The Politics    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The prime minister should stop trying to scare journalists

By Sean Kelly

Zaky Mallah, acquitted of terrorism charges, on Q&A last night.
The PM’s attacks on the ABC went too far today

The prime minister today took aim at the ABC – again.

“I think many, many millions of Australians would feel betrayed by our national broadcaster right now, and I think that the ABC does have to have a long, hard look at itself, and to answer a question which I have posed before – whose side are you on?”

This was in response to the ABC’s decision to allow a man who had been convicted of threatening Commonwealth officials, and charged with terrorism offences before being acquitted, to ask a question on Q&A.

The PM had every right to call the ABC’s decision wrongheaded – and in fact the ABC quickly admitted as much itself. He might have chosen to simply attack the program (he did that too).

But he chose to go much further than that, asking the entire organisation “whose side are you on?” When a PM is that sharp, he is doing it for a reason. We should ask ourselves why.

First: what did he actually mean? What sides are we talking about?

Back in January last year the PM told 2GB’s Ray Hadley: “A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone's side but Australia’s … I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but its own and I think it is a problem.”

So when the PM says “whose side are you on?” he means, broadly, “are you on Australia’s side or not?”

But the man on Q&A was talking about terrorism. And the government clearly considers him a terrorist. He was acquitted in 2005 of terror charges, but Steve Ciobo, the parliamentary secretary to the minister for foreign affairs, who also appeared on the show, said he believed the acquittal was “on a technicality rather than it being on the basis of a substantial finding of fact”.

So the PM is being even more pointed than he was last year. He is asking, in effect: “Is the ABC on Australia’s side – or the terrorists’ side?” Which sounds an awful lot like George W Bush: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

The PM’s phrase was sculpted. He knew what he was doing.

So – why was he doing it? Why use such inflammatory language?

The first purpose is minor but useful for an occasionally embattled leader. The PM has an easy answer to any future revelations by the ABC that are unhelpful to his government: “Oh, the ABC. Well we all know about the ABC, don’t we?”

The second reason is that the PM wants to smear the ABC – not just Q&A – in the eyes of its audience. I doubt many Australians will change their viewing or listening habits on the basis of Abbott’s words. But the other ABC “audience”, and the one Abbott is far more concerned with, is non-ABC journalists. ABC stories are often picked up by other outlets and run as fact. If Abbott can succeed in making those outlets think twice, then he’ll have achieved something.

There has also been a recent trend of newspapers reporting anything that happens on Q&A as news. Several major news sites now run recaps of the show the next morning, often right up the top of their homepages. Given his opinion of Q&A – the PM told his party room it was a “lefty lynch mob” – you can see why he might want to do anything he can to discredit this trend.

The final thing the PM is aiming to do – and by far the most important – is to scare the ABC.

Most people’s perception of newsrooms is inevitably shaped by movies and television shows, where journalists and editors have to make a singular, courageous decision about a single explosive story: do we run this despite the fact the PM will be furious?

The answer to that question is fairly simple: yes. But the reality is that the news we consume is more strongly shaped by thousands of small decisions. And journalists, like anybody else, are vulnerable to the impact of sustained public criticism: at some point you start to second-guess yourself. Perhaps on a few small but important decisions you lean away from antagonising the government. I mean no disrespect to professional journalists in saying that: it’s human nature.

And when a prime minister says you’re on the side of terrorists, that has an impact, however much you might not want it to.

In an interesting coincidence, former prime minister Julia Gillard has an interview in the Guardian today in which she says this is exactly what has happened:

“I think there is such a sensitivity at the ABC to becoming the subject of more hard-hitting criticism from the government that there is a pulling of punches and I do think you can see that on the news,” she says.

Journalists should always be careful to get their facts right. It is no bad thing if the fear of printing falsehoods lives on their shoulder. That is a legitimate professional concern, and when a politician feels that facts have been abused they have every right to call it out.

But it is the job of journalists – sometimes the burden – not to ask whose side they are on, but to ask the right questions, and to report relevant facts. A prime minister who asks which side a journalist is on wilfully misunderstands – and misrepresents to the public – the role of news organisations.

Or, to put it another way: the health of a democracy can often be judged by the freedom and doggedness of its press. If journalists work to get their facts right, and to uncover truths which would otherwise lie hidden, then they are on Australia’s side, always.

The ABC should do the calm and brave thing, and get on with its job. And the prime minister should get on with his.


Today’s links

  • The final episode of The Killing Season screens tonight. Kevin Rudd admits it is “entirely possible” he leaked to Laurie Oakes details of the conversation he had with Julia Gillard on the night she told him she would challenge, a leak that came just days before Gillard called the election. Gillard says that this moment should have ended Tony Abbott’s career. And Rudd says he would not have moved without Bill Shorten on side.
  • And while we’re on the subject of racism (it’s in the second link): President Obama said on a podcast this week: “… it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.” He’s fielded criticism from some quarters for the language he used. And the Governor of South Carolina has called for the Confederate flag to be removed from her state’s State House.
  • Bill Shorten has agreed to vote with the government to re-introduce the petrol excise indexation that John Howard abolished, provided $1.1 billion is provided for regional roads. Thank goodness. While there were defensible grounds to oppose the indexation in the context of last year’s budget, which was unfair to low income earners, indexation is ultimately good policy.
  • Shorten has also told his caucus there is a good chance an election will be called in the next six weeks, while parliament is on a break. Here’s an old Antony Green post explaining some election timing details.
  • An extract from Julia Gillard’s chapter on the media in the new paperback of her memoir, referred to in the interview above.
  • Michael Clarke says he would reject a knighthood.
  • Legal experts say the Abbott government’s final legislation on citizenship and terrorists, announced today, will probably be OK with the courts. There are also reports today that Australia’s most wanted terrorists have been killed. The ABC has admitted they erred in allowing a man convicted of threatening Commonwealth officials to ask a question on Q&A.
  • The “lacklustre”, “disgraceful” police investigations into the deaths of three gay men – now suspected to be hate crimes, at the time dismissed as accidental falls – have been condemned by the deputy NSW coroner, and rewards of $100,000 have been offered for information leading to the killers.
  • The budget changes to pensions have passed the senate with help from the Greens. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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