THERE are times, quite a few of them over the past two years, when the business of politics can only leave the observer mystified. Not the horse-trading and compromises, which are no less than the brush and palette of what is accurately described as the art of the possible, but the folly of valuing tactics above strategy. As a case study, let us take the problem of the ABC and the Coalition’s limp confusion in how to cure it.
Begin the examination late on the evening of September 7, 2013, when the ballots had been tallied and those who voted to banish the clowns of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd circus were buoyant with good cheer, the broadest smiles perhaps worn by those savouring with grim delight the prospect of seeing the national broadcaster thoroughly flushed and sanitised. Surely, with a comfortable parliamentary majority in hand, Prime Minister Abbott understood that he was in the happy position to do well by doing good — enjoy the satisfaction of settling a few scores while simultaneously reforming what should be a national asset, not the taxpayer-funded cubbyhouse for the incestuously like-minded that several decades of nepotism, arrogance and cultural insularity have made it.
To any leader with the stomach for a fight, this would have been an irresistible, target-rich environment. The wonder is that, apart from desultory and uncoordinated sniping, there has been nothing resembling an organised assault.
First and most obvious there is that endemic bias, which should have been enough reason in itself to act. While the ABC conducted its own post-election appraisal and concluded – Surprise! Surprise! – that it had been scrupulously fair, the nation’s sofa spuds could only scoff. Was there a left meme or Labor talking point that had not been taken up and explored ad nauseam as Australians prepared to go to the polls? Abbott’s alleged sexism was grist for any number of Radio National mills while his Catholicism (wink, wink) seemed always to prompt an ambient, sub-aural disdain.
As to the incoming Prime Minister’s view of the world and how it was presented during the campaign, consult the ABC’s loaded coverage of his observation in the days immediately prior to the election that the conflict in Syria was a case of “baddies versus baddies”. Events have shown Abbott to have been tragically accurate, but the ABC presented that characterisation as lamentably and tellingly simplistic. And just for good measure, apropos of no news hook or anything that resembled one, the report (linked above) concluded with three paragraphs of boilerplate quotes from Penny Wong about Labor’s fighting spirit and her colleagues’ passion for “the values of fairness, of opportunity … that are worth fighting for and we’re going to continue doing it.” Wong’s bilge was tacked on, one guesses, just by way of a reminder as to which side of politics comes wreathed in decency and virtue.
One could go on at much greater length about the ABC’s abrogation of even-handedness, but when two of its extraordinarily well-paid talking heads are former spinners for Labor prime ministers – Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien – and there is not one single, solitary conservative seated before an ABC microphone anywhere in the country, is there need to say more?
So the battle plan’s goal should have been to make sure that the ABC takes daily to the crease with a straight bat. Good for Abbott. Good for the country. Good for the ABC.
Instead, what did we get? Malcolm Turnbull, the one man who should never have been allowed anywhere near the portfolio, was placed in charge. In God’s name why? Was this Abbott’s misguided attempt to assure critics he was not the wall-punching troglodyte the ABC had done so much to promote and depict? Did he have a simple brain freeze? Was he so innocent as to believe the predecessor he ousted as his party’s leader could be trusted to work for any cause other than the furtherance of his own ambition?
Whatever Abbott’s reason for installing Turnbull, the consequence of blessing the national broadcaster with his party rival’s benign indulgence rendered all the other exhibits in the prosecution’s case impermissible, unable to be raised as anything more substantial than backbenchers’ gripes. Tactically, the Coalition retained access to the cameras. True, they were apt to be outnumbered, hectored, insulted and edited, but a politician’s ego is a compelling thing, so the moth-like yearning for the spotlight must have stayed a good many tongues.
And, oh, the targets that were going begging! But one had to be able to think strategically, to take in the bigger picture, in order to notice them. Consider the weaponry the ABC presented to critics who, happily for its sake, have never bothered to pick it up. Start with hiring and how the ABC goes about it.
Shortly before the election, the ABC decided it needed a fact-check unit. The position of leader was briefly advertised, then filled almost as quickly. Lord only knows how many applications were received, but no ABC watcher was surprised – disgusted, yes, but not surprised – that the comfy, cushy, well-paid gig went to a member of the ABC’s extended family, Virginia Trioli’s hubby Russell Skelton. As a further confirmation of his credentials, Skelton boasted a solid and documented anti-Abbott activism.
Or take The Drum, which needed a new editor and got one in the shape of friend of the ABC Anne Summers’ boyfriend, Chip Rolley, who did not have to suffer the indignity of earning his six-figure salary in Melbourne. The ABC obligingly moved the operation to Sydney.
