Howard-v-the ABC: Your say

G’Day. Free speech is under pressure in Australia, as the charity censorship controversy this week illustrated. Last week the ABC was under the gun, after Howard floated appointing his own panel to judge complaints of ABC bias. In Good one John, but why stop at the ABC? I tried to broaden the debate to suggest greater accountability for the government and the commercial media, too.

Sydney University journalism student Lachlan Brown helped me process your emails on the matter, which include some interesting explorations on the role of the ABC in our democracy.

Contributors are John Hanna, Ian North, Dennis Pratt, John Carson, John Devlin, Stuart Skeleton, Chris Munson, Craig Martin, Luke Mason, Shaun Cronin, Moira Smith, Peter Woodforde, Gary Fallon, Michael Cooperand Peter Funnell.


John Hanna: Can I suggest an independent enquiry into what the hell Alston has achieved in his time as a Minister? This could be followed by another on the small matter of the corporate ‘loan’ of a high definition plasma TV from Telstra.

Ian North visiting Research Fellow (History), University of Adelaide: I’ve looked at Senator Alston’s complaint and the ABC panel’s findings. Senator Alston should resign. He clearly fails to understand or respect the idea of a politically independent, publicly funded broadcaster.

Dennis Pratt in Willow Vale, NSW: Alston has already cost the ABC time and money rebutting his trivial concerns. Who is going to pay for his next round of paranoia? Is the cost of his tribunal to be taken from the ABC budget, or is he going to ask the taxpayers to pay for his idiocy by setting up a separately funded body? My suggestion is that it be taken from his parliamentary allowance.


John Carson in Copacabana, NSW

I applaud your article on Howard’s push for an independent body to review charges of ABC bias. Howard’s hypocrisy in advocating for the ABC what he opposes in almost every other context is breath-taking.

The really worrying thing is that Howard and Alston expect the public to view their complaints about the ABC as credible. They seem blissfully unaware of their own partisan position, believing instead that their opinions (no matter how poorly grounded in the facts) define the centre of rational debate.

A reading of the ABC report into Alston’s allegations shows that Alston has been sloppy and ill-informed in his complaints. One might even accuse him of bias. It is curious that someone who demands such high standards of others should demand so little of himself. Instead of retreating with his tail between his legs, as any decent person would when so thoroughly exposed, Alston just ploughs ahead regardless.

When politicians cease to regard themselves as partisan figures and instead confuse their own interests with those of the community as a whole, we are in deep trouble. We are in even deeper trouble if people take their claims seriously.


John Devlin

Dear Margo Freakshow,

You write: How about extending the “independent panel” model to assess complaints of bias or owner interference in news against the commercial TV and radio media? A bit of balance on the commercial talkback radio networks, perhaps? A requirement that Alan Jones correct himself on air after he makes a false claim?

Commercial outlets can say what they like . . . they pay their way.

If the chattering classes want to fund the ABC, they also can say anything they like on their anti-government station. The point you so obviously glide over is that we the taxpayers fund the ABC wankers.

Margo: Not so. I made it clear that because the ABC is publicly funded it must be accountable to the people, as it is, through comprehensive complaints procedures.

The point you glide over is that our media has an essential democratic role separate from making money. Sure the commercial media pays its way, but does that mean it should NOT be accountable at all to the people? Lawyers pay their own way, but they also have ethical duties to the Courts and the integrity of the legal system. Auditors pay their own way, but they also have legislated responsibilities to tell investors the truth about a company’s accounts. Why shouldn’t the commercial media have ethical responsibilities to their readers, listeners and viewers? After all, it’s more powerful than the ABC in many ways, and plays a crucial role in public discourse.


Stuart Skeleton in Germany

Imagine my horror at actually agreeing with you on an issue. (Margo: Stuart had a big go at me in Unholy alliances.) You are right, an independent panel should be formed, and not stop just at the ABC. Although I suspect your article might be rather tongue in cheek, you have, either consciously or not, made a palpable hit.

