There have been numerous constructive criticisms of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s staging of, and apologia for, Zaky Mallah’s appearance on the June 22, 2015, edition of Q&A. Chris Kenny’s piece in the Weekend Australian, “Scott fails to atone for Aunty’s Jihadist sin”, might be the most comprehensive and authoritative. My favourite moment in Kenny’s op-ed is when he destroyed the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott’s defense of Q&A on the grounds of Charlie Hebdo and free speech: “The artists and journalists slaughtered in Paris in January were targeted because they refused to cower in the face of Islamist extremists. What Q&A did was virtually the opposite.” Touché, Chris Kenny.
Kenny argues that Mark Scott’s response to Prime Minister Abbott’s criticism of the corporation’s “gotcha” moment on live television has been hypocritical. Scott insisted that the ABC must ignore governmental admonitions or be reduced to the status of a state broadcaster in the mode of North Korea, Russia, China and Vietnam. Kenny correctly notes, however, that the ABC was “silent, even complicit, when the Gillard Labor government sought to introduce the most draconian press content regulation ever envisaged in this country.” While Kenny agrees with the ABC’s editor-in-chief “that there will always be occasional misjudgements in an organisation that makes editorial decisions daily”, he considers it “passing strange” that the ABC’s transgressions always seem to reflect a Green-Left agenda: “…whether it is false claims that our Navy tortured asylum-seekers, orchestrated campaigns with animal rights activists to shut down an export industry or the ignoring of important scientific about a hiatus in global warming.”
Kenny makes an excellent case for the on-going political partisanship of the ABC, and yet his admonition that national broadcaster’s editor-in-chief is hypocritical and disingenuous does not get to the root of the problem. Kenny says the only misjudgement Scott has conceded about Zaky Mallah’s appearance on Q&A is that it should have been in the form of an “inserted video”, but then he criticises Scott’s non-apology for permitting the ABC to replay the entire episode unedited. Obviously Zaky Mallah’s appearance in the reprised Q&A programme took the form of “a video” since, by definition, the entire repeat show was pre-recorded. In that sense, at least, Mark Scott was not being hypocritical because he had never apologised for Mallah’s appearance per se on Q&A in the first place.
ABC broadcasters – from Charlie Pickering to Annabel Crabb – have taken their cue from corporation’s managing director and mocked Tony Abbott for questioning the ABC’s patriotism. The title of Crabb’s op-ed piece in the Age, “Listen up: democracy means even jerks get a say”, captures the spirit of her case. The producers of Q&A, in the opinion of Crabb, have every right to provide a platform for “whacked-out views” because that is the essence of an open society. Let a hundred flowers bloom, Mr Abbott! You can’t pick and choose what ABC programmes you like – The Killing Season, for instance – and then bag the national broadcaster when contrarian or divergent voices are given a microphone. Crabb then moves up to her A-game, not only returning Abbott’s serve but giving him a serve: “…I work at the ABC, and every single day I see that organisation gives voices to Australians who otherwise wouldn’t be heard, on topics that are too uncommercial or too remote or too hard to be covered by anyone…”
There are number of points one could make about Crabb’s defence of the ABC, not the least being that the broadcasting corporation can afford to be “uncommercial” because we taxpayers fork out more than $1.1 billion a year. There is also the fact the very existence of the ABC makes it increasingly difficult for commercial operators to tackle subjects that are “too remote or too hard”, if only because the ABC has the financial wherewithal to corner the germane demographics. Leaving these matters aside, though, Crabb and her colleagues at the ABC are subject to what Nick Cater describes, in The Lucky Culture: And the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class (2013), as groupthink. The national broadcaster has, since the mid-1960s, been the property of its staff of “salaried bohemians bursting with conceit.” They are a tribe of moral guardians who will tell us – their unsophisticated compatriots – what we should be thinking. Thus, the letters ABC – according to one wag – stand for Australian Brainwashing Corporation.
My only divergence from Cater’s assessment is the belief that what binds the ABC staff together has less to do with a shared inner-city lifestyle than the ideology of bohemian socialism (though an overlap, naturally, exists between the two). Michael Burleigh, in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda (2006), writes of the curse of ideology in our times – ideology constituting a kind of political religion or systemised explanation of the world that obliterates an adherent’s critical faculties. Consequently, there are – in the ideological universe of ABC groupthink – things that are too sacred to be contested, from Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming to Palestinian self-determination.
The ABC, according to the ABC and its apologists, operates from a higher moral or ethical plane than the rest of us and never has any reason to apologise to its (non-believing) critics who function outside the domain of principled discourse or, if you like, PC rectitude. In short, the ABC’s Mark Scott cannot apologise – in any genuine or meaningful sense – to the conservative Abbott about last Monday’s Q&A programme.
Moreover, Scott’s corporation, as it is now configured, cannot become more balanced because, from its own standpoint, it is already balanced (or open-minded) to the hilt. Yes, Zaky Mallah was a specially selected, gilt-edged member of the audience, but then Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, Steven Ciobo, was invited onto the panel,so where is the problem, people? A token conservative or two on the Q&A panel is as generous and diverse as anti-bourgeois bohemian decorum allows. This is because the hidden religiosity – to borrow from Christoph Bry’s Verkappte Religionen (1924) – of the ABC’s worldview means the organisation must, paradoxically, be narrow-minded about its open-mindedness.
All of this leaves the Abbott government in a sticky situation. Members of the Coalition, for all their shortfalls, are not ideologically minded. Most of them possess not an ideological bone in their bodies and have no idea what the Mark Scotts, Charlie Pickering and Annabel Crabbs are on about. Time after time the Coalition exhorts the ABC to be “more balanced” and on each occasion, including the Zaky Mallah farrago, we find ourselves back in what Friedrich Nietzsche might call the “endless return” or, to be more idiomatic, Groundhog Day. Tony & Co, allow me (as an ex-Communist ideologue) to let you into a secret: the ABC ideologues have no idea what you are going on about when you criticise them for a lack of balance. They are not merely balanced, as you so quaintly put it, they fervently believe themselves to be in possession of the upper-case “T” for Truth.
The Coalition, as I wrote here in December, 2013, has but one option apart from selling the ABC and SBS outright. It must effectively insert into our national broadcasters a contagion of self-identifying conservative programmes and personalities: “All we ask is that for every episode of Media Watch hosted by Paul Barry there’s another straight after anchored by, say, Andrew Bolt – for every 7:30 Report an 8:30 Report, for every Lateline a Laterline, for every Insiders an Outsiders, and so on.” I omitted Q&A from my 2013 list but what about Gotcha-free Q&A?
Daryl McCann blogs here