It would be tiresome to list all the bedmates who seem somehow, in a critical mass of remarkable coincidences, to be drawing their households’ cheques on the same ABC account, but their numbers are legion. Tony and Sarah, Barrie and Heather etc etc etc – if a government that actually wanted to implement reforms had been serious about doing so, highlighting the fact that the ABC was being run by and for an extended circle of the intimately involved would have made a very handy cudgel. Reasonable people can disagree about gay marriage, but ABC critics have one reason to favour it: it might promote an equality of sorts by matching hetero nepotism at the national broadcaster with its same-sex sibling.
Similarly persuasive in the case for reform would have been a close look at the shows the ABC believes worth producing, who gets paid how much for making them and which of their mates are in the commissioning departments. Until ABC types are obliged to explain their decisions, lay out the reasons why this show was funded and that one wasn’t, it will be forever a mystery how Andrew Denton’s production company seemed only to brainstorm an idea before seeing it brought to the screen. Who, for example, thought Hungry Beast a worthwhile undertaking, other than the small minority who appear to believe that it does the nation no end of good to have “mother***er” and “c***sucker” shouted repeatedly into a million livingrooms?
Or what of Chris Lilley’s excruciatingly appalling exhibitions of what ABC sycophants gush are manifestations of his genius. Donning blackface landed some amateur skylarks in all sorts of trouble when they appeared for two minutes on Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday. Lilly peddled the most shallow racial clichés and offensive stereotypes for an entire, expensively produced season and did so beneath his own layer of burnt cork. The only difference between Hey! Hey! and Jonah from Tonga? Lilly is one of theirs.
Now, once again, Q&A supremo Peter McEvoy, the ex-Media Watch producer and David Marr’s former partner in slime, has executed another undergrad provocation by inviting a posturing Islamist thug to liven up his latest Monday night exercise in audience-stacking and headline-seeking. Make no mistake, McEvoy is unlikely to have experienced a moment’s genuine regret at the outcry over this, his latest outrage. Indeed, if he wasn’t laughing out loud when Turnbull took to Question Time on Tuesday to put some disapproval on the record, he should have been. (To grasp the nature of McEvoy’s look-at-me perpetual adolescence, read Paul Sheehan’s column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.)
The ABC had erred and erred grievously, Turnbull announced, and that was why he would be so keen to read the findings when it had finished investigating itself. Yes, the ABC is, once again, investigating itself, just as it did when it probed Radio 774 Jon Faine’s bias, found him guilty, then allowed the green-dusted Gillard devotee to go straight back to business as usual. Meanwhile, Turnbull reprises his polished impression of Claude Raines playing Captain Renault in Casablanca. The next time the Minister for Communications is a feted guest on McEvoy’s show, something that happens at least several times every year, one hopes the duo has the decency to shut the door for privacy before laughing themselves half-sick in the green room.
All of the above is but a tiny sampling of the various ABC maladies that have been allowed to go untreated throughout the almost two years Abbott & Co might have done something about them. Fearful of getting the national broadcaster offside — they have not noticed, one gathers, that it is already their sworn foe — Coalition members have raised the odd voice but nary a correcting finger. So the travesties keep coming.
The ABC reports that the RAN is torturing asylum seekers when it isn’t and wouldn’t, but all the Coalition can muster is a few days’ fuming before that slander is allowed to slip and fade. The ABC ignored until it was no longer possible to avert its attention the sordid details emerging from the Royal Commission into Trade Union corruption, since then doing no more than the government stroke in reporting just a bit of it. Do we hear Coalition complaints about that sort of inspired negligence? Of course not. Could it be that members of the Coalition feel they owe Turnbull their loyalty, that it is not their job to make the minister’s life difficult? If so, they have a right to wonder when he will begin to return the favour.
Finally, though, just maybe, far too much has come to be seen by some in the Coalition party room as enough. According to The Australian, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews is boycotting Q&A in protest. It remains to be seen how many of his colleagues will join him, although one sign is encouraging: Sarah Henderson, the Liberal MHR for Corrangamite and herself a former ABC journalist, is demanding that McEvoy be sacked.
That would be a good start, but only a start.
Unless and until a broad, deep, unfettered and fully independent investigation of the ABC is instituted and its findings acted upon, the reasonable hopes of election night 2013 will have been betrayed. The Coalition may well kid itself that there is a tactical advantage in the mere act of securing a little airtime, even adverse airtime, but there isn’t. Not a jot of it.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online