Intimidated ABC embraces self-censorship


Former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos ABC Q&A, 22 June, approximately 57 minutes into an hour-long program. It felt as if it was going to be one of those Monday evening spot fires that would extinguish itself by the end of the week.

But by Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had announced an urgent government inquiry into Zaky Mallah's appearance on the program. Government MPs lined up in support.

The conflagration has been framed in any number of ways, mostly ones that serve the current government's priority on preserving national security. Such framing has centred on character assessments not just of Mallah but staff at the ABC, who were accused of engaging in 'a form of sedition' and 'terrorist recruitment advertisement'.

Nine days after the episode aired, the ABC Board released a statement indicating that an internal formal warning had been issued against its executive producer. It may be the case that the episode constituted a failure of editorial judgment but the sense of appeasement makes me uneasy.

When the highest government official asks the public broadcaster whose side it is on, it inevitably makes me think of the Philippine media under Ferdinand Marcos (pictured), when the only side to be on is his. Broadcasters as well as the press came to anticipate direct interventions from Malacañang Palace; eventually, none had to be made.

One story from my childhood, which may be apocryphal, is that the beloved animé TV series Voltes V was banned for being subversive; such are the sensitivities of undemocratic governments.  It seems absurd from an Australian vantage point, until one hears that the Prime Minister has just forbidden the entire frontbench from appearing on a panel show.

If this is starting to look, smell and walk like a vendetta, then maybe it is. This is not the first time that Prime Minister Abbott has put pressure on the ABC. In January 2014, after the ABC and The Guardian jointly revealed that Australian agencies had wiretapped former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudohoyono and his wife in 2009, he said: 'I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone's side but its own'.

Around the time, there were also concerns about ABC reports regarding the way that the Royal Australian Navy had handled a group of asylum seekers. The PM said that the ABC should have 'at least some basic affection for the home team', and that 'you shouldn't leap to be critical of your own country'.

The reaction to Mallah's remark on Q&A is therefore part of a pattern where otherwise legitimate critique about editorial process, including judgment of public interest, has become indistinct from accusations of bias, disloyalty, and – it seems lately – aiding terrorists. It is the relentless hyperbole that gives it away; this is not a national security matter. It is vapid opportunism.  

The Coalition's hostility toward the ABC is not just talk. The 2014 budget cut $254 million over five years from ABC funding, leading to 241 redundancies across the country as of February, with the greatest impact on rural and regional areas. Over the past couple weeks, Coalition members and supporters have agitated for further cuts and even the privatisation of the ABC. Remarkably, both Liberal MP Steven Ciobo and Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) research fellow Patrick Hannaford last week ran the argument that the ABC does not need to run a 24-hour news channel because Sky News exists.

The case for savings would be more convincing if the same crowd weren't also saying that the ABC is a lefty lynch mob. It is an ill-founded perception. As The Guardian Data Blog points out, ABC coverage of the last two federal elections was evenly split between the Coalition and Labor. Newspoll and Essential surveys in 2013 also indicate that a high proportion of Australians 'believe the ABC is balanced and even-handed when reporting news and current affairs' and trust it above all other media outlets.

If the ABC leant any way at all, it probably leans right. An empirical study of partisanship in Australian media outlets shows that over the period 1999-2007, ABC TV News had a statistically significant slant toward the Coalition. John Howard was the Prime Minister during that period, suggesting that maybe the issue isn't ABC bias but dismal government performance. During the tumultuous Rudd-Gillard years, Labor members were known to routinely complain that the ABC was giving the Opposition a free pass.

In other words, it is not the weaknesses of the ABC that have been illuminated by the careless remark of a dubious character on its panel show. In their reaction to the incident, members of the federal government have shown theirs.  

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .


Topic tags: Fatima Measham, ABC, Q&A, media, press freedom, public broadcasting



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Existing comments

An excellent summation of the Abbott government's bias against the ABC. But it was good to read that Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull will not take the Zaky Mallah case any further. At least the alternative Liberal Party leader demonstrates the difference between 'liberal' and the bully-boy conservativism favoured by the prime minister. Hopefully he doesn't follow Peter Costello's inaction on leadership and waste his final years in politics on the back bench.
Ian Fraser | 06 July 2015

The assault on the ABC, following the vilification of Gillian Triggs, then the 2 years jail for reporting child abuse, suggest a government that has either lost its way or an extreme right wing anti-conservative party trying to introduce a system like that of Marcos' Philippines or Al Sisi's Egypt. Not a pleasant thought.
Bilal | 06 July 2015

