This is how the world (and the ABC) ends ...
Not with a bang, but with an axed science program.
Dec 1, 2016
Not with a bang, but with an axed science program.
There was a lot for a person like me to admire in Rundle’s Wednesday essay on Trumpism. But it’s Thursday now, which is not a day to praise a fellow, but to bury him with a fragment of his own speech. We could not know things “would happen so forcefully, so soon”. Of all the quotes in a quotable piece, this was, for mine, the true terror. Things now resolve faster and more gravely than even the pessimist imagines.
The withering of ABC’s science program Catalyst is not a Trump-scale accident. It is, however, one of those things that happen just before something else does at great and ugly speed.
Trump did not anticipate his victory any more than The New York Times did. Look at the guy in his victory speech, more unbelieving than any of his Miss Universe winners have ever been in claiming their crown. We did not anticipate Brexit. We did not anticipate Hanson. These events were more of a surprise than the Spanish Inquisition for which, whatever the Python boys tell you, there were some warning signs.
Every big thing has a flaw built into it, and the character of this flaw can only be revealed in historic disaster. The flaw of the US is its expansionism, and the disaster is large numbers of people demanding that it stops. But, more broadly, the flaw of our age could be said to be its velocity. Now, things happen just so forcefully, so soon.
People who have specialised in all sorts of jobs know this very intimately. You work in the textile industry, car manufacture, even in a call centre, and you see your labour outsourced first to the Global South, then to automation. You work, as I do, in media, and it happens not in precisely the same way, but almost as fast.
This week, I was speaking with a former Fairfax colleague about how hard it was to earn a dollar. We were recalling the accelerated death of The Age. This marvellous thing that had served the people of Melbourne for 150 years, had called leaders to account and influenced millions to eat, loathe and enjoy particular things, was not even a shadow of itself, but a shadow of the Herald Sun. How did this happen? How did we let this happen?
It happened. How we let it happen is the focus of a number of books, all of which mention, at least in passing, the speed of our era. This is our defect. We can control the course of a media business little more than we can control the issue-attention cycle these businesses have lately themselves been in the habit of accelerating.
When media report on other media, the flaw becomes more evident. We are, I think, headed for an ABC accident, which will unfold forcefully and soon.
There are some good analyses on ABC MD Michelle Guthrie, one by journalism researcher Margaret Simons and another here in Crikey by Bernard Keane. But these, which both mention the trusted status of the ABC, were filed months ago. Since Simons and Keane wrote down their cynical but fair assessments of an executive enamoured of the Google era’s falsely democratic lingo, two hints of disaster unfolded.
The first, in my view, was the purchase by the ABC of the program Silvia’s Italian Table. When I say this interview-by-cuisine abhorrence was the most painful half hour I ever spent in front of a screen, I mean it very sincerely. Actually, I said this at length in a review, which, as told by the webmaster, stands as the most widely read thing I have ever produced. Hundreds of thousands of Australians agreed that this prosperity porn was an affront. It was empty of anything but wealth and unambitious speech. It tried, and spectacularly failed, to normalise perfection, and swapped the ABC’s nobler, if sometimes condescending, aims to depict a culturally diverse nation with one that seemed to be written by a particularly horny Hollywood screenwriter for Gina Lollobrigida in 1965. Not to malign the charming hostess, Silvia Colloca, who probably caresses garden zucchini very naturally on her own time. But to very much charge the ABC by making the worst use of its funding.
The second is the end of Catalyst as we know it. And, sure, the program has had some truly unscientific moments in recent years. But even scientist critics of the infamous statins episodes or the pseudo-scientific wi-fi Causes Brain Cancer malarkey urge for its reinstatement. Catalyst wasn’t (always) a program that urged us to honour scientists in the way that, say, Hillary Clinton so disastrously urged the people to honour technocrats. It was (sometimes) a show that actually explained science.
Philosophy. Art. Science. These are the historic practices of which we should be most proud, of which we are most proud even if we don’t concede it, and if our institutions fail to honour them, or take a dump on them, then we lose our trust in these institutions. Keane is right when he says that the ABC remains among our most trusted institutions. But we need to ask, for how much longer?
It is tempting to see the change in Catalyst as a plot, to think that Guthrie is a shill and the CPSU’s tepid response to the end of this important program is evidence of its complicity with the bosses. But it’s not a conspiracy; it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
The trust Australians have in the ABC is dwindling, making way for a media disaster. And the disaster will not be that there are ads on the ABC, something that Guthrie has, in any case, ruled out. It will just be that we no longer give a shit, and even if there is another Don Dale expose — itself a report that largely failed to locate those terrible indignities in a broader policy context — we simply will not care.
It will happen forcefully. It will happen soon. We will not care to defend something we no longer trust. The ABC will be trusted only as the official emergency broadcaster of natural disaster, its own disaster already in the past.
Correction: an earlier version of this article erroneously attributed funding for a cooking program to Screen Australia. The author accepts responsibility for a hasty oversight, which was supposed to say something else, and is now gathering sun-dappled heirloom tomatoes from her garden as penance.