August 4, 2022


Indecent exposure

By Russell Marks
Image of Chris Kenny appearing in Your ABC Exposed. Image via YouTube

Chris Kenny appears in Your ABC Exposed. Image via YouTube

Sky News’s ‘Your ABC Exposed’ reveals more about Chris Kenny and co than it does about the national broadcaster

“What’s wrong with the ABC?” So commences the right’s latest flopbuster “expose” of the national broadcaster, with Sky News Australia host Chris Kenny crashing the ABC’s 90th birthday party to pose the question to a familiar cast of ABC critics: columnist for The Australian and fellow Sky regular Janet Albrechtsen, former Howard communications minister Richard Alston, Victorian Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson, former Queensland LNP MP Andrew Laming, media executive Jonathan Shier. Even Cardinal George Pell has a cameo.

All critics featured on Sky’s Your ABC Exposed, including Kenny, have good credentials to speak about the broadcaster, at least on paper. Albrechtsen was on its board for five years until 2010. Henderson and Kenny are both former ABC journalists, and Shier is a former managing director. Laming and Pell both have reasons to feel aggrieved. Alston was known for his trenchant attacks on the ABC as minister, famously complaining about the “serious anti-American bias” in AM’s coverage of the Iraq invasion, and has since written a book, Their ABC: Inside Australia’s Largest Sheltered Workshop, published by Conor Court, which has also issued such memorable titles as A Guide to Climate Change Lunacy, Notes from Woketopia and Ian Plimer’s Green Murder.

What is wrong with the ABC, according to its critics? You needn’t watch Exposed to find out: most of them have been trotting out the same arguments for decades. Albrechtsen says it’s a dictatorship of the staff, 40 per cent of whom vote Green and who use it as a taxpayer-funded vehicle for identity politics. (The 40 per cent claim comes from a 2013 survey in which 14 ABC journalists out of the 59 who were asked said they’d vote Green; 25 didn’t respond at all.) Alston says it’s unaccountable and not subject to competition. All say it’s politically one-sided and lacks diversity of views.

Kenny did manage to convince Quentin Dempster (who made his name as an ABC reporter during the Fitzgerald and Wood inquiries into police corruption in Queensland and New South Wales) to give on-air responses to some truths the Murdoch commentariat hold to be self-evident. And Anthony Albanese’s new communications minister, Michelle Rowland, was untroubled by Kenny’s wide full tosses.

Anyone hoping for a fair and balanced investigation into the ABC presumably wouldn’t have been watching an hour-long Sky op-ed hosted by Chris Kenny. Kenny did work for the The 7.30 Report many years ago, but has since held senior positions on the staff of Liberal Party heavyweights (including Alexander Downer and Malcolm Turnbull) and has been one of Sky’s coterie of conservative (self-styled) talking heads for a decade. That the ABC is biased to the left has been an article of faith among this group at least since John Howard was in the Lodge, and possibly since 1963, when Allan Ashbolt’s 4 Corners report on what is now the Returned Services League saw the ABC accused of fellow travelling and Ashbolt suspended.

When Kenny cited the ABC’s investigation into Pell’s alleged sexual abuse of children, which he said journalist Louise Milligan “pursued with uncommon vigour”, Dempster pointed out the context within which Milligan’s reportage took place: namely, the Catholic Church’s decades of cover-up of similar allegations against many priests, and the ABC’s central role in exposing that cover-up in Australia. Kenny agreed that had been great work, but clarified that wasn’t what he wanted Dempster to talk about. Milligan’s pursuit of Pell, and his subsequent conviction, imprisonment and then 7–0 acquittal on appeal in the High Court, has become one of a handful of cause celebres for a Murdoch commentariat already well convinced of the ABC’s left-wing bias.

The others are referenced on Your ABC Exposed: the three-part investigation by 4 Corners into Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia, acquitted terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah’s involvement (from the audience) in a June 2015 episode of Q&A, the tendency among some senior ABC journalists to mix reportage with opinion, Milligan’s shaky pursuit of Morrison government ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter in her 4 Corners report “Inside the Canberra Bubble”, Milligan’s defamatory re-tweet of unfounded allegations against Laming and the ABC’s subsequent decision to fund her defence (which she lost), and Andrew Probyn’s description in an October 2017 news report of Tony Abbott as “the most destructive politician of his generation”.

The right’s response to Allan Ashbolt’s 4 Corners report on the RSL in 1963 bears remarkable similarities to its contemporary interventions. Ashbolt, a man of the left, was already known as “the most censored man in the ABC” even before he took over at 4 Corners. His RSL report featured interviews with its national president and with Robert Menzies’s minister for repatriation, and balanced them with interviews with two of the RSL’s critics. One of them was a communist. Ashbolt reported on the RSL’s lobbying efforts, especially in favour of retaining the White Australia policy, and briefly editorialised on the issue. Within the week, complaints from angry RSL members alleging a communist fifth column inside the ABC had reached Menzies, who demanded the script of all episodes since Ashbolt had taken over the program. The ABC’s general manager, Charles Moses, removed Ashbolt from 4 Corners, and chairman James Darling conceded that the RSL report was a material factor. Meanwhile, four in every five viewers who were later surveyed about the RSL report said it was fair, and 4 Corners lost half its viewers following Ashbolt’s removal. There was nothing in the report that wasn’t accurate. He was quietly reinstated.

