Graham Norton, the Irish writer and comedian who is best known for his BBC talk show, is conflicted. As an entertainer, he is conscious of the fact unanimity is invariably boring. However, all his guests come from the arts, of whom 90 per cent are left wing – while the British public broadcaster is supposed to be impartial.
Interviewed by Jonathan Dean for The Sunday Times on September 18, Norton declared: “If I didn’t talk to people I do not like, my show might be quite underpopulated.” And he wondered as to whether he should be the “moral arbiter of the world who says who can be on TV or can’t”.
Like an overwhelming majority of his guests, Norton presents as a man of the left. However, he stands against the growing intolerance of the left intelligentsia in recognising that there are problems with what is called cancel culture.
What to do? Well, last month, controversial writer JK Rowling appeared on a radio version of the Graham Norton Show.
These days the writer of the hugely popular Harry Potter books is being traduced and censored for holding the once orthodox view that individuals born male should not attempt to hold a space once totally occupied by those born female.
On most political and social matters, Norton and Rowling would agree. However, on this issue he regards her views as “problematic”. Norton understood that “the easiest thing would be to not have her on” his show but “that didn’t seem right”. So he resolved the issue by focusing on Rowling’s new crime novel, The Ink Black Heart (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). Some programs have even censored/cancelled her fiction as well as her opinions.
Norton finally came to the position that “we should talk to people that we disagree with”, adding: “I would not want to further cause any harm by having her on.” As it turned out, the interview took place without significant impact.
The likes of Rowling have reason to feel threatened for holding views – like author Salman Rushdie, albeit for different reasons. The former lives in Britain, the latter in the US. In Australia, cancel culture is a fact of life. But, for the most part, it takes expression by means of boycott rather than by physical intimidation.
It is a matter of fact that the various taxpayer-funded literary festivals are conservative-free zones, a bit like the ABC. That is, they are replete with panels on political and social issues where essentially everyone agrees with essentially everyone on essentially everything.
In my Media Watch Dog blog this year, I have documented how events such as the Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne literary festivals have been effectively left-wing stacks that allowed for little, if any, disagreements on political or social matters.
It would seem that the fashion has moved into universities. Not only, as might be expected, at the student or academic levels but also within the executive.
Take the University of Sydney, where former ABC managing director Mark Scott is now vice-chancellor, for example.
The university is running a Sydney Ideas series. In a recent circular, sent to me by a graduate, it heralds the podcast and video of a seminar on the topic “Can there be a different kind of politics?”.
The event is advertised as examining how the new Albanese Labor government will deliver on its promises. Only two politicians participated in the discussion, namely Sally Sitou (Labor member for Reid) and Kylea Tink (the teal independent for North Sydney who won her seat on Labor and Greens preferences). Not one Liberal Party or Nationals parliamentarian was on the panel.
The discussion was led by journalist Nick Bryant (formerly of the BBC), constitutional law academic Anne Twomey and Sydney University academic Tim Soutphommasane (a former Labor Party staff member). Neither Bryant nor Twomey would regard themselves as a political conservative.
So, the University of Sydney is proclaiming the intellectual value of its Sydney Ideas series, which fails to recognise that the battle of ideas involves an intellectual contest. Maybe Scott should rename the series Sydney Idea.
What has developed in Australia in recent years is a kind of left-intelligentsia tag team. It’s the ABC meets literary festivals.
My favourite example this year is the session on the ABC at the Melbourne Writers Festival earlier this month where contributors to a discussion on “Who Needs the ABC?” consisted only of strong supporters of the taxpayer-funded broadcaster in its current form. Not one ABC critic was advertised as being on the platform.
In view of this, it makes little sense that some Australians have complained at being silenced about the future of Australia’s constitutional monarchy consequent on the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III.
It’s true that some political leaders and others have called on republicans in Australia to diminish their advocacy at a time of mourning.
But the debate has gone on. On Sunday, the ABC published a piece by Stan Grant titled “After Queen Elizabeth’s death, Indigenous Australians can’t be expected to shut up”.
Grant asked where the Indigenous political leadership had been when Indigenous NRLW player Caitlin Moran received a suspension for “an Instagram post deemed offensive to the Queen”.
He overlooked the fact he had presented an edition of the Q+A program on ABC television where all panellists disagreed with the penalty imposed by the NRLW on Moran. The Monarchist League’s Eric Abetz joined in this particular chorus. In fact, Abetz was the token Q+A conservative as the other panellists, including Indigenous lawyer Teela Reid, essentially agreed with each other on the need for Australia to become a republic and related matters.
It was yet another dull program due to the lack of debate – except for Abetz’s comments.
Norton understands that considering the views of people who disagree with you is what debate is all about. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer presenters like Norton at the BBC and the ABC.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.