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.