There’s something endearing about tax-fed ABC people’s lack of self-awareness. Those in Entertainment are convinced they’re on a mission to “entertain, surprise, delight and help us understand the world we live in” and to this end they have mobilised “the best of new and established Australian talent”. They want to take risks and push boundaries, deliver public benefit with impact, and nurture new talent “with heart and purpose”.
Sure you do, ABC execs. But what’s on the very same ABC page as those lofty sentiments? A photo of two luridly-clad grinning blond drag queens, one sporting purple-tinted tresses and resting a beefy arm bedaubed with tattoos. Their merriment concerns a placard they hold (trigger warning): “Where do you hide your DICK?”
This is as subtle as the graphic on Episode 4 of the ABC’s 2020 At Home Along Together. That one shows a kneeling woman being penetrated by three men anally, vaginally and orally. It’s ABC comedy, you see.
The blonds’ placard pic is on a webpage soliciting entertainment proposals from external film producers, to show what the ABC really likes, i.e. “What we’re looking for … to hold our loyal audience and attract new ones too.”
I chanced upon the page when studying the ABC’s Diversity and Inclusion Guidelines for contributors. Diversity is something their ABC really is passionate about: just watch the screen’s parade of ABC Aborigines, young ladies of a certain religion, Sri Lankan asylum seekers and an eclectic mix of anyone-but-Anglos. ABC execs backstage busily tick boxes. They enter every glimpse of a “diverse” Australian into spreadsheets for annual ABC reporting.
There is one minority the progressive ABC overlooks, and that’s the 49 per cent of conservative voters. Imagine ABC Guidelines demanding that both its content and its crews comprise 49 per cent conservatives, to reflect the national culture and make-up. And imagine executives having to organise career paths to ensure conservatives rise to ABC leadership roles.
With that exception, the Diversity Guidelines are draconian in intent, a term which references the ancient Greek Mr Draco, who decreed death for pinching a turnip. I don’t mean that chair Ita Buttrose and MD David Anderson would literally execute anyone for putting to air and screen too many Anglo-WASPy types. But the ABC guidelines have Draco’s implacable tone:
Your intentions for representation will be captured in a Diversity and Inclusion Plan and submitted for consideration within our commissioning process.
The ABC helpfully provides a worked-out Example Plan for three one-hour science pieces – a big deal, obviously. I am not making anything up here. First, the applicants have to answer,
Does this program reflect the diverse Australian community? (i.e. in its representation of theme, story lines or subject matter)?
Please explain how this program will help the ABC achieve its diversity and inclusion goals in terms of on-screen and off-screen representation.
For the characters/presenters, this model has mobilised 18 CIS-females and only 15 CIS-Males, reflecting the ABC matriarchy. (The ABC clarifies that “CIS gender” people are those who are born male or female and none-the-less continue to think they are male or female, respectively). The model also has one gender-diverse lass/lad/whatever, and one shy gender-creature who “prefers not to say”. Also involved are 11 non-Anglos, five Aborigines, three Torres Strait Islanders, two disabled, and a handsome tally of eleven LGBTQI+’s.
The ABC defines the LGB alphabet soup as “Stands for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, people in intersex variations, plus other diverse sexual orientations and gender identities”. Maths-minded readers will twig that the LGBABC’s total is 16 per cent of the applicant group – I’ll get back to that percentage shortly.
The non-Anglos break down into a Norwegian playing the movie lead (another Norwegian has snuck in as third assistant-firector); and two supporting Koreans (I hope they’re not the Kim Jong-Un variety). There’s a Polish presenter; three Indonesian extras run by the “Indonesian/Australian” producer (looks like jobs for the boys/girls/whatever?), two German extras and three more extras from – you won’t believe this – Iceland! The ABC doesn’t name them but the trio must be Bjork Asgeirsson, Ingibjorg Einarsdottir and Gudmundur Ragnarsson, who are household-name movie extras in their capital Reykjavik.
For the off-screen crew of this ABC hypothetical, they include 36 CIS males and females and only one gender-cranky person; four Aborigines; no Torres Strait Islanders (there’ll be riots in Badu and Dauan over that); five disabled; and only three gays (What? Why? I need a safe space!). An Australian/Korean has found his/her/their niche in standby props and an Australian/Japanese is working on Continuity. Let the credits roll, say I.
