“Abbott strikes Q&A peace deal”. It is a measure of just how far to the right the political spectrum in Australia has shifted that the headline in Saturday’s Weekend Australian seemed unremarkable. The Sydney Morning Herald led with “PM demands Q&A change”, as if Tony Abbott’s assault on the nation’s public broadcaster were a legitimate exercise of prime ministerial authority.
The principle — of more than 80 years’ standing — that a media organisation can be funded by government but also independent from it is being swiftly undermined with barely a whimper of protest.
And all because of one silly moment on a late-night forum-style show that might normally have been allowed to pass as a mindless exchange of provocations that hurt nobody. But the Coalition (and more specifically, the PM’s office) saw this as a wonderful opportunity to strike two blows with one sweep of its sword. It seized the moment to both bully the ABC death cult and wedge Malcolm Turnbull, the only realistic alternative to Abbott’s leadership within the ministry.
Yet this whole, ugly saga would have blown over in three days had not the ABC bungled its response so badly. In a display of headless-chook management not seen since the short-lived reign of Jonathan Shier, the senior executive and board misplayed this faux crisis to put the entire corporation on the defensive. Aunty is now at the point where she is in real danger of surrendering the independence from government that she has fought so long and bravely to protect.
How could it have happened? Because, in this era of warp-speed communications and 20-second news cycles, Team ABC let themselves be sucked into a series of hasty and ill-considered responses. Panic replaced the traditional public-service damage-control strategy of masterful inactivity. Most brush fires just burn themselves out, yet nobody at Ultimo took a quiet few hours to think through all the ramifications and fashion a considered response. Here’s the sorry sequence:
First blunder: the unnecessary apology
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When ABC managing director Mark Scott fielded the initial angry phone call from Turnbull (presumably prompted by the PM’s office), Scott immediately hand-balled the problem to his director of television, Richard Finlayson. But instead of telling his boss he’d investigate the Q&A incident in the morning and then make a recommendation as to what, if anything, needed to be done, Finlayson issued an immediate apology.
This was a fatally impetuous action. The program had only finished around 10.40pm, yet Finlayson’s clumsy apology — on behalf of the entire ABC — was already released to the media before 9am the next morning. Not only did this knee-jerk apology instantly condemn the corporation and its staff to a back foot position from that moment, it also swept aside the formal ABC internal investigation process that should normally have followed such a complaint. Dumb.
Second blunder: the Scott speech
A fundamental tactical rule for the ABC while resisting political pressure is to never fight on Canberra’s ground. It may seem courageous to take an openly combative position on the public stage, but — as former ABC managing director David Hill discovered too late — that’s rarely how you get the job done. In the end, hand-on-heart defences of editorial independence cut no ice in Parliament House.
Nevertheless (and no doubt feeling pressure from his own staff to defend Q&A), Scott re-wrote what should have been a humdrum speech to a corporate public-affairs beano in Melbourne to launch a counter-blast to the government’s attacks. Wrong platform, wrong time, wrong message. Worse, Scott rather stridently attempted to drape himself and the ABC in the free-speech flag. As the standing army of News Corp columnists all immediately piled in to point out, this was hardly a free-speech issue. Scott, a former Fairfax journalist and editor, should have known better than to lead with his chin like that and allow the ABC’s enemies to take the moral high ground.
Third blunder: Spigelman’s pre-emptive buckle
The one person who could have been commanding the ABC’s response to the attacks on Q&A, the corporation’s chair, Jim Spigelman, wasn’t heard from for a fortnight. The former NSW chief justice was in Singapore on business for ABC International. Wherever, his absence from the front line left him conveniently out of range while the serious ordure was flying.
But when he did finally poke his head above the parapet, Spigelman made a tactical error that has allowed Abbott and the ABC’s enemies to smash their way through the corporation’s most important line of defence: the principle of self-governance. Seeking to mollify the Prime Minister by hinting that Aunty was likely to adopt one of the Coalition’s suggestions, Spigelman wrote to Abbott confirming that the proposal to shift Q&A from general programs to the news and current affairs department was under “active consideration” by the board.
Abbott immediately wrote back, saying that if the ABC would make that change, he’d lift his boycott on government frontbenchers appearing on Q&A. Gotcha! Spigelman had foolishly allowed the PM room to claim a negotiating position from which direct political interference in the ABC’s internal affairs — how it should organise its production departments and who would appear on its programs — was now conceded by the chair himself.
This is a potentially catastrophic lapse of stewardship. The precedent it sets is appalling. Since 1932 even the most conservative ABC boards and chairs have upheld the principle that the national broadcaster cannot be dictated to by the government of the day. Every few years an on-air incident brings this issue to the boil, and every few years the ABC has to fend off allegations of bias and “heads should roll” bullying to reaffirm its independence. This will now be much more difficult.
And if Spigelman knew any corporate history, he would understand that situations very similar to the Q&A brouhaha have also been quite common in the ABC’s past. Way back in 1969, W.C.Wentworth, a minister in the Liberal government, was invited to appear in a forum-style edition of Four Corners to discuss election issues with an audience of young Australians who would be voting for the first time. Wentworth refused to participate unless he could be assured that the audience who asked the questions would be evenly divided in their political allegiances.
Half a century ago, the ABC didn’t do deals like that. Four Corners went to air without an audience — and without W.C.Wentworth. Two years later the ABC founded Monday Conference, the great-grandfather of Q&A.