The ABC hit a wall last week when it tried to glide past criticisms of the Four Corners interview with US ethno-nationalist Steve Bannon, with its traditional nothing to see here, tweeted out as: “What’s wrong with this? NOTHING!”?

Instead, the ABC got push back. And we got a debate about the responsibility of media to challenge ethno-nationalism through a journalism that reflects Australia’s diversity. And, in private chats around the country, many journalists came to the conclusion: it reflected poor journalistic judgement.

The push back took the ABC and its senior journalists by surprise. We haven’t really had the no-platforming debate here in Australia because, well, we don’t own any of the big tech platforms.

Instead, we have our own media platforms, but the closest we’ve come to that debate was back in August when a neo-Nazi turned up on Sky after dark. Because it was Sky and the neo-Nazi, was, well, a Nazi, it left us confident that this no-platforming lark was pretty easy.

Sure, we had the on-going – and unresolved – discussion about Pauline Hanson on Seven’s Sunrise, but morning commercial TV is easier to ignore.

No-platforming relates to platforms that are functionally infinite — like Facebook. Forty-minute chats on the flagship Four Corners with one of Australia’s outstanding journalists are not. Any choice of a guest, “de-platforms” the millions of other options.

That’s why diverse ABC journalists began questioning the journalistic decision-making involved.

In normal times, an all-caps “NOTHING” and cries of “hysteria” would have been enough to shake off the criticisms. But these are not normal times. These are Trump times when ethno-nationalism challenges everything we thought was long settled.

And it’s a time when journalism is changing, becoming more diverse – albeit too slowly and far more slowly than Australian society. It’s this lag between global debate and Australian demography on the one hand and the traditional media on the other that caught the ABC off-guard.

Coinciding with the New Yorker debate meant the 4C’s controversy found itself in the middle of a far more sophisticated and passionate debate in the United States, forcing the defence to shift from “he’s a newsmaker” on to free-speech-for-fascists fundamentalism before ending up with the assertion that the interview was actually calling out racism.  

As ABC journalist Jennine Khalik tweeted: The media can better report “by properly dissecting {Bannon’s} legacy and offering other important voices that can retort…we can engage with people in a civil, firm way without glamourising them (headlining festivals etc).”

It was a reminder that, while Australian journalism is still overwhelmingly white, it’s changing. A more diverse ABC would not have made the misjudgement that it did, either in structuring the program as a stand-alone interview or in the way it responded to criticism.

It’s often hard to sense when the tide turns in journalism. Publicly, Australian journalists like to act as though they never make a mistake or misread a situation. But privately, journalists think and talk about the craft — a lot.

Through that process, attitudes change — stealthily, in private chatter over coffee, across desks in newsrooms, in the pubs and, almost without us understanding how it happened, the craft thinks something it didn’t think before.

That happened in journalism last week, shifting from a knee-jerk “but press freedom” to a more nuanced critique of the journalism involved.

Social media lets us track it in real time: sometimes in public on Twitter or spilling into the mainstream media as per Jason Wilson’s take in The Guardian. Sometimes by absence: how many journalists jumped onto the all-caps NOTHING bandwagon?

Much of it trundled along in Facebook comments.

This frustrated journalists of colour, left to do the heavy lifting in public. Osman Faruqi (also now at the ABC), said of Wilson’s piece: “let’s not pretend the same arguments weren’t made by brown and black folk yesterday, and summarily dismissed.”

The ABC’s Sophie O’Neill pointed the way forward for both the ABC and for journalism: “the ABC desperately needs to become more diverse. A wider range of views & experiences needs to be better reflected”.

Or as Ruby Hamad suggested on the weekend: the ABC needs a bit less outrage and a bit more listening.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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