An at-times visibly angry Mark Scott took to the stage in Melbourne yesterday to address the attacks on the ABC over the past week. Speaking to a $250-a-head oration dinner at Crown that had been planned for some months, the ABC chief referenced Voltaire, Charlie Hebdo and the world’s totalitarian regimes in a fiery defence of the ABC.
The ABC has no role in defending Australia, Scott says, apart from its role in “making it worth defending”. The broadcaster is on Australia’s side, but had a fundamentally different role to the government, he says.
“The ABC is clearly Australian, it’s on the side of Australia. The A in ABC is for Australian. And the part we play, what we do for the side, is a vital one, central to our culture and our democracy: that of being an independent public broadcaster.
“And of course, it’s precisely this independence that shapes the ABC as a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster.”
Government preference for the ABC to reflect its line are a feature of state broadcasters around the world, Scott says, but the high level of trust the public has in the ABC is in large part because it is independent from the government. “I think you’ll find that in Australia, as in every country where public broadcasting exists, ‘The most trusted public broadcasters are those that are perceived as closest to the public, and most distant from the government’, as the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard noted in its review of NYU’s research paper Public Media and Political Independence,” Scott said.
Needless to say, the speech wasn’t the one he had planned to give. Crikey understands the decision to redo the speech was made on Wednesday, after a dramatic escalation of rhetoric around this week’s Q&A. Scott, a former speechwriter for then-Liberal NSW education minister Terry Metherell, had a heavier-than-usual hand in drafting the speech. At last night’s oration, Scott did not take questions.
The government responded to the speech today, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne on morning TV accusing the public broadcaster of changing its narrative. Scott should admit wrongdoing, instead of trying to “pretend” the government was attacking free speech, Pyne told the Today show. “Mark Scott is trying to change the debate to something it isn’t,” he said.
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