The Department of Communications’ inquiry into Zaky Mallah’s appearance on Q&A is an unprecedented case of politicisation of the public service, in the cause of the government’s culture war with the ABC. It is a massive failure of judgement by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his departmental secretary, Drew Clarke.

In 2003, then-communications minister Richard Alston launched a similar jihad against the national broadcaster over its coverage of the Iraq War, lodging 68 complaints about presenters’ tone of voice and ABC journalists’ apparent scepticism about the war. (What’s little known is that Alston’s fury wasn’t prompted by the coverage itself, but by a separate matter — the ABC’s unilateral decision to close its digital multichannels in May 2003, about which then-MD Russell Balding failed to warn Alston in advance).

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But what Alston was very careful to do was to keep his department entirely out of what was purely a political exercise. For all the criticisms, usually merited, of the Howard government’s politicisation of the public service, Alston kept a very strict separation as minister. Factual material about the ABC was sought from the department by his office, but bureaucrats only found out the minister and his office had been preparing an assault on the ABC in relation to Iraq when everyone else found out — they’d had no role of any kind in preparing the 68 complaints. As his jihad proceeded, Alston even asked right-wing economist Henry Ergas for help, but the department’s role was kept to one that strongly respected the boundaries between public service advice and politics.

In the departmental inquiry announced yesterday, Turnbull has trashed that. It is the department itself that will lead the assault this time. It might have been difficult for Clarke to say “no, Minister” to Turnbull and the PMO, but he would have been upholding not merely the basic standards of the public service but the precedent of the Howard government if he had done so.

Despite the great majority of Alston’s complaints eventually being found to be baseless even by independent assessment, he went to the trouble of listing his specific issues, with times, dates and transcripts. But Turnbull’s departmental review will supposedly look at the decision to include Mallah, Mallah’s “previous engagement with the ABC”, the decision to rebroadcast Q&A (because no one could access the footage of Mallah online after the initial screening, right?) and, laughably, the physical security relating to his appearance. And so lazy is Turnbull and his office that, rather than specifically identify the editorial policies that Q&A is supposed to have breached, as Alston did in his original complaint letter to Balding, Turnbull wants his department to do that instead.

But this reflects the weakness of the government’s case against the ABC. Why didn’t Turnbull, like Alston, commence a formal process by complaining to the ABC about a breach of a specific editorial policy? If he was dissatisfied with the response, as with commercial broadcasters’ complaints handling, he could then appeal to ACMA, which could independently assess the complaint. The problem with that course, naturally, would be that it wouldn’t suit the government’s agenda of a culture war on the ABC, and, worse, would run the risk of having a genuinely independent assessment made of what the ABC did.

Turnbull’s hypocrisy is more pronounced on the role of the commercial media in inciting Zaky Mallah’s extremism when it could have actually led to violence and death. As Crikey showed yesterday, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph were singled out for criticism by Chief Justice James Wood in his decision on Mallah in 2005. His Honour detailed how irresponsible News Corp’s outlets been in encouraging Mallah’s then-violent extremism. Newspapers are not regulated under the Broadcasting Services Act. But Wood also mentioned the role of television stations in inciting Mallah. No inquiry was launched into the role of commercial television licensees in encouraging Mallah’s violent extremism in 2005 by then-communications minister Helen Coonan. Nor has Turnbull seen fit to seek an investigation a decade later. Instead, the appearance of Mallah, now vocally opposed to violence and a strong critic of Islamic State, on the ABC is apparently deemed worthy of investigation when incitement of Mallah’s violence by the commercial media apparently isn’t.

A final thing: the government is supposedly serious about addressing radicalisation. It hosted an international summit on countering violent extremism recently, albeit a summit where Muslims were more notable for their absence than their participation. If you’re serious about addressing radicalisation, then the views of someone like Mallah who has been through the radicalisation process and emerged the other side to now advocate against terrorism must surely be taken seriously, however unpleasant people might find that. Indeed, if we’re going to properly understand and stop radicalisation, we have to deal with views far more noxious, far more offensive than what Mallah said on Q&A, from people who still believe in violence. And far better to have those views exposed and confronted than pushed underground.

But that’s assuming the government is indeed serious about radicalisation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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