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Abbott should not punish the ABC


Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Prime minister Tony Abbott chose his words carefully when he said in Parliament on Tuesday that he 'sincerely regret[s] any embarrassment that recent media reports have caused' Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. 

It is always good to express regret in these situations. But did he mean that the media was doing its job and that the embarrassment was collateral damage? Or was he regretting that the media was out of line when it published details of Australian spying on Indonesia?

Some conservative voices have made no secret of the fact that they blame the media for damaging Australia's relations with Indonesia, and they should be punished. Outspoken monarchist Professor David Flint tweeted that the Government should retaliate against the ABC by reviewing the ABC's overseas broadcasting contract. 

Significantly, Murdoch commentators Chris Kenny and Rita Panahi berated the ABC and The Guardian for what Panahi called their 'callous disregard for the consequences'. 

This utilitarian argument of Kenny and Panahi violates the fundamental principle of virtue ethics. Its ideal is that we should give priority to doing good and avoiding evil over consideration of the consequences of our actions. The same can be said for the campaign of vengeance and intimidation that Flint seems to propose, in that it targets the principle for the sake of achieving a particular political and diplomatic outcome for the nation at this time.

At stake we have freedom of the press, and the independence and integrity of the ABC. These should not be given nor taken away on the whim of political or diplomatic expediency. The same can be said for spying itself, which is a potentially justifiable offence against human dignity. As such, it is akin to the just war and cannot be sanctioned lightly.

ABC managing director Mark Scott made the distinction between the national interest and the public interest when he was before a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday. There's no doubt that publication of the Edward Snowden leaks damaged Australia's short-term national interest, but the more fundamental public interest is served by keeping intact the democratic principles embodied in the above mentioned principles.

As it happens, Scott had his resolve tested during the week when The Australian published a leaked document containing salary figures for key ABC staff members. This publication will cause untold inconvenience and embarrassment for management, and also damage ABC staff morale. But it will also strengthen respect for these principles if the ABC is dogged by them at the same time as the Government. If the ABC can avoid hypocrisy in its response to the salary leaks, the short-term pain will no doubt lead to long-term gain.

It's also important to note that adherence to these principles is not blind. The ABC's guidelines stipulate that its 'editorial decisions are not [to be] improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests'. 'Proper' influence might involve action to avoid endangering the lives of particular individuals. This was the case in 2010 when western newspapers blacked out the names mentioned in Wikileaks information where publication would have left the individuals vulnerable to retaliation in foreign countries. 

Guardian Australia editor Katharine Viner told Crikey that The Guardian acted responsibly in Australia this week, in the way it has overseas in the past: 'We liaised carefully with the relevant government agencies, in order to give them the opportunity to contextualise the document and to express any concerns that were genuinely about threats to national security rather than diplomatic embarrassment.'

An important early measure of Tony Abbott's statesmanship will be whether he manages to rise above the present embarrassment, and resists the temptation to punish the ABC, so that media practitioners can serve our democracy for the long term.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Tony Abbott, SBY, Indonesia, David Flint, ethics, ABC, press freedom



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Existing comments

Tony Abbott's statesmanship!? He's always been a head kicker, and a bully-boy, who only plays zero-sum games. Do we really expect him to display any statesmanship?

Ginger Meggs | 23 November 2013  

Sorry Mr Mullins but "independence and integrity" are words which can no longer be uttered in the same breath as the ABC. The ABC news and current affairs departments should be sold to the Unions then at least there would be no pretence it represented all Australians. As for the Guardian and ABC acting responsibly and in the interest of the country just look at the result of their handling of the current crisis. Listening to the ABC one would think they were relishing the situation that Tony Abbott has to clean up hopeful that he wont be able to stop the boats now.

Realist | 24 November 2013  

Hopefully Tony Abbott will rise to the occasion in regard to not penalising the ABC for its part in precipitating this belated and confected crisis with Indonesia. Whether these revelations did any good is a question anyone is entitled to ask. Just about everyone involved in the whole affair seems to be marked with some sort of hypocrisy. Self-serving justification doesn't wash that away. I am hoping, after this huge hiccup and assertions of moral righteousness and moral outrage from various parties involved or wishing, for various reasons, to comment on it, the relationship between our two countries will go back to relative normalcy. For the average citizen this has been a reminder of how nations (including Indonesia whose hands are not clean) conduct intelligence. I think it would be unwise to expect this to change.

