Among the reasons the ABC has lost many of its long-term, and primarily conservative, audiences, two stand out. Namely, the unwillingness of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster to acknowledge errors of commission or omission, along with a refusal to provide an appropriate right of reply to individuals who have been unfairly criticised. Two recent examples illustrate the point.
Since its inauguration in 1989, ABC TV’s Media Watch has only had left-of-centre or “progressive” regular presenters; most recently Paul Barry, who has developed a rationale to legitimise his unwillingness to apologise or even concede errors or exaggerations. In the Australian common law, the standard of proof in criminal cases is beyond reasonable doubt. In the civil jurisdiction it is on the balance of probabilities.
However, Barry has developed his own (self-serving) rule of evidence. If he makes a claim on Media Watch, Barry will only apologise or correct a statement on air if someone proves it a falsehood to his satisfaction. In short, Barry is both jury and judge.
Media Watch has always featured a presenter laying down the law as to what is bad and, on occasion, what is good journalism. In the US, however, the Fox News MediaBuzz program, presented by Howard Kurtz, makes judgments about media coverage but also provides for on-air discussion in which a plurality of views is heard.
Barry has preached his “truth” about the emergence of Covid-19 in late 2019-early 2020. He and executive producer Timothy Latham have devoted three programs to fanging News Corp journalist Sharri Markson, who has consistently maintained Covid-19 may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
Markson has never emphatically declared this is the case. Only that there may have been an accident that was covered up by the Chinese Communist Party, which controls virtually all aspects of Chinese society, rather than accept the official Chinese view that the virus escaped from an animal market. Markson’s position has been spelt out in detail in The Daily Telegraph and The Australian, as well as on Sky News and her book, What Really Happened in Wuhan (HarperCollins, 2021). Her views have displeased Barry who appears to have regarded her as stating heresy.
On May 4, 2020, Barry asked the question: “How likely is it that the virus escaped from that Chinese lab?” – and answered “Well, in short, it’s not”. He went on to link Markson with “a conspiracy theorist” and “conspiracy theories”. In doing so, the target of Barry’s disdain was referred to, in condescension, as “Sharri”.
Media Watch returned to the topic on May 17, 2021, where Barry referred to Markson’s “latest coronavirus scare story” and her “notorious Wuhan lab story”. The segment reported that his target would not “lose a moment’s sleep” over former NSW premier Bob Carr’s view that her journalism is a “species of … China panic”. However, Barry did acknowledge that, these days, “Carr … is a friend of China”.
Media Watch was at it again on August 8, 2022. Barry commenced by suggesting the mystery of Covid’s origin has “finally been solved” to the extent of dismissing a leak from the Wuhan laboratory. He claimed, without evidence, that two News Corp journalists had accused him “wildly of being a closet communist” – a wilful exaggeration. But this time Barry acknowledged “the Chinese won’t let investigators into the Wuhan lab”.
In recent times, the theory that Covid-19 may have escaped accidentally from the Wuhan lab has grown in plausibility, including in an article in the politically conservative Wall Street Journal on July 26 by Matt Ridley and Alina Chan.
A not dissimilar view has appeared in the liberal (in the American sense of the term) New York Times, in articles written by David Quammen and Julian E. Barnes on July 25 and July 26 respectively. Both are agnostic about the source of Covid-19 but neither regards a lab leak as impossible.
So where does Barry stand on this? In May and September 2021, he stated there would be an apology to Markson “if the Wuhan lab proves to be the source of Covid-19”. It was reported in The Australian last Monday that Latham has repeated this line. So, in order to get an apology for being fanged as a conspiracy theorist, Markson has to “prove” that what she said was plausible actually happened. Convenient, eh?
The second example is that, after much delay, ABC TV on July 18 showed the documentary The Dark Emu Story, about the book of that name by Bruce Pascoe, who identifies as Indigenous while stating his Aboriginal blood is “tiny”.
Pascoe’s theory that Indigenous Australians were farmers rather than hunter-gatherers has been challenged by some Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike – including anthropologist Peter Sutton, who co-wrote the book Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, with Keryn Walshe. In a devastating critique of The Dark Emu Story in The Australian last Monday, Sutton (not a political conservative) declared the documentary, produced for the ABC by Blackfella Films and directed by Allan Clarke, was “biased”, “propaganda” and “a puff piece for Pascoe”. Sutton said he had unwittingly participated in a “set-up” and that some of his criticism of Pascoe had not appeared in the documentary.
Sutton is one of Australia’s leading anthropologists. But also, alas, he is a bit naive in believing the Pascoe barrackers at the ABC can be trusted to be fair and balanced. For starters, Sutton should only have agreed to an interview that was live to tape and should not have agreed to have his views edited.
For its part, an anonymous spokeswoman stated “the ABC delivered a program that informed, educated and entertained our audience”. That’s all. In other words, go away Sutton.
And that’s the ABC’s continuing problem. Barry will not apologise to Markson unless she meets an unattainable standard. And ABC management will not even engage with the considered criticism of one of Australia’s leading anthropologists. Meanwhile, neither person has a right of reply in the same forum as where they were attacked.