The most recent example of ABC introspection fired up when Q+A presenter Stan Grant wrote an article on the ABC website. The date was Friday, May 19. Grant objected to the way the ABC had handled the criticism, plus social media trolling, that he had received following his appearance in a 45-minute panel discussion at the start of the ABC’s television broadcast of the coronation of King Charles on the evening of May 6.
It turned out that this was yet another ABC stacked panel. There were criticisms of the Crown’s role in colonialism in general and of the monarchy in particular by co-presenter Julia Baird and panellists Craig Foster (head of the Australian Republic Movement), Grant and Indigenous lawyer Teela Reid. Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser, a monarchist, made little impact on the discussion.
Nearly two weeks had passed before Grant took a stand. He wrote that he “was invited to contribute to the ABC’s coverage as part of a discussion about the legacy of the monarchy”. A valid point – since Grant was in no way responsible for the composition of the panel. That decision was made by ABC producers.
Grant’s stinging attack was not on his considered critics or even on the anonymous trolls that plague social media – but, rather, on his employer. He complained that the ABC producers who invited him on the program had failed to publicly refute what he referred to as “the lies written or spoken about me”. Grant described this as an “institutional failure”.
What to do? Here was Grant, one of the most prominent and most influential Indigenous Australians, accusing ABC senior management of institutional failure.
Justin Stevens (effectively the ABC’s second-in-command in his capacity as director of news, analysis and investigations) rushed to print with a media release that stated “responsibility for the coverage lies with ABC News, not with Stan Grant”.
That was on May 19. Last Sunday, ABC managing director David Anderson sent out an email to staff apologising to Grant. Then, on Monday, Stevens took part in an 18-minute interview with Raf Epstein on the ABC Radio Melbourne Drive program. Shortly after, he fronted up for another, albeit shorter, interview with David Lipson on ABC Radio’s PM.
It was soon evident that the ABC had decided to change the discussion. Stevens told Epstein that he had personally apologised to Grant and felt “devastated that he feels let down by us”. Then Stevens said, apparently for the first time, that Grant had been a “reluctant participant” in the ABC discussion that preceded the coronation. Stevens went on to say that he regretted “not having done this sort of interview 10 days ago”.
In other words, Stevens conceded that the decision to give Grant the opportunity to present his views on the monarchy – which are set out in clarity in his recent book The Queen is Dead (HarperCollins) – was a conscious decision of ABC management.
No problem here – except that Grant’s articulate views were not strongly contested by one or more panellists.
Stevens then said “we are in a completely different ball game now” and added: “What we’ve got now is sections of the media, particularly in News Limited, who will do anything they can to campaign against the ABC.” Soon after, Epstein asked: “Are you saying … that News Corp is fuelling the terrible stuff on social media?” To which Stevens replied: “I’m saying, come after me” – which sounded like an answer in the affirmative.
In Senate estimates on Wednesday, Stevens attempted to walk back from this unsourced allegation by stating that “the criticism of the ABC’s coverage was not limited to News Corp – Nine and other publishers were very critical as well”. But Stevens proffered no evidence that any media outlet had contributed to the racist attacks to which Grant has been subjected on social media.
Anderson ran a similar line at Senate estimates. Moreover, he defended the ABC’s coronation panel performance as “justified, relevant and appropriate”.
This is yet another example of the ABC in denial. The fact is that criticism of the panel was not tied to the products of commercial media companies in general – or News Corp and Sky News in particular.
For example, on May 8, ABC Melbourne Mornings program presenter Virginia Trioli aired calls from ABC listeners criticising the coronation program. On Monday, Nine newspapers ran an opinion piece by Stuart Littlemore and David Salter (the one-time presenter and executive producer of the ABC TV Media Watch program respectively) titled “ABC’s self-inflicted woes not just a matter of opinion”.
The authors were critical of ABC management on a number of accounts – including the failure to insist that presenters not convey their “personal politics” on air and that they exhibit “impartiality” on all occasions. Hence what they termed “the Stan Grant saga”. Around 80 per cent of 500 comments about the article on Nine’s website supported the criticism of the ABC. Neither the bulk of ABC listeners, nor Nine’s readers, can be classified as defenders of News Corp or Sky News.
According to Littlemore and Salter, the ABC’s lack of impartiality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not so. Perhaps Littlemore has forgotten that, in his 1996 book The Media and Me (ABC Books), he boasted that when he worked on the ABC TV This Day Tonight program (the predecessor of 7.30) it was into “assaulting the conservative values of post-war Australia”. What’s more, Littlemore acknowledged that the ABC TV’s key current affairs program was “calculated to change Australian attitudes”. Not much impartiality there.
What Littlemore and Salter present as the “Stan Grant saga” is not really a saga. Online racism is one matter. Political balance on the public broadcaster is another. If the Grant position on the monarchy had been contested by, say, senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, there would have been no saga. That’s the problem with the ABC as a conservative-free zone.