Edward F | 25 November 2013  

The truth is that -- contrary to the PM's "form of words" -- it wasn't the Indonesian government and leadership who were embarrassed last week; it was Australia and our heavy-handed and undisciplined "spies". The Indonesians were rightly angry, just as truculent and "patriotic" Australians would have been were the situation reversed.
On the contrary, I found the PM's intransigence -- stripped of its verbal care, that's what it was -- potentially dangerous. Now we see real hostility against us in Indonesia, with government retaliation and street demonstrations: and if things get out of have and Australian property [say our Embassy] or lives are damaged, what will the reactions be? Would the Australian population accept Indonesian "regret" as enough? Would there be calls for some "action" and what might it be?
My own view is that behind our government's, "Indonesia will do what we want them to" attitude is a serious strand of residual racism. If Indonesia also thinks that -- and why wouldn't they? -- then the problem is far more serious than has so far been acknowledged.

John CARMODY | 25 November 2013  

Realist, the search for truth and real answers is a work in progress. Cowardice, and scapegoating, are its opponents. You seem to favour the latter.
The ABC with the Guardian are the only voices of authentic journalism in our country. We rely on them for at least a semblance of truth. Perhaps you and your ilk could come to terms with the fact that white Australians, albeit subconsciously, look down on our brown skinned neighbours. Racism
is still a major factor in the pathetic way this P.M of ours has responded to the present crisis.

john hill | 25 November 2013  

Surely Tony Abbott and statesmanship are an oxymoron?
Indonesians, like us, have long memories. Abbott's dogged refusal to apologise will mark the lowest point in our dilomatic relationship with a developing democratic and friendly near neighbour for many years to come.

Alex Njoo | 25 November 2013  

Even though this author seeks to eliminate any spike raised against the ABC, the last word either in attack or defence of the circumstances remains squarely the right of the PM.

snowman | 25 November 2013  

The hatred displayed by opponents of Tony Abbott is something rarely witnessed in Australian politics. It began well before the election. So far, from a swinging voter, there doesn't seem to be any need to call him a head kicker and bully boy. The ALP have their fair share of people who do the same in Govt and now in Opposition. Tony's Christian faith rarely gets a mention on this forum: time to back a man with who does value human life and human dignity. It is not an easy job being PM and wasn't for Julia Gillard either but step back, and give him at least twelve moths. He won! We wait and then judge at the polls in three years - not condemn him in less than three!

Jackie | 25 November 2013  

Wasn't it the ALP who wanted to curb the media? That is what I recall. Abbott has not yet suggested that he curbs the ABC: despite many calls to do just that!

Jackie | 25 November 2013  

Spot on, Realist. I think the left has not quite grasped that stacking all your current affairs discussion programs with leftists goes to integrity. And your news programs too: such as the occasion political reporter Heather Ewart (wife of former ALP adviser and host of ABC's "Insiders" Barry Cassidy) breathlessly described an early PM Gillard speech as "brilliant" on the evening news. The linkages between the ABC personnel and the ALP is byzantine. That's independence and integrity rolled into one for the left! The day I see Q&A run for a month without a split of at least 2 lefties (not including leftist Tony Jones) to one Malcolm Turnbull - type token conservative, the non-left among us might tentatively begin to reassociate the terms "ABC" and "integrity". Oh, for Ross Symonds, James Dibble, and Bill and Robert Peach!

HH | 25 November 2013  

Ginger Meggs, the voice I have heard least over the past week or so, has been Tony Abbott. Whilst hysterical voices on all sides of the debate have been hyperventilating, I've noticed how measured and careful Tony Abbott has been. "Head kicker"... come now, isn't it time to move beyond stereotypes? (Oh, and has anyone noticed how little mileage he has made out of the fact that this whole mess is the previous Labor govt's anyway?!)

Advent-ageous | 26 November 2013  

Jackie, now that you mention Tony's Christian faith, can you explain which aspect of that faith endorses the cruelty our country imposes on asylum seekers?

Janet | 27 November 2013  

"This utilitarian argument of Kenny and Panahi violates the fundamental principle of virtue ethics. Its ideal is that we should give priority to doing good and avoiding evil over consideration of the consequences of our actions" And just what 'good' would that be?

GreyZeke | 28 November 2013  

Well put Michael. The ABC - in my view, a media outlet we should be proud of here - has not been out of line at all. The ABC, and SBS, are the only outlets which give us news as it is; the facts as they stand. They are extremely careful and responsible how they go about their jobs. I do not watch / listen to commercial media at all, as I detest tabloid nonsense. Further, the Guardian is a superb online paper, and I read that, and sometimes the SMH. The ABC just does it's job - and does it well, Mr Abbott. You should do likewise, PM!

Louw | 29 November 2013  

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