2015 ended pretty much like every other year. On 21 December, the Liberal senator Eric Abetz heralded the appointment of Michelle Guthrie, the new ABC managing director, with an injunction to “stop the lefty love-in that has taken hold of the organisation” and restore “editorial balance”.
In language eerily familiar to student politicians across the land, Abetz continued: “The new managing director will inherit an unbalanced and largely centralised public broadcaster which has become a protection racket for the left ideology.”
For decades the highly trusted public broadcaster has weathered a relentless stream of attacks by the crusaders of the (increasingly) hard right in Australia. Crusaders like Eric Abetz. In the wake of repeated criticism by conservative politicians and the publication of a paper documenting numerous allegations of “ABC bias” by the extreme libertarian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, the veteran media reporter Errol Simper once wrote that the ABC was being subjected to “the most persistent orchestrated campaign of vilification” in its history.
That was in 1998.
Since then there have been repeated, shouty accusations of “left-wing bias”, numerous reviews and inquiries, wave after wave of punitive funding cuts, the stacking of the ABC board, the whacky Jonathan Shier era and, more recently, a government black-ban of a panel talk show all taking their toll.
The impact of the anti-ABC crusade over the years permeates the organisation. It cannot be any other way. The cumulative effect of such attacks can be likened to that inflicted on employees by a relentless workplace bully. After a time hyper-vigilance, paranoia and a pronounced instinct for self-preservation become the new norm, whether conscious or not. While the ABC has continued to produce outstanding journalism, this pathology has redefined the organisation. In a sense, the pathology forms part of its bias.
The need to try and pre-empt the attacks exposes staff to an unusually high degree of scrutiny by ABC management. Journalists, technicians, producers and even board members all regulate how they must behave both at and outside work to minimise the risk of an escalation in the crusade. Each tweet, each story, each guest on a panel show or in an audience must be carefully calibrated to manage the risk. Such is the reach of the crusade that favourable funding decisions for televised drama can depend on scripts displaying the requisite degree of “balance”.
The notion of balance is not fixed but a product of the times. The era of the Abbott government represents the pinnacle of success for the crusaders of the hard right. Hostility to unions, human rights, climate science and Muslims moulded the political culture. Thus earlier this year Prof Gillian Triggs, a small “l” liberal and self-confessed swinging voter, found herself under sustained attack from the crusaders intent on liberating her from the role of president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
With each change of government, the ABC must adapt. As the political pendulum has swung harder to the right, balance or – as the ABC Act states – “impartiality” has also been redefined. It too has moved in a rightward direction.
Journalists and producers at the ABC often deploy a distinct methodology in seeking out an interviewee. “Are you available for an interview? Great. Can you recommend someone else to interview who will disagree with you?” For an enthusiast of wind power, that might mean nominating an advocate of wind turbine syndrome. Or coal. When a suitable contradictor proves elusive, there is always a default-recourse to the Institute of Public Affairs which can usually be relied on to fill the void.
The ABC’s most successful presenters carefully nuance their on-screen performances to minimise the risk of a conservative attack. Tony Jones, Fran Kelly, Emma Alberici, Leigh Sales, Steve Cannane and Annabel Crabb, among others, are highly talented ABC journalists and are able to routinely present the “other side”, no matter how outlandish, all the while maintaining the proverbial poker visage.
Kitchen Cabinet is by definition an exercise in the ABC’s version of balance. A charismatic political journalist engaged in jovial banter while lunching with politicians of all persuasions. Mostly it’s harmless, if not enjoyable.
And yet pandering to a hard right sensibility comes at a cost. The recent appearance of Scott Morrison on Kitchen Cabinet prompted a barrage of critics to voice their disapproval. At the heart of the criticism: the show provided a public relations vehicle for a man who, as immigration minister, promulgated policies of cruelty and harm towards refugees in breach of human rights laws.
The criticism prompted the charming and witty political journalist Annabel Crabb into a spirited defence of her popular show. A number of her ABC colleagues chimed in, deriding the critics. All the while, it is likely that both the ABC board and its management were charging their glasses. A controversy surrounding Kitchen Cabinet for helping to make a hard-right politician appear likable must make for a welcome change.
Crabb argued that the show sets out to humanise the politicians it features:
This is the stuff that realistically drives the political process. And fleshy, human, and deeply subjective stuff it is too. Knowing what a person is like is powerful. Why should it only be political journalists and insiders who get to see it?
Crabb’s claim to unlocking the authentic human being behind the politician is highly contestable. Political journalists use their craft to explain what politicians are really like every day using techniques like research and writing essays and books.
The suggested trade off in Kitchen Cabinet – to allow each politician a prime public relations opportunity in order to show “what a person is (really) like”– is also a contradiction in terms. Kitchen Cabinet is elaborately staged and orchestrated entertainment. How many politicians have spent hours mastering that one recipe that they have not cooked for years or indeed ever before? Wardrobe sorted, family and dogs groomed, charming smiles painted on family members’ faces, house immaculate, garden given a whirlwind renovation.
In the case of a politician like Morrison, the trade off becomes even more problematic, veering into murky moral terrain. He is a politician who has overseen policies designed to inflict physical and mental harm on refugees who have fled some of the world’s most murderous and dangerous regimes. Refugees have died, been maimed, tortured and returned to war zones from which they have fled, including Syria. Under Morrison’s stewardship, the federal government has flouted international law and gone to extraordinary lengths to dehumanise the persecuted and damaged. Applying an ABC neutrality lens to him and setting out to humanise him when he has so successfully dehumanised others, is simply perverse.
Imagine, if you will, Crabb, her basket crammed with scones and jam, rapping on the security gates at Eddie Obeid’s sprawling residence and then exchanging witty repartee while he works the stoves. The effect would be much the same.
Crabb’s convivials with Morrison over a Sri Lankan curry were not just infused with turmeric but also with the ABC’s survival strategy. The ensuing controversy can be banked for now by the ABC and deployed, as needed, when next the crusaders’ cries of “bias” ring out. One episode of Kitchen Cabinet with Morrison is worth at least two years of the former Liberal party senator Amanda Vanstone broadcasting on ABC radio – and far less eye-wateringly dull.
In 2016, the ABC will feature a reality television show about the debate concerning the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The show will provide star billing to Andrew Bolt, another crusader who wants the ABC abolished, who argues that the climate has been cooling and who has been found by the federal court to have racially vilified Aboriginal people.
Like a victim trapped in an abusive relationship, there is no way out.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.