Politicians who boycott media organisations with whom they disagree politically rarely come out looking good. UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock tried it with News Corp in Britain 25 years ago, and never won an election. It took Tony Blair’s pragmatism and a long weekend with Rupert Murdoch on Hayman Island to reboot the relationship with News. Three years later New Labour achieved an historic landslide.
Tony Abbott and his ministers’ mandated boycott of Q&A, which they see as the lefty-liberal core of the ABC’s un-Australianism, has different motivations. But the refusal to engage with the public on live TV is not just counter-productive for the Coalition, it is profoundly undemocratic.
The Leveson inquiry in the UK made much of the unhealthy relationship between Murdoch and the political class. Former News journalist Tony Abbott displays the same reckless affinity with the oft-declared distaste of the world’s most powerful media baron for the ABC and public service media in general (see too the current campaign against the BBC by the UK’s Conservative Government), and it could come back to haunt him.
Presented by Q&A producers with the open goal of a misogynistic homegrown jihadi being invited onto the show and allowed to ask a question, and then to make a follow up comment which was as stupid as it was revealing of the jihadi mindset, the Coalition and News Corp are in full anti-ABC flow, working apparently in concert. They see a moment of opportunity to wound a hated enemy, and boy are they piling on the pressure.
As a subscriber to The Australian, I’ve gotten used to the procession of rants, rages and diatribes that comprise most of its coverage of the ABC. And that’s just the readers’ comments.
On this issue some of the columnists make me think of Putin’s trolls over in St Petersburg, flooding the world’s media with ideologically motivated myth and propaganda in matters such as the shooting down of MH17 (a CIA plot) and the annexation of Crimea (a response to Ukrainian neo-nazis).
Then again, maybe Abbott thinks the Russian media are a model for the ABC to follow. They at least know whose side they’re on.
This is a serious crisis for public service media in Australia, and a real threat to the ABC’s journalistic independence going forward.
Voters living in electorates held by some of the Abbott government’s most prominent ministers support the ABC so strongly they would vote to change the constitution to protect it from political interference.
Abbott appears not to care about public opinion on this matter, and so the hostile rhetoric towards an organisation that for eight decades has delivered something more valuable to Australians than merely making profits for the Murdoch family or some other billionaire pours out from his government day after day.
Q&A has apologised for the Zaky Mallah episode, and did so almost immediately. But has that produced some goodwill from the Coalition and its media allies? On the contrary, they have treated the apology as a sign of weakness and moved in for the kill. This stoush is not about Mallah, it’s about the future of public service media in Australia.
In The Australian on Monday, Mark Day opined that:
One thing is certain: the motives and principles on which the national broadcaster was founded 83 years ago are no longer relevant.
Day could not be more wrong about that. Public service media are more important in the digital age than ever before. We live in a global culture of communication chaos, where everyone has a voice but relatively few have anything much to say. We require guides and gatekeepers, sifters and filters to separate the wheat from the chaff and help us make sense of these complex times.
Commerce increasingly drives culture, and journalism, which leads to something like A Current Affair, Nine’s primetime advertorial which devotes much of its airtime to selling assorted varieties of snake oil in the guise of doing “journalism”. Without the ABC, that would increasingly be the future of ‘news-oriented’ programming on free-to-air TV in Australia.
The ABC keeps the bastards honest. It maintains a quality standard, a benchmark that competitors have to respect and reflect in their own output. Sky News is so good because ABC journalism sets the bar high. In the US, where there is no public service media to speak of, the News Corp equivalent is Fox News.
And the ABC keeps alive the core values of Australian national culture, a culture which evolves and changes over time, bringing into view as it does complex, contentious, undeniably difficult issues such as that now raised by radical Islam’s increasingly uneasy co-existence with liberal, secular Australia.
Mallah’s appearance on Q&A was a consequence of the ABC’s sincere desire – I believe sincere – to be seen to engage with this important but highly charged debate. How to combat religious intolerance and misogyny of the type Mallah promotes without making Muslims as a whole feel that they are not welcome in Australia?
Maybe it was an error to think that exposing the ABC audience to a living breathing jihadist would add something to the national debate. Maybe it was naive to assume that the appearance would be recognised as consistent with a free and independent public service journalism, even if disagreed with by some. But these guys are out there, are they not? And no matter how offensive Mallah’s views on women are, he is today a free, law-abiding citizen whose case did raise the legitimate issue of who would be empowered to deprive a citizen of his or her citizenship when that citizen had been found guilty of no terrorist offence.
Wouldn’t it have been better for Australia to be discussing that question these last two weeks, rather than the unseemly spectacle of its elected government bashing the ABC like the school bully threatened by the brainy kid in the class?
If the Mallah episode was a mistake of editorial judgement, the ABC fessed up without hesitation. If only more news organisations took the same approach to their mistakes. If that error is now to be the excuse for a campaign to undermine a core foundation of Australian culture for nearly a century, the democratic future of this country is bleak.
One more thing. Kinnock boycotted News International, it of the phone-hacking scandal and a privately-owned company openly opposed to the Labour left, and willing publisher of any old rubbish if it aided that cause. The parallel here would be Bill Shorten refusing to be interviewed by or give off-the-record comments to The Australian and the Daily Telegraph.
But the ABC is a public service organisation, and Q&A the only place in the public sphere where Australians go to hear and see their politicians debate, argue, and explain themselves before a live audience of their constituents, weekly and throughout the year. It should not be a publicly-funded politician’s, far less an elected government’s right to evade that accountability on ideological grounds.
In his boycott of Q&A, Abbott has walked away from his responsibility as a leader of all Australians to submit his government and his policies to that kind of democratic scrutiny. Many Coalition politicians have been on Q&A and lived to tell the tale. Hockey’s solo performance in May, after a deeply unpopular budget, was judged a success by Business Insider. It increases our respect for politicians, left or right, when they are prepared to stand up for what they believe in.
And if they sometimes get a heckle or a jeer? Well, excuse me, but politics is a contact sport in Australia, and Abbott – who when in opposition stood proudly beneath a banner calling Julia Gillard a “witch”, and who in parliament used the phrase “died of shame” when it was clearly associated with an offensive slur by shockjock Alan Jones on the occasion of Gillard’s recent loss of her father – seems oddly sensitive to the possibility of a little public criticism on live TV. The Australian people can’t be trusted to decide whose side they’re on, it seems.
When the British Conservative Party refused to participate in a BBC debate for similar sorts of reasons to those advanced by the boycotters of Q&A, in response the program’s producers put an empty chair in front of the camera where the interviewee should have been, which sat there for the duration, silent but resonant.
Abbott has refused to appear on Q&A for several years now, despite what I’m reliably informed are repeated efforts by ABC managers to change his mind. More than one of them has told me how good they thought he was on Q&A when he deigned to appear, and how much they would like him to take part again.
If the boycott continues for another week, let’s see Q&A set up that empty chair, with the name of the Coalition minister who should have been on placed in the middle of the panel (Malcolm Turnbull is scheduled to appear). Now that would be a declaration of independence!