In its responses to the ABC, the right hasn’t changed much in the half-century since. It doesn’t like criticism of its own people, and it believes certain others shouldn’t have a voice. In 1963, it was the communist who criticised the RSL. In 2015, it was Mallah’s appearance on Q&A. By the time he appeared on Q&A, Mallah had been acquitted of terrorism offences and had served his sentence for threatening ASIO officers. Surely he has as much right to participate in public debate as anyone else in Australia? Following criticism of his appearance, the ABC’s director of television, Richard Finlayson, acknowledged the broadcaster had made an “error in judgement”. But much more concerning was Steve Ciobo’s on-air response to Mallah. “I’m happy to look you straight in the eye and say that I’d be pleased to be part of a government that would say you are out of the country, as far as I’m concerned.”

This is the way the right – and indeed much of what it calls “the left” – operates now in Australia: deport, silence, cancel people who break the law, or who have opinions we don’t agree with. Inconsistencies abound. On Your ABC Exposed, Albrechtsen’s criticism of the ABC’s “vigilante journalism, campaigning journalism” may have had more force if that wasn’t the house style of her own employer. Unlike the recent targets of the ABC’s investigations, The Australian’s targets are often – as Robert Manne recounted in his 2011 Quarterly Essay, Bad News (full disclosure: I was his research assistant) – people of fleeting or middling influence whose main crime is to be on the other side of the right’s unilaterally declared culture wars on climate, identity and history. Alston’s proposal for an independent ABC ombudsman may have carried more weight had the right not resisted so strenuously the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s recent efforts to demand accountability from senior Coalition politicians in New South Wales.

It’s a shame that the right has turned ABC-bashing into such a sport for that side of politics. Some of these examples are cause for legitimate concern about the ABC’s news and current affairs division, though not for the reasons the right gives. The only way in which Milligan’s reportage of the allegations against Pell, Porter, Tudge and Laming can be described as “left-wing” is that all four are of the right. “Inside the Canberra Bubble” could have pursued Labor politicians for similar allegations, though Milligan and 4 Corners chose not to on the rather flimsy basis that Labor wasn’t in government. But Sky’s view of politics as a footy contest, with my team pitched against your team, hides a much deeper criticism of Milligan’s brand of reportage, which is often a thinly veiled expression of a victims’ rights agenda associated with carceral feminism that has little time for the presumption of innocence. Outside of Sky’s us-and-them way of seeing the world, Milligan’s reportage might be seen as deeply reactionary.

Kenny and co’s main claims about the ABC – that it no longer reflects “mainstream values” and that it is unaccountable to the taxpaying public – don’t bear scrutiny. The ABC is regularly Australians’ most trusted media brand, and ABC News is Australia’s most popular digital source of news. Its own annual surveys of more than 4000 representative adults report that most people agree the ABC does a “good job” of fulfilling its charter obligations.

These numbers are far, far ahead of anything Sky News can muster. Murdoch’s attempt to create a local version of his destructive Fox News brand is Foxtel’s most popular channel – but Foxtel’s audience share is bleeding subscribers to streaming platforms like Netflix and Stan from an already low base. Only about 70,000 people watch even Sky’s most popular shock jocks, while Q&A regularly polls more than four times that figure. The ABC’s values are a lot more mainstream than Sky’s.

There are problems at the ABC, as has been long noted by observers including Quentin Dempster (whose 2000 book Death Struggle detailed the ABC’s boardroom politics and the myriad ways in which the right’s attacks were beginning to cause it real damage) and Josh Bornstein in the latest Monthly. Most problems are born of the relentless campaign of largely baseless, politically driven complaints by the Coalition and its media boosters ever since Alston was minister two decades ago, and indeed, which can be seen as far back as 1963. Kenny’s hackumentary is the merely latest expression of this campaign, which also included a Senate inquiry into the ABC’s complaints-handling processes (suspended to allow the ABC to review its own processes, and ultimately discontinued by a Senate majority). Budget cuts, jittery management and self-censorship have led to much more pervasive issues than the right’s complaints that the ABC doesn’t have a space for climate-deniers and anti-vaxxers. (There aren’t too many flat-earthers or alien abductees, or indeed hardline socialists, on its airwaves either.)

This week, nearly two decades after the United States (with the enthusiastic support of the UK and Australia) illegally invaded Iraq on the pretence of its weapons of mass destruction, the US announced that a CIA drone strike had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who had succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s leader and who (according to the US) had been involved in planning the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. As far as I’m aware, the ABC has only reported this event in the terms preferred by the US: it was precision strike, there were no civilian casualties, the strike was ordered by President Biden. As far as I’m aware, the ABC has not published or broadcast any criticism of the strike, which was entirely extra-judicial and therefore illegal. On Tuesday, ABC radio’s Thomas Oriti interviewed Richard Fontaine (former adviser to John McCain, and now at the Center for a New American Security) about the strike, and asked no questions at all about the strike’s legality. Presumably the ABC has not received the kind of complaints about its reporting of this story that Richard Alston made two decades ago about its coverage of the Iraq invasion.

Ostensibly, what the right wants to see on the ABC is less investigatory journalism that holds power to account and more unfounded shock-jockery (such as Chris Uhlmann’s declaration, immediately following South Australia’s freak September 2016 storm which caused extensive blackouts, that the state was too reliant on wind power – this didn’t make it onto Kenny’s catalogue of ABC clangers). For those who want that sort of thing, Sky News Australia vomits bucketloads of it.

For the rest of us, the ABC truly does enhance the nation. From Play School to Bluey, from Behind the News to Radio National, from ABC Classic to Triple J, from the cricket to regional bushfire updates, from Aunty Jack and Mother and Son to Mystery Road and Black Comedy; each one of the ABC’s many outputs have infinitely more value than the combined total of Sky’s product. Let’s be grateful for those earlier governments that had the foresight to bake the ABC’s independence into legislation.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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