Eight months after defending the ABC’s right to air a controversial skit, MD Mark Scott is saying it should never have aired. What prompted his decision, and what does it mean?
ABC managing director and editor-in-chief Mark Scott’s apology to The Australian commentator Chris Kenny, delivered yesterday, raises more questions than it answers.
Missing from the apology is any statement to the effect that the ABC had breached its editorial policies by airing a segment on The Hamster Decides that depicted an obviously photoshopped picture of Kenny mounting a dog. An internal ABC editorial review, prompted by complaints to the public broadcaster, cleared the sketch of any breach. Scott’s apology reads, in part:
“… I have come to the view with the Director of Television that the ABC should not have put the skit to air. Having reviewed the issue, in my opinion it falls short of the quality demanded by our audience and normally delivered by our programming.”
Is Scott saying that internal review came to the wrong conclusion, or that it reached the correct conclusion, but that the ABC nonetheless should not have aired the sketch?
In his statement, Scott says the apology is entirely unrelated to the ongoing defamation action brought by Kenny against the ABC. But Kenny has maintained that all he ever wanted from the ABC was an apology. “There has been no attempt from the ABC to settle the defamation matter, but I have instructed my lawyers to settle it as quickly as possible,” Kenny told Crikey this morning.
He said the apology was “belated but satisfactory”, though he did note The Hamster Decides‘ Julian Morrow repudiating the apology on Twitter within hours of his conversation with Scott …
And what of the ongoing Australian Communications and Media Authority review into the program? The broadcast regulator, whose rulings are notoriously slow due to a concern for giving all sides involved in a dispute the chance to put their cases and respond to each other’s arguments, is still ruling on the program. Now that the ABC has apologised, though, it’s hard to see it siding with Aunty.
In the statement, Scott says a concern for all these processes caused him to delay apologising for so long; Scott initially described the segment as “tasteless and undergraduate” on 2UE, but said he would defend it even though he didn’t like it. “I now believe [the delay] was a mistake, and I regret the delay in making this apology,” he said yesterday.
It’s not clear from the statement what, if any one factor, caused the change of heart, though it’s unlikely it came suddenly. Crikey understands the decision to apologise was being discussed within the ABC’s leadership last week.
What does this mean for comedy and satire at the ABC? It’s not easy to get a sketch up on the ABC, says comedian and satirist Dan Ilic. Now of troupe A Rational Fear, he has done comedy for the ABC in the past. “When you write a joke at the ABC, there are so many people that look at it from start to finish. There’s so many lawyers of bureaucracy,” he told Crikey.
Crikey also called up Julian Morrow, and while he was reluctant to comment further than his tweet, he confirmed the joke had gone through all the ABC’s usual layers of checking for shows like his, which includes a legal assessment from ABC lawyers.
Ilic doesn’t think Scott’s apology will hurt comedy and satire at the ABC, or in Australia more broadly. “The ABC are really good at backing up their comedians, and they do a really good job. I know this has caused much stress for the guys on [The Hamster Decides], but I do think the ABC do their best to defend everything that goes to air. And that is the real luxury of working for it,” he said.
And anyway, Ilic says, the defamation action itself might be positive, because the judge in the case found that while Kenny could sue for defamation on the grounds of extreme ridicule, he couldn’t sue on the imputation that he actually had sex with dogs. Not many cases of satire have gone to court, Ilic says, and so it’s good that in this one a literal reading of the joke was not found to be grounds for a defamation action.
Finally, why apologise now? Scott is widely known as a canny political operator, but there seems to be little gain in the move. Critics of the ABC will not let up because the managing director has apologised — if anything, they’ll relish Scott’s admission of guilt and lament the fact the apology came after so much money and time was spent defending the joke legally in the first place. As one industry insider told us, if you’re going to cave in, better to do it immediately, or at the bitter end, when you’ve exhausted every defence.
Still, the ABC’s battles are not all conducted in public. On the weekend, it was revealed by Fairfax that the upcoming budget might impose an efficiency dividend on the ABC, which at 2.25% could result in a real budget cut of $22.5 million. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has previously criticised the ABC for “defending the indefensible” when it came to the Kenny joke. By apologising and putting the saga behind the ABC, perhaps its negotiating position will be strengthened come budget time …