The two prime ministers most critical of the ABC have not been Tony Abbott and John Howard but Abbott and Bob Hawke.
The Abbott government’s clash with the ABC over Zaky Mallah’s appearance onQ&A on June 22 matches that of the Hawke government concerning the taxpayer-funded broadcaster’s coverage of the first Gulf war in 1991. The latter event is well documented by KS Inglis in his 2006 book Whose ABC? .
ABC managing director Mark Scott and some of his predecessors are wont to argue that the public broadcaster must be impartial and balanced since, across time, it is criticised by the Coalition and Labor. This overlooks the fact ABC journalists tend to criticise both sides from the Left. Abbott, Hawke and Howard all have objected, at one time or another, about the Left’s predominance within the ABC.
The ABC board acted strongly, albeit belatedly, on Wednesday in announcing Q&Aexecutive producer Peter McEvoy “has received a formal warning under the misconduct provisions of the ABC’s industrial policies”. It acknowledged “the nature of the Q&A broadcast made this program different to Mallah’s other media appearances” and said, given Mallah’s “criminal background and past public statements, the live broadcast meant the ABC was not in a position to manage unpredictable or inappropriate actions or responses”.
The board’s statement was issued nine days after the program featuring Mallah in the audience went to air. The record demonstrates that the public broadcaster was slow to act. On the Tuesday morning after the program, ABC director of television Richard Finlayson acknowledged “an error of judgment” had been made “in allowing Zaky Mallah to join the audience and ask a question”.
But Scott, who is also the ABC’s editor-in-chief, did not say anything until the evening of June 25. And on Q&A last Monday, presenter Tony Jones said “the Q&Ateam were not aware, at the time Zaky Mallah appeared, of the offensive misogynistic tweet that he had put out about two female journalists”. Jones added that, had Q&A known, “we would have rejected his participation”.
As editor-in-chief, Scott should have not allowed Jones to state on behalf of Q&Athat Mallah was not a suitable guest merely on account of his misogyny. This underplayed the fact in 2005 Mallah pleaded guilty to threatening to murder ASIO officials.
Scott’s lack of judgment was evident in his annual Corporate Public Affairs oration, delivered in Melbourne on June 25. Initially, Scott seemed to defend the Q&Adecision to invite Mallah into the audience and to assist him to write a critical question, which was directed at the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Steven Ciobo.
In his address, Scott declared “free speech principles mean giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree”. He went on to make the extraordinary point thatthe issue of free speech “was the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument last year”.
No, it wasn’t. What occurred at Charlie Hebdo was not an argument about free speech, it was stifling of free speech. It was an Islamist terrorist murder of journalists and security staff because the French magazine printed mocking cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Having raised the free speech issue, Scott went on to say that giving Mallah “a forum on live television” was not a free speech issue. Confused? Scott certainly was. Scott then acknowledged that Q&A had made “the wrong call” and criticised “some ABC staff, present and past, who argue that to make any concession in the face of criticism is to buckle”.
However, the ABC managing director then launched into a vacuous ramble.
He declared “the ‘A’ in ‘ABC’ is for Australian”. Really. Scott added: “I hope no one seriously wants the ABC to be a state broadcaster. We know the examples: North Korea and Russia. China and Vietnam. There are many others.” There followed some two score mentions of the words independence or independent.
This is absolute tosh. Sure, in recent days the Prime Minister and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have been critical of the broadcaster. Yet no one in the Coalition is suggesting that the ABC should be replaced by a state-dominated broadcaster of the kind that prevails in communist totalitarian dictatorships such as North Korea.
Scott’s “state broadcaster” hyperbole and his feigned advocacy of “independence” was a desperate ploy by a well-paid taxpayer-funded executive who seemed to have abandoned judgment and run out of ideas.
It is noteworthy that, in its statement on Wednesday disciplining McEvoy, the ABC board did not raise the issue of free speech or refer to real or implied attacks on the public broadcaster’s independence.
Before the board’s statement, a bevy of present and past ABC “stars” lent their support to McEvoy and the Q&A team or criticised the Abbott government’s reaction. The list included Richard Ackland, Emma Alberici, Paul Barry, Mike Carlton, Annabel Crabb, Rafael Epstein, Jonathan Green, Jonathan Holmes, Fran Kelly, Peter Manning, Matt Peacock and David Salter. Moreover, not one ABC employee was prepared to criticise publicly Q&A’s handling of the Mallah affair.
And herein lies the crux of the problem, which the ABC’s decision to engage former SBS supremo Shaun Brown and left-wing journalist Ray Martin to review Q&A will not resolve.
Despite Scott’s promise of almost a half-decade ago to provide greater diversity within the public broadcaster, the ABC does not have a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. Not one. This leads to a leftist or left-of-centre mindset where alternative, challenging views are not heard.
In his book Ten O’Clock News, former BBC editorial director Roger Mosey refers to what he calls the left-liberal groupthink that prevails within the British public broadcaster.
A similar phenomenon exists within the ABC, leading to ABC leftists such as McEvoy to invite Mallah on to Q&A without anyone realising the error of his action.