It is just four months since the ABC’s mission to Bankstown in southwest Sydney. Led by ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose and managing director David Anderson, dozens of the ABC family headed to the outer suburbs for a planning workshop aimed at making content that was more relevant to average Australians than what had previously been on offer. That’s how ABC management described the mission at the time.
Gaven Morris (ABC director news, analysis and investigations) told Nine Entertainment newspapers there were “some parts of the community that we don’t serve as well as we could”. This implied the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster was in search of the “quiet Australians” to whom Scott Morrison had referred to immediately after the May 18 election last year.
The Coalition’s victory had stunned many journalists, but none more so than the ABC’s key political commentators — virtually all of whom got the result wrong. So certain was 7.30 political correspondent Laura Tingle that she told 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales on the eve of the election the Labor Party “will” win and dismissed the possibility of a Coalition victory with a laugh.
It is not clear what, if anything, the ABC learned from the mission to Bankstown of recent memory. Maybe only that it is a long way from its head office in the inner-Sydney suburb of Ultimo. Certainly the ABC is just as much a conservative-free zone as it ever was — perhaps even more so.
In any event, on Wednesday 7.30 used the term quiet Australians, popularised by the Prime Minister, to report on a climate change demonstration in Sydney.
This time ABC reporter Tracy Bowden did not make it to the southwest suburbs. She did not even go north over the Harbour Bridge. Instead the 7.30 crew travelled a few suburbs from Ultimo to Edgecliff, which abuts Double Bay — one of the most fashionable, and expensive, parts of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
When Morrison praised the quiet Australians on election night last year, he certainly did not have in mind the good, and primarily well-off, people of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
You’ve heard about the doctors’ wives phenomenon, used to portray the wealthy spouses of professional men who do not vote in accordance with their perceived economic interests but flirt with green-left causes. On Wednesday, 7.30 came across the phenomenon of doctors’ husbands.
It turned out that 7.30 was interested in a planned silent vigil for climate action scheduled for 9.30am last Saturday outside the Edgecliff office of Dave Sharma, the Liberal Party member for Wentworth. The organisers were semi-retired lawyer Rod Cunich and his medical doctor wife Margot Cunich.
Early in Bowden’s report, the Cuniches are filmed posting flyers on shop walls stating “Quiet Australians stand-up: Silent vigil for climate change”. The couple blamed climate change, and only climate change, for the bushfires they had experienced when holidaying in December on the NSW south coast.
All up, Bowden interviewed five critics of the Morrison government’s policy on climate change. Namely Margot Cunich, Rod Cunich, Erin Remblance (who was presented as a mother of three), Rob Henderson (no relation) and Kirsten Dreese. David Evans of market research firm Ipsos commented on his company’s research on changing attitudes of Australians to the environment.
As is familiar with many an ABC program, only one dissenting voice was heard — and only briefly. Daniel Wild (from the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs) said Australia had the deepest cuts to emissions on a per capita basis of any nation under the Paris Agreement. Towards the end of the segment, Bowden told viewers “Rod and Margot are planning quiet monthly protests and are urging others across the country to follow their example”. She gave the impression that it would be good for ABC viewers to join in.
Needless to say, no one who was interviewed by 7.30 had any idea how Australia, which is responsible for 1.3 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, could do anything to thwart climate change. And no one spoke about the need to reduce fuel loads in fire-prone areas, especially during drought and excessive heat.
Moreover, no one expressed any concern about the impact of reducing emissions, beyond that to which the Morrison government is committed, on the jobs of the less well-off who live in the outer suburbs, towns and regions far away from Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs. As it came to pass, there was a modest turnout at Edgecliff last Saturday. The occasion would have had no impact — without coverage by the ABC.
On Wednesday’s 7.30, Sales also introduced a segment on the Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club earlier that day by saying Tingle would explain that “in the short term Prime Minister Morrison has some pressing matters to deal with”. Tingle mentioned the response to the bushfire emergency and climate change, then showed footage of herself cross-examining Morrison on the sports grants controversy.
Certainly the bushfires are pressing matters. But so is the coronavirus outbreak, which has the capacity to adversely affect not only the health of Australians but also Australia’s mineral and service industries. Tingle did not mention this in her report of Morrison’s address, even though he had covered the issue in detail.
It was much the same during question time at the National Press Club. There was only one question on handling the bushfire emergency (ABC’s Sabra Lane) and one on the coronavirus (The Australian’s Greg Brown).
Certainly a couple of questions on the sport grants controversy involving Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie would have been warranted. But watching the occasion on television, it seemed that, once again, so many of Australia’s leading journalists are out of touch with the public’s interest in matters such as how to clean up after a disaster and how to prevent a possible medical emergency.
Perhaps another mission to the outer suburbs, by the ABC and others, is warranted.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au