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Intimidated ABC embraces self-censorship

  • 07 July 2015

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'.