The absolutely laughable reportage about Murray Green and his complaints department upholding only two of the 68 points raised is beyond comical. The gross negligence displayed by ABC journalists in reporting the Iraq war is absolutely scandalous. Errors of omission, factual mistakes, and the worst type of “opining” imaginable.

Then follows the ‘Internal Review’. Of course the ABC rejected the claim of bias! What choice does it have? The same people who come out in support of the ABC’s internal investigation are those who claim constantly that all OTHER enterprises (all NON governmental, of course!) should be subjected to external independent review. But let the hallowed halls of the ABC be included in such independent reviews? Perish the thought!

Yet again we see the transparent bias of the media and Intelligentsia Left; ‘Let everyone undergo independent external review . . . Except for us!’

Of course, if the ABC are really smart, they should own up to mistakes and bad reporting, but lay the blame on ‘sexed up’ intelligence, no doubt received from that paragon of journalistic and editorial virtue, The New York Times!

Smell the coffee. The ABC is ALWAYS anti-Government, no matter who the government is! It was anti-Hawke, anti-Keating, and now anti-Howard. The ABC appears to believe that its sole purpose to criticise the Government, whatever its politics. Strange tactic, relying totally on biting the only hand that feeds it!

Margo: A strange tactic, perhaps, but also a noble one requiring considerable courage given that – unlike the BBC – the ABC has no guaranteed funding base and can thus be brutally punished for not toeing the government line. The ABC’s role is to be skeptical and to put governments to proof. It’s one of the accountability mechanisms which help keep governments, of whatever persuasion, honest. And that’s what the people want, isn’t it?


Chris Munson

John Howard’s quote about the ABC was interesting. “I guess it’s inevitable if you have an internal review assessment, there’s always a tendency to declare yourself not guilty.”

I have been involved in local community organisations for nearly thirty years now (I’ve got two handicapped sons). My involvement has nearly always been at a board level. My experience is that your quote from John Howard comes only from people who are corrupt of moral values. In all my years on these boards, I have only come across one or two people who would have tried to influence outcomes against absolute honesty and truth – no matter what the decision. The outlook we always had was ‘a complaint is always an opportunity to learn and improve’.

I’d say that Johnny was not speaking as an Australian, but as a politician, and that he was probably being profoundly honest, providing an insight into the inner John. Since becoming a politician, he probably has forgotten that the mums and dads in the community still teach their kids not to tell lies and to be good honest citizens. I assume this was the thinking behind the investigations into “Kids overboard…” etc…


Craig Martin in Perth

When I first heard that Alston was making complaints regarding the ABC’s coverage of the war in Iraq, I didn’t expect much. I never expect much of our political classes at the best of times, but when they are mounting a challenge to the bias of the ABC, I invariably smell a rat. In the good Senator’s case, the timespan between recognising that a rat might be in the room, and smelling him, is invariably a short one.

Having read the Minister’s complaints and the ABC’s reply to them, I believe the Minister’s own methodology in making the complaints should be of much more concern to us. As expected, the complaints have nothing to do with the quality and professionalism of ABC journalism or reportage, and much to do with the government’s own agenda to subvert the remaining quality news outlets to its own world view.

This process needs to be challenged. If the commercial networks were ever involved in a serious attempt to inform the public they have long since abandoned it. I rely on the ABC and SBS to provide the only decent news and current affairs programming on free-to-air TV. I’m sure I am not alone in this view.

I sent an email to the minister informing him that I expect to hear of his resignation in coming days. I fear he will not bow to my pressure but I live in hope.

I never cease to be amazed at the manner in which our political classes carry themselves. Is it a flaw in our system of government, in the manner in which political candidates are selected or a combination of both? The only sense of commonality I have ever felt with the Hansonite rabble was that our current political classes are failing us.

I have only recently come across your Webdiary, and enjoy it. Thanks for your contribution to the great leftist media conspiracy which so oppresses conservative governments around the world.


Luke Mason

Alston’s complaints were apparently about “bias and anti-Americanism”. I didn’t know anti-Americanism was illegal now. Damn.