I find it disappointing that we have no bill of rights that insists on the right of freedom of speech. Why are we so scared of anything some idiot has to say. (I mean Mallach, not Abbott, but the same applies). If Abbott et al believe that some poor sap watching QandA moves from being a pacifist lefty wanting their Monday night fix of sound-bites, to fighting for a foreign army, based on one random audience member, then they wouldn't be boycotting it. They'd be tearing the door down to get on and sway more bleeding hearts to join their pogrom in Nauru, PNG and the Northern Territory.
Josh Hillman | 06 July 2015

You are quite correct, Fatima. The whole Zaky Mallah/Steve Ciobo exchange on Q & A was best forgotten. It is worrying that the Prime Minister, for all his education and purported intelligence, appears not to understand the role of a national broadcaster nor free speech.
Edward Fido | 07 July 2015

Mr Abbott believes that he who pays the piper calls the tune. He also acts as if he believes that his way is the only way. It would be interesting to know how much time he spends actually watching (and, on radio, listening to) the ABC, rather than receiving reports from those who are aggrieved.
Hal Cain | 07 July 2015

Fatima, thanks for this clear and accurate analysis of the government beat-up on the ABC. Such behaviour is not only a discredit but a danger to us all. We need a free, invaluable, independent ABC to keep naming the truth of things.
Kevin Bates | 07 July 2015

What on earth is going on? I've always felt comfortable about being an Australian with the joy of having free speech but it seems that's not the way it is any more? The disgrace about the abuse handed out to Gillian Triggs I thought was a jealous 'man thing' but it goes on to the threat of being arrested if one complains about treatment handed out to those making legitimate complaints - so it's really true that the Government wants the ABC out of the way. It's just getting too weird now. Please stop this nonsense Mr Abbott and please stick to your agreement Mr. Turnbull.
Mary Maraz
Mary Maraz | 07 July 2015

Thank you Fatima very much for you important article to give a free voice to all Australians via ABC, in this time we need your courage and we need ABC to give us unbiased news and comments, Ewa
Ewa Komorowska | 07 July 2015

Fatima As I have found with your other articles, you put your point of view most cogently - well done and keep it up. And, by the way, I totally agree with you!!! It will be most interesting to see if Malcolm Turnbull turns up on Q & A next week.
Noel Will | 07 July 2015

Nicely argued Ms Measham. You will not get an invite to the Libs Christmas party this year. Two things occur to me from the article. The first is how strange for a political party which needs to expound its ideas to the public, to ban itself from a platform (Q&A) which gave it an opportunity to do so. If Q&A would agree perhaps a cardboard cut-out of whichever Liberal polly was refusing to be present could be sat in the appropriate chair, and pre-recorded 3 word "policy statements" could be played in place of live 3 word "policy statements". It would not make much difference. In my second point I am entirely serious. The time has come for the ABC to have a funding model that does not rely on the good graces of the encumbent government. If we are to have an independent broadcaster it must be truly independent, and not a beggar at the rich man's table. Perhaps a levy through the tax system would serve..
Vin Victory | 07 July 2015

I just want to reiterate what other readers have said. Your article is accurate, cogent and your fears realistic ones.
Anna | 07 July 2015

Thank you for this summary of the nonsense that has gone on. Greg Sheridan got it right on Q&A last night, when he said that the PM was over-reacting, and any further ABC-knocking would be worse for him than for the ABC.
Rodney Wetherell | 07 July 2015

congratulations Fatima: your final sentence says it all very succinctly.
Ernest Azzopardi | 07 July 2015

I usually watch Q&A but did not see this particular episode. It certainly does seem to have offended our PM and he has made his displeasure known. He can be a bit over the top in his language, but that is not a failing that is his alone. ABC should remain independent in its presentations, however because the ABC is government funded the Communications Minister and/or PM do have the Australian constituency to answer to. Overall, I think Q&A is as capable of making mistakes as any other program. We all want ABC to present quality programs to the very best of its ability. And for our PM to chill.
Pam | 07 July 2015

Hi Fatima, My views exactly. I witnessed at first hand the abuse of power by Marcos. Abbott is like him in many ways.
Gavin O'Brien | 07 July 2015

This is not just random noise from Abbott, but a desperate populist attempt to rabble-rouse around "flag and patriotism " issues. National threats, fear, enemies, subversion, terror, panic! The idea is to keep economic and policy failures off the front pages; but it will not work when the current lack of leadership on these issues come home to roost with falling wages and falling standards of living over the next 12 months. Please…let Labor start getting their act together.
Eugene | 08 July 2015

I hope the ABC is being intimidated and doesn't resort to self-censorship (and is merely playing the game to prevent further undue restrictions, as we all do in the case of workplace politics just to keep the peace and get along). But there is a worrying trend that this Coalition government and Barnaby Joyce's reference to 'obeying Abbott like a CEO' shows that any attempts at transparency/objectivity/diversity will be branded as 'leftist-leaning'.
AURELIUS | 09 July 2015

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