Michelle Guthrie ABC

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has issued her most strident defence yet against Noel Pearson’s accusation that the ABC was broadcasting “soft bigotry”. Guthrie devoted 1440 words to the topic in a speech to a multicultural audience in Sydney on Saturday.

Last Monday, Pearson said at a book launch that the ABC was a “miserable racist” broadcaster “willing the wretched to fail”:

“They need blacks to remain alien from mothers’ bosoms, carceral in legions, living short lives of grief and tribulation. Because, if it was not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations, about whom could they report misery and bleeding tragedy? Between Quadrant’s hard bigotry of prejudice from the right, and the ABC’s soft bigotry of low expectations on the left, lies this common ground of mutual racism.”

Pearson’s comments have received support from a range of figures in The Australian, including former ABC chairman Maurice Newman (who, readers might care to know, also thought Crikey was racist).

Guthrie said the ABC was not perfect. But she said:”The stories and content that the ABC delivers to audiences … clearly contradict the assertion that we only ever portray indigenous people as victims.”

She went on to list many of these programs, saying she did not want the perception to linger that the ABC was failing its responsibilities. She cited TV shows like Cleverman, Black Comedy and Black As. In arts coverage, she pointed to the ABC’s coverage of songwriter Kev Carmody, artist Warwick Thornton and actor Miranda Tapsell. She highlighted the screening of Recognition: Yes or No, featuring Labor politician Linda Burney and “controversial commentator” Andrew Bolt, the work of shows like Awaye! on ABC Radio and Speaking Out on Radio National, which is hosted by Larissa Behrendt. She also cited the production of two local indigenous-language news bulletins in the Northern Territory, and the work of Four Corners programs like “Backing Bourke”, “about the Western NSW town’s bold experiment to save its young people from a life of crime”.

Guthrie said she was already on the record as describing Pearson’s views as “as wrong and misplaced”. She added that she found it ironic that those who attacked the ABC “are often the first to take advantage of its platforms”.

“The ABC must be judged by its performance … I sense in some of the emotive language of the past few days that there are other agendas at work”.

“While other media outlets may pursue their own agendas, as is their right, my job as managing director to ensure that we remain focused on that mission and that charter remit.”

Much of the criticism of the ABC has been sustained through the (front) pages of News Corp newspapers, which rarely need much of an excuse to go their large, publicly funded competitor. Others have pointed out that Pearson, who started this whole thing, has had little reason to be happy with the ABC of late.

Earlier this month, the ABC’s 7.30 aired a report by the national reporting team’s James Thomas that highlighted “high risk” business practices that could increase the “probability of fraud and official misconduct” in Pearson’s Good to Great Schools Australia program. Then, this morning, Thomas had another piece revealing Queensland education officials put in writing their concerns about the foul language used by Pearson in dealing with their bureaucrats. The article also makes a number of serious allegations about a culture of intimidation at Good to Great Schools Australia. A ministerial adviser for Queensland Education Minister Kate Jones also told the ABC that she had been called a “fucking white cunt” by Pearson — a story first reported four years ago in Good Weekend. It’s far from the first time reporters have written of Pearson’s tendency to verbal outbursts.

This morning on the ABC’s AM program, Pearson sought to minimise the story, saying it was “essentially regurgitation of stories that have been reported nationally” years ago. “There are bits and pieces that are accurate and so on, but there’s a lot of verballing as well,” he said, while denying that he’d ever directed such words at Jones. “I accept that I’m a very passionate and relentless advocate on behalf of reform. I am surely not the only one who engages in colourful language. But I completely, completely reject the suggestion that I directed any of those words at Minister Kate Jones in 2009.”

Pearson also expanded on his comments from last Monday, though, one notes, in somewhat less strident language:

“This is a microcosm of a wider Australian problem in relation to leftists and progressives.You’re very good, you know, we — I come from that side as well, right — we are very good at pointing out the problems. And, you know, ABC has been just extraordinary in its exposure of the problems.

“The recent story about child protection on Four Corners the other week — you cannot get better journalism than that.

“My problem with the ABC, and with the left generally, is that in relation to the solutions that are needed, there’s a completely allergic and cultural resistance to those solutions, whether it be welfare reform, whether it be income management, whether it be Direct Instruction pedagogy, all of these things that are actually solutions to those egregious problems that are identified by Four Corners and discussed time and time again.

“Every year we get an exposure of the problem. But when it comes to the solutions there seems to be a complete cultural problem with your organisation in dealing fairly with what actually is needed in order to overcome the problems.”

Peter Fray

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