At the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, it appears to be a case of in with the new, out with the old and bury the dead.
Ita Buttrose, who became ABC chairwoman in February, is a distinct improvement on her predecessors James Spigelman and Justin Milne. She is more willing to accept that the public broadcaster is not without fault and, while fulfilling the role of the ABC defender-in-chief, makes some concessions to its critics.
Here’s an example. In March 2015, I drew Spigelman’s attention to the fact one of his predecessors, Richard Downing, in 1975 had called on Australians “to understand” pederasts and that he had declared “in general, men will sleep with young boys”.
There was controversy following the ABC radio program Lateline in July 1975 doing an episode titled Pederasty. It was presented by self-declared pedophile Richard Neville, who invited three pederasts into the ABC Sydney studio to describe their sex lives. A couple of underage boys also were interviewed for the program. Talbot Duckmanton, the ABC’s managing director at the time, was concerned about the program. But he was overridden by Downing, who supported the program being aired. The ABC did not report the matter to NSW police.
None of this should have come as a surprise to the ABC. After all, the issue is covered in KS Inglis’s semi-official history, This is the ABC (MUP, 1983). So, when I wrote to Spigelman, I expected that he would reply along the following lines: “Thanks for drawing this to my attention. I repudiate Downing’s statements on this matter; they do not reflect the view of the ABC.”
Instead, Spigelman abruptly wrote that he could “think of nothing polite to say” about my suggestion that he should disassociate the contemporary ABC from Downing’s remarks and, sneeringly, said his ABC position “is not an apostolic succession”.
I wrote again on this issue to Milne not long after he took over as ABC chairman. A staff member responded on his behalf stating “the ABC feels there is nothing to be gained in revisiting this matter” since “the program and subsequent debate took place a long time ago”. This overlooked the fact ABC journalists would not adopt a similar position if Downing’s statements had been made a long time ago by a former Anglican or Catholic bishop.
In June I took up the matter with Milne’s successor. The tone of the response was quite different. Buttrose said she did not know Downing and “would not presume to speculate on his views or intentions”. However, she said she did “not condone the statement you refer to that has been attributed to him in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 19 July 1975”.
Buttrose did not address the fact Downing called on Australians “to understand” pederasts, although she did quote from another part of Downing’s letter that was published in the Herald on July 19, 1975. The full correspondence between the ABC chairwoman and me is published in my Media Watch Dog blog.
So the situation is this. The three recent ABC chairs were asked about Downing’s statements of July 1975. Two went into denial. Buttrose, however, disassociated herself from the statement attributed to Downing (and which he never rejected before his death in 1975). Clearly Buttrose and the current ABC board are willing to address controversial issues in a constructive and courteous manner. That’s new.
And now for the old. Barrie Cassidy, a fine journalist and one of the founders of the successful ABC television program Insiders, stepped down as the show’s presenter a couple of months ago. It is expected that he will do some work with the ABC in what’s shaping up as a busy semi-retirement.
Earlier this month Cassidy, now an adjunct professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, gave a speech titled The Decline of Political Moralities. For a while Cassidy was Bob Hawke’s press secretary and generally was regarded as a social democrat rather than a leftist. Yet Cassidy’s speech at RMIT was close to a rant aimed at conservative leaders of the US, Britain and Australia.
First up, Cassidy attacked US President Donald Trump’s “appalling individual behaviour”. Fair enough. But what about that of former president Bill Clinton? There was not a word. And it is not clear that Hawke’s personal behaviour would have passed muster with the #MeToo movement.
Sounding like a page from the Green Left Weekly, Cassidy declared that “the world is sleepwalking to an environmental catastrophe”, and stated that the Trump administration “has been an attack on decency and respect for others”. He warned Scott Morrison not to sign up with Trump-style “warmongering”, agreed with the proposition that US Republicans were “white nationalists” and said the British Conservative Party under Boris Johnson’s leadership had a “total lack of ideas”.
It’s fair to say that Cassidy’s views would be shared by many of his former colleagues at the ABC. That of itself is not a problem. The problem is that the public broadcaster is a conservative-free zone without any conservative presenters on its prominent outlets. There is room for many Cassidys at the ABC, it’s just that there should be some conservatives as well.
How did the present situation come about? The answer can be found among the dead. The Sydney Morning Herald recently published an obituary on Jon “Darce” Cassidy written by, among others, leftist historian Mark Aarons. Born in 1941, Jon Cassidy was one of a group of left-wing activists appointed to the ABC under the tutelage leftist activist Allan Ashbolt a half-century ago. They were called “Ashbolt’s kindergarten”. Jon Cassidy is named by Inglis in this group.
From a kindergarten, a large soviet grew. When Neville’s Pederasty program caused a stir in 1975, Jon Cassidy as a member of the ABC staff union went to the barricades in support of Downing and Neville, and Lateline continued on its leftist ways. The controversy is still extant today.