ABC managing director Mark Scott appears to be the only editor-in-chief in Australia who declines to make editorial decisions. Interviewed by Sally Warhaft on ABC Radio 774 on Friday, Scott criticised a Chaser skit, which depicted journalist and ABC critic Chris Kenny having sex with a dog, as not only ”full-on” but also ”tasteless and undergraduate”.
The Chaser’s use of porno-politics to attack Kenny aired on ABC1 on September 11. Scott’s first statement on the controversy was made on October 4. In between both events, the sketch was defended by Jennifer Collins, the ABC’s Head of Entertainment and formal complaints against the segment were dismissed by the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs department.
When appointed ABC managing director in 2006, Scott promised that he would take an active role in his position as editor-in-chief. He has not done so. Scott is an active tweeter on such issues as the wonders of the ABC and the number of cranes in the sky next to the public broadcaster’s headquarters in Ultimo. But he delayed commenting on the Kenny matter until after it had been approved as suitable broadcasting by two ABC staff members.
Calls by ABC critics that the public broadcaster should be privatised are at best naive and at worst counter-productive. No government – the Coalition or Labor – is going to do it, despite the vehement criticism made of the public broadcaster over the years by the likes of John Howard and Bob Hawke.
The best that can be hoped for is that Scott finally delivers on his 2006 promise to ensure that a greater diversity of views is heard on the public broadcaster. From a taxpayer’s point of view, the best outcome would be if governments denied the ABC funds for new projects. In recent years, the ABC has effectively moved into print and is dumping written material on its electronic news and opinion outlets.
On Insiders last Sunday, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that the commercial print media’s essential problem turns on declining advertising revenue. However, the ABC’s dumping of news for free does not help. The Rudd/Gillard government provided an extra $10 million to the ABC to set up a Fact Checking Unit. As Andrew Crook pointed out in Crikey last week, this has placed pressure on Peter Fray’s commercially-funded Politifact start-up.
Last Friday, Scott defended ABC TV’s running of repeat programs since it ”can’t afford to buy as much content as we once did”. This suggests that Scott has erred in recent years in extending the ABC’s outlets at the expense of its basic programs.
Right now, the ABC is busy checking the facts of others – political parties, business organisations and so on. But it does not bother to check what are purported to be ”facts” on the ABC. Recent documentaries on Robert Menzies during the Second World War and the Vietnam War have contained numerous serious errors which are simply denied by the ABC.
The August issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly (now online) documents serious errors in Paul Clarke’s Whitlam: The Power & The Passion which was advertised as ”definitive”. The program has been defended by Phil Craig, the ABC Head of Factual, on the basis that it is ”lyrical”. A lyrical fact, how about that?
In the documentary, actors re-enact a scene when Whitlam met Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1973. Whitlam asks Mao what would have happened if Nikita Khrushchev, rather than John F. Kennedy, has been assassinated in 1963 and Mao replies that Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev.
Good joke, to be sure. But there is no evidence that Mao ever said this. The documentary attributes the account to former Labor MP Barry Jones. But, in private correspondence, Jones has said that he told the story merely as an example of Whitlam’s ”quirky sense of humour” and has accused the documentary of ”completely distorting his own position”.
Mao is long dead and Whitlam is in ill-health. The only person who can comment with authority on the topic is Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s former ambassador to China, who was present at the meeting.
In private correspondence, FitzGerald has confirmed that Mao made no such comment.
No doubt the ABC Head of Factual will declare this a ”lyrical” truth and reject all criticism. A non-lyrical truth is that the ABC should refrain from spending taxpayers’ money checking the facts of others, while it runs fiction in its self-declared definitive documentaries.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.