Isn’t it interesting that so many of the best and brightest at the ABC, who spend their professional lives critiquing the political errors of others, make such mistakes themselves? Take the case of ABC chief political correspondent Laura Tingle, who appears regularly on 7.30. In my Media Watch Dog blog on October 16 I publicised the story about a tweet Tingle sent out at 11.27pm on October 9.
Commenting on the fact that her friend and colleague Philippa McDonald was leaving the ABC, Tingle blamed Prime Minister Scott Morrison. She accused him of “ideological bastardry” and concluded “hope you are feeling smug”. The tweet was removed by early the following morning.
Last Wednesday at Senate Estimates, ABC managing director and editor-in-chief David Anderson said he knew “Laura deems that to be a mistake; I think it was an error of judgment — as I think clearly Laura did too as she took that tweet down”.
Well, yes. An error of judgment indeed. That’s why the tweet was taken down and that’s why Tingle conceded her “mistake”. The problem is that Anderson failed to concede that Tingle posted her message in the first place because she wanted others to know that, in her view, the Prime Minister is into “ideological bastardry” and is “smug”. There is no problem with any Australian holding this view. It’s just that the ABC’s chief political correspondent is expected to exhibit an air of political detachment or disinterest when commenting on politics or when interviewing individuals.
Anderson told the Senate that Tingle had been contacted by 7.30’s executive producer Justin Stevens and he was “satisfied that no more action needs to be taken”. That’s a bit like asking the coach of a football team what to do about the star performing captain who has made a “mistake”. Stevens, like so many of his colleagues, invariably goes into denial when criticism is made of his team.
It may not matter all that much if Tingle was one of a number of ABC personalities who expressed divergent views in public. But this is not the case. The ABC is a conservative-free zone without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. It’s impossible to imagine a prominent ABC journalist tweeting in anger at the leader of the Labor Party and, in particular, the Greens — unless such criticism came from the left.
The problem is that Tingle sent out her tweet very late on a Friday night and fronted up as a panellist on ABC TV’s Insiders early the following Sunday morning to comment on the Morrison government’s 2020 budget. Viewers are expected to believe that Tingle can be politically angry on Friday but never on Sunday.
The BBC is beginning to take a more interventionist approach to its tweeting staff than its Australian equivalent.
This week’s Press Gazette carried a story by Charlotte Tobitt that the newly appointed BBC director-general Tim Davie has said he will clamp down on staff whose tweets endanger what he termed the BBC’s “reputation for impartiality”. This could lead to staff at the national broadcaster having to suspend their accounts.
In Australia, on the other hand, Anderson seems unfazed that so many left-of-centre ABC staff are continuing to damage the public broadcaster’s reputation.
On Monday, Professor Jeremy Gans, of the Melbourne Law School, weighed into the debate initiated by Davie, tweeting: “I’ve got to say, though, that I’ve always been surprised at how overtly political most of the ABC journos are on twitter. On average … they are the most partisan tweeters on my feed.” In his own work, Gans is professionally impartial.
It would seem ABC management’s tolerance of staff behaviour extends all the way to camera crew. On October 12, following the news that Cardinal George Pell would be meeting Pope Francis in Rome, ABC cameraman Lincoln Rothall inadvertently emailed this message: “I would have voted Covid for the Noble (sic) Prize if it killed Pell.” It’s quite a shocking thought that one Australian wishes another Australian to die of COVID-19, or any other cause.
Asked for a please-explain, an ABC spokeswoman said that Rothall’s email was “unacceptable and a breach of ABC conduct”. She added: “The employee Rothall has apologised; the issue has been dealt with under appropriate procedures.”
This was a totally inadequate response, born of denial that the ABC has a problem with its culture. In the wake of the High Court’s decision to quash Pell’s conviction for historical child sexual abuse by a unanimous seven to zero decision, the ABC editorial director Craig McMurtrie on April 20 issued a statement titled “The ABC’s reporting on Cardinal George Pell”.
McMurtrie’s original document had to be corrected since it contained an incorrect statement about, and disadvantageous to, Pell. Moreover, McMurtrie’s claim that the ABC coverage of the Pell case was neither “one-sided or unfair” was pure denial.
It seems that the ABC programs fronted by such ABC presenters and Pell antagonists as Louise Milligan and Sarah Ferguson — along with the numerous ABC appearances by The Guardian’s David Marr — just didn’t happen. But they did.
The Rothall apology — as described by the ABC — is meaningless. To whom did he apologise? Pell? Anderson? Australian taxpayers? ABC viewers? COVID-19 sufferers? And how was such an apology extended? The important point here is the ABC culture that led Rothall to believe originally that his message was acceptable. Presumably it’s the same culture that led ABC religion reporter Noel Debien to concede on his Facebook page (October 10) that he felt like a “pariah” within the ABC for holding the private view that Pell was not guilty.
And it’s the very same culture that led the ABC political correspondent to accuse the Prime Minister of ideological bastardry.
Here’s hoping that Anderson does not follow Davie’s example and ban ABC types from Twitter. The fact is that it is by their late-night ideological tweets that we know the ABC culture.