The Commissioning for Diversity and Inclusion Guidelines for screen content place diversity and inclusion at the heart of our planning, commissioning and content making processes.
Here’s some ABC hurdles for those pitching:
1/ Scripted: Content that reflects the identities of the many cultures and communities in Australia, through stories and characters that reflect the experiences of under-represented groups.
2/ Non-scripted: Content that explicitly and predominantly explores issues of identity relating to under- represented groups, including Indigenous matters, gender, cultural diversity, or has a specific focus on LGBTQI+ communities, people with disability or other under- represented groups.
The cast shall include:
At least one main cast member is Indigenous Australian, culturally and linguistically diverse, a person with disability or identifies as LGBTQI+ AND at least 50% of the main cast are women or gender diverse.
In yet another clause, headed “Nothing about us without us”, the ABC demands that
All productions about a specific diverse community or subject must include at least one person who is representative of that diversity within the core creative team.” (My emphasis).
In other words, when filming about Eskimos make sure you’ve got Eskimos on the taxpayer payroll.
You will recall that in the first worked-out table, the ABC has arranged, consciously or not, for 16 per cent of the series’ characters to be LGBTQI+. This slightly overdoes the ABC’s Guidelines, “What does it mean to look and sound like Australia today?” There it claims, “11% of Australians identify as LGBTQI+”. The implication is that ABC programming should reflect at least that ratio.
While I kow-tow to the LGBTQI+ industry as enthusiastically as everyone else, I reckon the ABC’s 11 per cent figure is a fantasy. It would imply that in my short street near Essendon, there resides around 30 gender-diverse citizens, enough for a my-street mini-Mardi Gras next February.
The ABC quotes its source: “In 2012, the Department of Health and Ageing estimated that Australians of diverse sexual orientation, sex or gender identity may account for up to 11 per cent of the Australian population.” (My emphasis. “May” and “up to” seem rubbery). Others citing the department’s 11 per cent include the Human Rights Commission (2014) and Latrobe University, suggesting the figure has achieved urban-myth status.
The department has provided me with its 2012 report which itself provides no source for its 11 per cent claim. Contrary to that figure, the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimates that 3.2% of adults identify as homosexual or bisexual and 2.4% as “not sure/other” orientation.
Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014 General Social Survey, 3.0 per cent of adults identified as gay, lesbian or as having an ‘other’ sexual orientation (ABS 2015). The 2016 Census showed same-sex couples were only 1 per cent of all couple families. The ABC might be comfortable with its 11% because it’s heavy with capital city-dwelling, well-educated and affluent types, where the LGBTQI+ group is over-represented.
It celebrates any of its minorities with double-identity status. For example, it has at least two proud gay Aborigines. One is Jack Evans (right) – ABC Behind The News reporter: “Growing up as a queer Aboriginal man, I struggled to see myself reflected in the media. The ABC has provided me with the platform to be the representation I never had.”
The other is the ABC’s ACT newsreader Dan Bourchier (left). He says, “I also regularly speak about my Indigenous heritage, and about being gay and part of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
The ABC imagines that its new programs are
brave, bold, ambitious and accessible stories that reflect shape and enrich our lives… distinctive, intelligent, innovative and culturally diverse… ignite national conversations, foster understanding and create meaningful change… sound like contemporary Australia and creatively take risks and push boundaries.
Here’s the reality, like fawning over would-be Aborigine Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu nonsense:
Based on his award-winning book, author Bruce Pascoe leads us on a revelatory and inspiring journey across Australia to present a very different history of our nation and the First Australians. This is a story you have never heard, facts you were never told. The true story of Aboriginal achievement. The First Australians as farmers, bakers, designers, traders and astronomers. This 2 x 1 hour series will redefine Aboriginal history and will present lessons from our past that can shape our future.
The ABC did its best to railroad the innocent Cardinal Pell to prison, but the ABC website skites:
Reputation Rehab sees co-hosts Kirsten Drysdale and Zoe Norton Lodge find reputations in distress and provide a unique opportunity for transformation and redemption. We are living in an age of outrage culture and everyone is tired of it. Barely a week goes by without someone getting publicly crucified in a torrent of angry tweets, by opinion pieces, radio and TV punditry, for real or imagined mistakes.