The problem with bias is that it is impossible to escape. Your own bias colours your perceptions. To someone who is pro-pro-Americanism, neutral-Americanism would sound like anti-Americanism. Not blindly accepting the Pentagon press-releases, or the output of embedded reporters could be considered anti-Americanism by pro-pro people.

Our current ‘conservative’ leaders (can we have a referendum to force them to change their party name?) have clearly sided with America, and could be considered pro pro pro (pro to the power of 3!). How would a neutral comment sound to them?


Shaun Cronin

Public Service Announcement

The Australian Government has announced the formation of the Committee of Un-Australian Activities to combat anti-government bias in Australia. The task of the committee is to investigate and punish any Australian who does not accept without question the Australian government’s pronouncements regarding the War against Iraq, the subsequent war on terror, asylum seekers, the sale of Telstra or any other issue where the government is right and the ABC and their listeners are wrong.

The House of Un-Australian activities, to counter the obvious leftish bias in the media, will consist of right wing journalists to ensure lack of bias and integrity. Senator Richard Alston will head the hearings and root out those fifth (or op-ed) columnists that dare to criticise the wonderful Australian government. All hearings will take place behind closed doors as to eliminate any unwarranted interference from the media and those brought before the committee will be denied any legal counsel as this will just get in the way of justice and may mean sitting beyond lunch therefore missing a good table at Otto’s. As this is a government hearing it in the good of public interest, and they’re all nice blokes so you know that they can be trusted.

The first agenda item will be to examine bias at the ABC. During Gulf War II it was evident that the ABC had the temerity to question the veracity of some reports regarding progress of the war emanating from the US and Australian governments. Indeed since the war has ended, the ABC has been at the forefront of scurrilous reports that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found in Iraq. As if WMDs had anything to do with the war and liberation of the Iraqi oil and the Iraqi people. Some people have taken far too seriously the remarks prior to the war that Iraq’s WMDs posed a threat to world peace. It is obvious, now that the war is over, that WMDs were never a threat and such remarks by Prime Minister Howard and members of his government to justify the war by referring to WMDs were never made. If they were made, they were taken out of context.

In light of the impending free trade agreement with the USA there are also concerns that the ABC has been programming local content at the expense of American content. It has been noted that radio station JJJ, will often play Australian artists when that 4 minutes could have easily been occupied by a hard working American artist (Dixie Chicks excepted). ABC TV shows obvious bias by running the 7:30 Report, whose time slot could better be occupied by a fine example of American artistic and cultural ascension such as Everybody Loves Raymond.

Once the committee has finished with the ABC and imported the directors of Fox News to create an impartial national broadcaster in line with the mandate John Howard received from the Australian people, the following people can expect an all expenses paid trip to Woomera to live in luxury as did those illegal immigrants who didn’t drown before arriving in immigration exclusion zones just before we bombed their countries:

*Any who has voted for The Greens

*Anyone who has not voted Liberal

*Chardonnay drinkers

* Latte drinkers

* Those that do not drink Chardonnay or Latte but have had secretly thought about doing so

Sydney Morning Herald subscribers

* Anyone living in Sydney’s inner west.

To save time, anyone in the above group please turn up at your local ‘Committee For Un-Australian Activities’ center where you will be speedily processed and re-educated. Thank you.


Moira A Smith in Kambah, ACT

My first reaction to Alston’s criticisms of the ABC was that they were ridiculous. This opinion was only confirmed by the findings of the review. The considered and sourced rebuttals of Alston’s flights of fancy make him look very silly indeed.

It reminds one of the spectacle of Heffernan leaping down a flight of steps in Parliament House yelling “yoo hoo” when reporters attempted to question him about his attack on Chief Justice Kirby.

Howard appears to have unleashed his most ridiculous henchmen to make fools of themselves. But we should beware of not taking their attacks on the judiciary and the media seriously.

I recall being told that in the lead up to WWII there was an opinion in Britain that Hitler was a ridiculous little man. [????]


