Mark Latham’s expletive-charged appearance at the Melbourne Writers Festival last Saturday was the most recent high-profile substitute of anger for argument in what passes for public debate in contemporary Australia.
Latham’s designated topic was “Politicians and Journalists”. The MWF’s blurb framed the subject matter as follows: “Can ex-politicians write objectively about politics or are they too tied to the party machine? The always-bold Mark Latham explains why our politicians — and our press gallery — should do better …”
Well, it didn’t quite work out like that. Latham soon dismissed his interlocutor, Radio National Sunday Extra presenter Jonathan Green, as an “ABC wanker”. Soon after, the former Labor Party leader switched his abuse to the audience, some of whom walked out in protest.
On Sunday, Latham’s MWF appearance was widely analysed by the media, including the ABC. Meanwhile, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster was deep in discussion as to whether Latham’s performance, which was recorded, could be played on the ABC.
A decision on this issue had not been made when Q&A aired live on the ABC on Monday night. Q&A is modelled on the BBC’s Question Time program. But there are two distinct differences. First, Question Time is prerecorded and goes to air a couple of hours after the event concludes. This gives producers an opportunity to delete unsavoury or libellous comments.
Second, Question Time does not run a Twitter feed across the bottom of the screen. Not for the first time, the ABC got into trouble last Monday when a Q&A producer allowed the hashtag “#AbbottLovesAnal” to be screened. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly protested to ABC managing director and editor-in-chief Mark Scott, who quickly apologised to Tony Abbott, who quickly said that Q&A is “a bit out of control”.
That’s true. But it’s not just Q&A. The problem is that Scott does not run the public broadcaster the way managers and editors run commercial broadcasting and newspaper businesses.
Obviously, Scott is not responsible for the surge of abuse that has afflicted discussion since the advent of social media in Australia and elsewhere. But he is responsible for facilitating the decline of standards in the Australian media.
Last Monday’s controversial tweet — anonymous, of course — said in full: “I prefer ones [sic] twitter feed to their biographies #qanda #AbbottLovesAnal.” Matters of taste aside, this is absolute tosh and not worthy of publication at the bottom of a TV screen. It’s the equivalent of anonymous comments written on toilet doors in an earlier time.
As ABC editor-in-chief, Scott can instruct Q&A to junk its adherence to parading the abusive tweets of people who lack the courage to put their names to their opinions. The problem is that, during Scott’s time, the ABC has been a trailblazer in facilitating abuse — subsidised by the taxpayer.
This is not only the case with Q&A, but also the comment page on The Drum website. Moreover, every morning, every night and frequently during the day, ABC presenters read out anonymous tweets that are rife with abuse and frequently based on ignorance.
In late July, I took the opportunity to appear on ABC Radio 774’s Drive with Rafael Epstein to discuss my book Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man. The invitation was appreciated and the interview was fair and professional. After discussing the book, I was asked to participate in a forum on current events.
I had to listen as three anonymous listeners were given the opportunity by the 774 producer and presenter to call me “a racist” — to which I had no effective right of reply. At the end of the session, Epstein privately said that I was welcome back on his program any time I was in Melbourne. But why would anyone volunteer to cop defamatory comments without a right of reply or remuneration? For my part, I won’t be returning.
Presenters on the ABC these days seldom feel obliged to ask interviewees to desist from abuse. On ABC television’s The Drum (August 4), cartoonist Fiona Katauskas described the Prime Minister’s attitude to recognising indigenous Australians in the Constitution as “gobsmacking moronic”. Presenter John Barron gave the impression that such language, with respect to Australia’s head of government, was perfectly acceptable on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
Last year Scottish-born BBC presenter Andrew Neil visited Australia in his capacity as chairman of the company that publishes The Spectator. At the time, there was considerable interest in the likely outcome of the referendum as to whether Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.
It seemed that Neil had strong personal views on the topic. However, he declined to state them in public. The BBC has preserved the tradition of public broadcasting whereby presenters are not allowed to express their private views on public matters.
This once was the tradition of the ABC. But, under Scott management, all ABC presenters are encouraged to express their views on politics, economics, social matters and more besides on social media and elsewhere.
This has led to a situation where the likes of Green, Paul Barry, Annabel Crabb, Fran Kelly and others are encouraged to involve themselves in the public debate. Then they are expected to return to the presenter’s chair and practice impartiality.
Steve Harris, in his report commissioned by the ABC into the public broadcaster’s coverage of the Abbott government’s Higher Education Research Bill, commented that much of the analysis offered on the ABC was “the opinion or observation of external stakeholders”. In other words, Harris believes there is too much advocacy on the public broadcaster and not enough expert analysis.
This problem is accentuated when presenters double up as advocates and abuse is allowed as part of normal discourse, especially since the ABC employs no conservatives on any of its prominent programs to provide a modicum of diversity.
Scott and his management team spring into action when their attention is drawn to a particular transgression on Q&A or elsewhere. But this overlooks the decline in intellectual standards, which has led to a situation where some ABC presenters and producers can no longer distinguish between abuse and argument.