Are you listening, Louise Milligan?
This series is a timely response to the culture everyone wants to change. It tackles shame head-on and breaks the outrage cycle by using comedy and empathy. Steeped in the conventions of reality TV, Reputation Rehab draws inspiration from scandals, personal failure and public humiliation.
I also noticed the ABC take on Australia Day 2021:
The ABC aired January 26 bringing an Indigenous perspective on (sic) the event, with crosses to Survival Day and Invasion Day events across Australia.
In a curious omission, the ABC brags that since its 1932 Charter, it has been “independent and innovative…widely appealing and specialised” … blah, blah, blah, finishing with, “We are Yours, Australia.” But in the listing of seven Charter responsibilities, the website omits the crucial one:
…to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism.
A Freudian slip perhaps.
I’ve decided to pitch some stories myself to the ABC commissioning department, with striking ideas inspired by true events. Adhering to the brief, I’ve tried to be
…bold, provocative, original, and push people’s buttons. They should create conversations and make you think, laugh or cry – or all the above. Please think of our previous successes as a challenge to aim high with your ideas – ambitious concepts are welcome! Factual series that dig deep into unique stories and worlds we haven’t seen before, or characters that we don’t see on TV every day. They can be issue-based, cultural, political, historical, or presenter-led, but must be contemporary in tone and style.
Here I go:
Pitch One: “The Girl Who Fought Against Union Power”
Episode One: Fatima gets a photocopying job at headquarters of the National Blacksmiths Union. Anglo-Saxon red-necks make fun of her hijab. But with her sassy and loveable competence, and support from an Aboriginal accountant, she becomes secretary to the boss. Quickly mastering legal lore, she helps stonewall regulators who are persecuting him over the union’s accounts. The episode ends positively with boss and assembled staff toasting her with 1964-vintage Veuve Cliquot.
Episode Two: Fatima notices sheafs of receipts from union credit cards in the boss’s trash. He’s been visiting odd places and sending his comely co-directors on shopping trips to Paris, accommodation courtesy Hotel de Crillon. She emotes to camera, “Our low-paid blacksmith members are being robbed blind by these union heavies.” She confronts the boss, he confesses and intends to board a flight to Peru. They struggle for a phone, she manages to dial the corporate cops at ASIC and ICAC. They arrive in squad cars with sirens blaring seven years later. Meanwhile she visits blacksmith members and signs them over to the Coachdrivers Union where she becomes the first martial-arts-capable President. Ends.
Pitch Two: “The Winds of Change”
Episode 1: An admired Greens leader, Dr Robert Sepia, retires with a friend to a pristine island home called Erewhon, off Tasmania. Here they enjoy studying the migratory birds. Cue Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as they splash through wetlands at sunrise. A new neighbour turns up – a jobless Aboriginal ‘dozer driver named Mick. His kids are hungry because Dr Sepia has stifled mining and logging projects. Flashbacks show Mick driving his ‘dozer up to Dr Sepia, who has chained himself to mining equipment. Cue scary music and a suspenseful closure.
Episode 2: Dr Sepia has heartily recommended a windfarm consortium to the Government to reduce planet-killing CO2 emissions, but the company decides that his Erewhon Island is ideal for 163 bird-mincing turbines. Dr Sepia recruits Mick and his dozer to push down the project’s fences and they battle balaclava-wearing windfarm security guards. Sound-track: Tchaikowski’s 1812 Overture. With their flower-children supporters, they force the evil wind farmers to relocate to Sandy Bay. Dr Sepia and Mick are reconciled; Mick, speaking palawa kani, welcomes Dr Sepia to lutruwita (Tasmania). Dr Sepia prepares Mick’s kids a vegan feast of lentils and tofu. Ends.
The ABC will love my pitches. I’ll just need to fill in those 27 Diversity and Inclusion forms.
Editor’s note: When first published, the caption beneath the picture atop this page misidentified Nakkiah Lui as Miranda Tapsell.
Tony Thomas’ latest essay collection “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from publisher ConnorCourt
 “We have been collecting portrayal data for several years but this is the first time we have prescribed Guidelines, to track progress towards our goal of reflecting the Australian population in our content and teams.”