Has the Liberal Party massed a secret army
to spy on the ABC? It’s a reasonable question given the revelations in
Monday’s Senate Estimates Committee hearings in Canberra, where
Queensland Liberal Party senator Santo Santoro said he maintained a
group of 28 people around Australia who monitored ABC news and current
affairs programs and radio and TV broadcasts and sent 15-20 tapes to
the Senator’s office each week.

“We get transcripts” from
those tapes, said Santoro, without revealing who “we” were and who was
paying for that service. But he revealed he had 973 questions for the
ABC, based on more than two and a half thousand pages of those

And in the same hearing he revealed that he had a
whistle-blower in the ABC informing on Quentin Dempster, the host of the
ABC Friday night current affairs program Stateline in NSW. The
subject of Stateline emerged in some silly and pointless questioning of ABC News and
Current Affairs head, John Cameron, and other ABC executives about the banning
(an equally silly decision by ABC management) of the use of the word “ours” when
used in phrases such as “our troops” or “our premier” etc.

Senator actually left the hearing to contact a person he later
described as a “whistle-blower” who gave further information on breaches
of editorial policy on October 21 by Dempster while hosting the
Stateline program in NSW.

ABC general manager Russell Balding
decided to stay away from Canberra and sent the ABC’s strategy and
communications head, Murray Green, in his place. He gave a good account
of himself in the face of Senator Santoro’s almost obsessive
questioning, which started like this:

“Senator SANTORO—Again, Mr Green, I do not want to be contrary but I
have 973 questions to put to Mr Balding. I want to question him on
another 60 or 70 questions that I put in correspondence to him a few
weeks ago. I feel quite frustrated by the fact that he is not here, if
that is not already clear to you. My question to you again is: did he
tell you why he is not here today?

“Mr Green—No, he did not.

“Senator SANTORO—I would
appreciate it if you could, from this point onwards, just give actual
answers to the questions. I put you and the ABC on notice: I am not
going to desist from the way that I go about questioning the ABC. All
you are doing is aggravating me and other senators. We will just keep
on coming. If I have to go to the government and ask for a special
inquiry into bias at the ABC, I will do that. I am not at all impressed
by Mr Balding’s absence. I understand his attendance had been
previously notified to the committee, and it was withdrawn late last
Friday afternoon. You can all sit there and look as sanctimonious, as
serious or—like a couple of the officers behind you—as lacking in
seriousness as you want to, but I am telling you that I am not at all
impressed by the absence of Mr Balding. I have 2½ thousand pages of
transcripts, because every time I ask a question he says that he has to
check the record, and when he does check the record I get nonsense for
an answer in the vast majority of cases.

“Some of us actually take our jobs very seriously. There are about
28 people in Australia monitoring what the ABC does. I receive between
15 and 20 tapes a week, and out of that we get transcripts. We are
absolutely, deadly serious, some senators—I would suggest most
senators—in that we want to go about making the ABC accountable. A
simple statement of ‘The ABC is the most accountable media
organisation,’ does not wash with me, because we as a parliament have
given you about $1.2 billion of public funds. The lack of
accountability as a result of Mr Balding’s absence from here today is
certainly not appreciated by me”.

More questions should
be asked by the Canberra Press Gallery about this Senator and his
ABC-watching spies. Is taxpayers’ money being used in any of this?
Certainly the resources of the ABC, scarce as they are, are being
wasted answering many of his questions and points.

This is a
party-political pursuit of the ABC of the sort conducted by Richard
Alston. I wonder how the board members appointed by this Government
feel about Senator Santoro’s obsession and whether they share his