fundamentally misinformed. If he has the weight behind him (supported by the AAS) then the ABC might well say, well, there’s the Academy supporting him. Why aren’t we?

          To which my answer is that the ABC needs to be monitoring what is happening and adjusting its perspectives as information changes. I don’t see any sign of that. Its positions are twenty years old and more, it seems to me.

  • Gordon Watson says:

    Another brilliant look into an important issue. Thank you for sharing Don. Your argument is hard to fault.

  • David says:

    Don,

    Tim Wilson the Human Rights Commissioner has also used social media to advocate violence against innocent people. Should be allowed to appear on the ABC?

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You state, Don, that you “can’t come to quite the same level of indignation as our Prime Minister” re the ABC’s Q&A recent episode. Quite a reasonable perspective, in my view.

    Here are a few miscellaneous points.

    Zaky Mallah’s central message was that he is very opposed to ISIS but his tweets about two female journalists were probably more offensive than his Q&A contributions.

    He has been in at least two previous Q&A audiences without asking a question on camera.

    As an Australian citizen, who has been in difficulty with the law and with ASIO, he is still allowed to travel on public transport, go into shopping centres, attend sporting fixtures etc.

    If you look at the Henderson Media reports, Andrew Bolt, Piers etc, or if you read Paul Kelly, Sharri Markson in ‘The Australian’ there is a fascination with the ABC but also a strong antagonism to its very existence, especially in the digital area, and one senses that many people would like to see it privatised or neutered in many ways. There is almost, at times, a hysteria about its lack of objectivity.

    It’s also the case that on issues such as climate change and asylum seekers, there is a dogma and one-sidedness about ABC reporting that is obvious to many viewers.

    With presenters such as Tony Jones, Emma Albierici, Leigh Sales and Sarah Ferguson there is a strong propensity for ‘gotya’ moments and sometimes in their manner there is an aggression, obtuseness, refusal to listen and self-righteousness, in vary mixes, that rightly gets up the nostrils of people such as Gerard Henderson, although a little bit over the top at times.

    Tony Abbott was almost euphoric in parliament about the ABC after ‘The Killing Season’ and one senses that he would love the ABC if it always provided him with such ballast.

    The ABC can be hopeless at times but as a country we would be much poorer without it.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      What to do about the ABC is really quite perplexing, and I don’t have anything like an answer. Change needs to come from within, with a recognition that there are other points of view, and that self-righteousness gets in the way of intellect. But how will it come from within?

  • Fess says:

    Well said. I have noted repeated comments that Mallah is against ISIS. That seems to be because he supports the rival nut-jobs in the al-nusra front. Nice – the ABC chose poorly, as you said.

  • JimboR says:

    Seems they still haven’t learnt their lesson. Last night’s 7:30 gave a platform to a convicted racial vilifier to tell us we weren’t racist.

    • dlb says:

      Next thing is they will be letting climate deniers on the air, anyone would think they are giving some token balance to their reporting.

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