British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that there were not many jokes left since what was humour to one person was reality to another.
As editor of Punch, he drew up a mock itinerary of a visit to London in the mid-1950s by the leaders of the Soviet Union — Stalinists all.
Muggeridge’s spoof had Joe Stalin’s heirs having tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace and the like. The humour deflator kicked in when Punch’s joke pretty well reflected the real thing.
In recent times, in my Media Watch Dog blog, I have laughed at some of the critics of what I have irreverently termed the “Abbott clerical fascist dictatorship”. My intention was to make the point that Tony Abbott’s critics tend to throw the switch to hyperbole and that his government is neither clerical nor fascist or a dictatorship.
Recently I noticed that Guy Rundle had an article in the Crikey newsletter on June 25 where he argued that the Prime Minister “is from the reactionary clerico-fascist side of things”. In other words, according to Crikey’s writer-at-large, Abbott presides over a clerical fascist dictatorship — or something like that. Really.
Rundle, a one-time editor of the Marxist Arena magazine, happens to live well in contemporary democratic Australia. Moreover, there is no evidence that his views are suppressed in any way.
The at-times irrational attitude towards Abbott that prevails among sections of the green-left intelligentsia was evident on the ABC’s Q&A program last Monday. ABC journalists just can’t spend enough time speaking and writing about themselves. So it came as no surprise that Q&A’s executive producer, the leftist Peter McEvoy, listed the prevailing controversy about Q&A on the Q&A discussion sheet this week.
This took the form of playing a video question from a 10-year-old boy, Ashton Platt. On the morning after the program, ABC publicity sent out the following tweet: “10yo steals the show on @Q&A, telling the panel he is ‘scared’ by Abbott’s criticisms of ABC.”
It seems that neither Q&A nor the ABC’s publicity department bothered to check the authorship of Master Platt’s “show-stealing” question. As revealed by Neil Mitchell on Radio 3AW in Melbourne and in The Australian, the 10-year- old’s question was workshopped by his family, particularly his father and mother.
Put simply, the Platt question ran the line that Abbott is in the tradition of dictators such as Adolf Hitler. The young boy said his inquiry was activated after “watching World War II films such as The Book Thief and Woman in Gold”. Both relate to the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
The question, which was approved to run on Q&A by McEvoy, suggested that the lesson of the two films “is that attacking freedom of speech becomes one way in which dictators tried to control public debate and thoughts”. This was a reference to Hitler. Ashton continued: “Tony Abbott scares me when he attacks the ABC and tries to control what we see on it.” He suggested that “we all (should) be afraid”. There was loud applause from the audience.
It is true that the Prime Minister has criticised the ABC. It is also true that some previous Labor prime ministers have criticised News Corp Australia newspapers.
So what? There is no evidence that any Australian prime minister has attempted to control what is aired on the taxpayer-funded broadcaster. This includes former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, who was highly critical of the ABC’s coverage of the first Gulf war in 1991.
Certainly Abbott has placed a temporary ban on Q&A appearances by his ministers. But this is hardly an attack on freedom of speech. Last Monday Malcolm Turnbull was prevented from appearing on Q&A but he had a larger audience when he appeared earlier in the evening on 7.30. McEvoy and his supporters may disagree. But the Q&A program is not central to the continuation of representative government in Australia.
Opinion polls suggest there is widescale support for the Abbott government’s approach to national security, which is broadly supported by Bill Shorten. Yet this was not reflected among the Q&A panel, as was evident in the comments of the panel members — not one of whom supported Abbott.
Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson suggested that “politicians run around trying to create fear of terrorists and terrorist attacks” and claimed terrorists “start to win when we get scared”. Journalist Michael Ware agreed with Hewson, stating that terrorists win “when we start to compromise our own values”. Canadian academic John Stackhouse joined in the chorus by asserting that politicians exploited fear from their own ends. No other view was heard.
What was missing from what passed for debate on Q&A last Monday was any discussion of the current worldwide terror threat. Hewson and Ware essentially blamed the West for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh. This overlooks the fact, in the first instance at least, the Sunni Muslim leaders of Daesh are waging war on Shia Muslims. Their attacks on atheists, Christians, Hindus and Jews are but part of a bigger battle.
This was made clear by Margaret Gilmore, of the Royal United Services Institute, when interviewed on Lateline on June 29. She pointed out that “part of the problem of the ISIS thing is that it’s a Sunni-Shia thing; ISIS believes that their type of Muslim-Islam is the correct type”.
Journalist Martin Chulov made a similar point on Radio National Breakfast on Wednesday. He described the situation in North Africa as the most disruptive event in the region since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Both Gilmore and Chulov regard Daesh as a challenge to the region and the West.
The position adopted by the Coalition and Labor towards Daesh overseas and at home makes sense. Much more sense than the exaggerations of the comedian Rundle or the Platt family.