The ABC board’s decision, announced on Thursday, to move the Q&A program from its television section to its news and current affairs area amounts to a victory of sorts for the Prime Minister.
Tony Abbott effectively demanded this in correspondence with ABC chairman Jim Spigelman in the wake of the controversy that followed the decision of Q&Aexecutive producer Peter McEvoy to invite convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser Zaky Mallah into the ABC studio to direct a question at Coalition parliamentary secretary Steve Ciobo.
Abbott is not the first prime minister to prevail over the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster following a dispute concerning national security.
As historian KS Inglis documents in Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation: 1983-2006, in 1991 Labor prime minister Bob Hawke railed against what he regarded as the ABC’s unprofessional coverage of Australia’s commitment in the first Gulf war. The ABC made concessions concerning political balance in its coverage that amounted to a victory of sorts for Hawke in this instance.
ABC managing director and editor in chief Mark Scott likes to cite examples of the public broadcaster’s clashes with both sides of mainstream Australian politics as an example of “balance”.
It’s quite the contrary. The fact is, ABC journalists mostly criticise both the Coalition and Labor from the left as part of a prevailing green-left orthodoxy. This was the case with respect to the Q&A and first Gulf war controversies.
The re-positioning of Q&A within the ABC’s management structure is a useful reform in that the news and current affairs unit is expected to focus on accuracy rather than entertainment.
However, if the Q&A team remains the same after the Mallah controversy, then little is likely to be achieved in making the program more balanced.
The panel of five usually tilts to a three left-of-centre to two right-of-centre outcome, and presenter Tony Jones tends to be more at home with the former group.
Then there is the Q&A crowd, which invariably represents a leftist stack. This is frequently hidden by an entry poll that suggests the audience is politically balanced between the Coalition, Labor and the Greens but that depends entirely on Q&Aattendees being truthful about their self-declared political beliefs.
Clearly, many were not on most occasions up to now — which explains why Coalition parliamentarians and token conservatives on the panel frequently experience a plethora of vocal opposition laced with ridicule.
Hawke’s complaint in 1991 had little long-term impact on the ABC. Paul Keating declined to be interviewed by Four Corners in the lead-up to the 1996 election. Put simply, Keating did not see the point in being criticised from the left. Abbott’s unwillingness to appear on some of the public broadcaster’s “flagship” programs reflects a similar conclusion reached from a different starting point.
Spigelman, Scott and some members of the ABC board are in denial about the organisation over which they are paid to prevail. The problems experienced by Hawke in 1991 and Abbott nearly a quarter of a century later reflect the fact the public broadcaster is a politically inbred organisation. As such, it is frequently incapable of anticipating problems that emerge from its handling of politically controversial matters.
When Scott took up his present position in 2006, he promised greater diversity on the ABC. More than a decade later, the public broadcaster does not have one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. Yet there are left-of-centre types in abundance in all categories.
ABC personnel run two defences to this criticism. The likes of Scott say political beliefs do not matter since all ABC employees are without stain when it comes to political prejudice.
Lateline co-presenter Emma Alberici ran this line on June 25 when hosting a debate on the Mallah affair.
Other ABC defenders of the status quo claim there really are conservatives holding prominent programming positions within the ABC. It’s just that no one gets around to naming names.
There are two explanations for this phenomenon: either no such conservatives exist; or those conservatives who do exist within the public broadcaster find it too unfashionable to declare their positions.
The result is that on some social issues the ABC resembles a religious organisation declaring a faith rather than a public-funded broadcaster that is supposed to encourage informed discussion.
Hence the so-called “debates” on the ABC where everyone agrees with everyone else on issues such as same-sex marriage (yes, please), climate change alarmism (more please) and asylum-seekers — among other causes.
The inconvenient truth is that there is more genuine debate on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in the US than there is on the ABC. For starters, Fox News has several paid left-of-centre contributors who appear frequently on the network’s main programs. The ABC has not one conservative in a similar role.
Compare and contrast the ABC’s Media Watch with Fox News’ MediaBuzz (which is shown in Australia on Foxtel).
Last Monday, Paul Barry, one of a long list of left-of-centre Media Watch presenters, resembled a bishop preaching to his flock when he condemned the views of commentators Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Alan Jones, Paul Murray, Rita Panahi and Paul Sheehan concerning the Adam Goodes controversy. None of the accused was given a right of reply, despite Scott’s promise of a decade ago that this would be the case.
Last Sunday, MediaBuzz discussed the Daily Beast’s personal criticism of Donald Trump’s treatment of his one-time wife, which was motivated by the US presidential contender’s intolerant comments on unlawful Mexican immigration to the US. Presenter Howard Kurtz came down against the Daily Beast, as did panel member Fred Francis. But Mercedes Schlapp supported the Daily Beast, while Susan Ferrechio took a position somewhat in the middle. It was a real debate.
So long as Scott cannot match Murdoch with respect to on-air diversity, the ABC board’s decision of last Thursday is unlikely to have a significant impact on the culture of the public broadcaster.