Peter Woodforde in Melba, ACT.

The ABC’s Max Uechtritz got it a little bit wrong when he said: “We now know for certain that only three things in life are certain – death, taxes and the fact the military are lying bastards.”

It was four things – he forgot “but all Howard Government Ministers, without exception, are weak, venal, unctuous, vacuous, vituperative lying bastards.” Particularly that perfumed, swishing, laughably incompetent lap-dog, Alston.

Perhaps Max was trying to be “balanced”.


Gary Fallon

Howard/Alston want the ABC to mirror the Murdoch Press and uncritically provide support to them. The tenor and actions of this government are daily reflecting those of an unelected right wing dictatorship with no concern for democracy. As a result an independent ABC is a significant threat to them.

It is imperative that ethical journalists such as yourself continue to question the actions of this government in its attempts to remove itself from any accountability to the public. As someone who became eligible to vote the year that Howard was elected to Parliament, I have seen this extremist politician express his contempt for democracy since his election. It is therefore important that his duplicity and neo-fascist views (NOT neo-conservative – that is an oxymoron!) are brought to the public’s attention.


Michael Cooper

I heard you last week on Richard Glover’s Sydney ABC radio show and agree 100% with you on the crypto-facist tendencies of the Howard government and the dangers it poses to society. The concentration of media owners only makes it easier for them to control the message and spin to the hapless punters. The ABC is one of the few sources of quality information left in the country, hence Alston’s desire to muzzle and control it. I must say I also find myself agreeing with Wil Anderson’s pithy assessment of the Senator.

What a comprehensive wally Richard Alston is. Just as well we don’t have ‘lemon laws’ for politicians because senator wally would be a guaranteed candidate for ‘recall’. I note they have these kind of laws in California and are hoping to ‘recall’ their governor because he is a lemon.

Since the lemon swore his ministerial oath he has managed to comprehensively stuff up communications policy in digital TV, datacasting, telephony competition and cross media ownership laws. Four out of four failures. Kick him out of class.


Peter Funnell in Farrer, ACT.

The Howard Government has the ABC firmly in it’s sights and they appear determined to subjugate it to their will. There has not been one moment of peace for the ABC since Howard came to Government. The PM sure knows how to hate hard! This is not working for the good for our democracy or the standard of public broadcasting.

The government has ravaged the ABC with a procession of administrative interventions and Ministerial sniping. Running parallel to this campaign of organisational disorientation is the Howard government’s old favourite – progressively reduced funding without reduction in responsibilities.

It is a credit to the staff, management, Board and Chairman that the ABC continues to deliver a high quality of service to our community, local and national. With few exceptions, the commercial radio stations don’t come close.

I recall my family and everyone else in our neighbourhood monitoring the local ABC during the ACT bushfires to get vital information that might save our lives and property. It was a truthful and reliable means of communication in our community, a lifeline. When it came to the crunch, no other means of communication with the people could be trusted to do the job.

The Government has a different view. Senator Alston launched another attempt to subjugate the ABC by lodging a raft of complaints about one program and alleging systemic failure, a thinly disguised political attack that was too much for the Howard appointed Chairman, who to his everlasting credit has stood his ground and rebutted the allegations. It was a setup and the ABC was on a hiding to nothing if, as commonsense demanded, the complaints were substantially rejected. And they were.

Without missing a beat, the Senator proposed an new independent authority to handle complaints. This is no act of petulant fancy. But independent from whom, and who said the ABC complaints body was wrong in it’s judgement against the Senator’s scribblings? Only the Senator! And what is the Senator doing to ensure that commercial stations presented a fair portrayal of the Government’s actions in relation to the Iraq War, or is the Government only satisfied with favourable and supportive comment.

The Prime Minister and Senator can huff and puff for all their worth, but the ABC is a first rate service to all in our nation. Reliable, to be relied upon and ,yes Minister, by a good margin truthful, fair and informative. This vendetta is too silly for words and must stop, instead of joining so many other things the Howard Government is spinning at the moment which end in farce and damage.

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