Be Better ABC

Few organisations generate debate and polarise the national conversation as much as the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Sadly this conversation has increasingly become about the ABC itself—its machinations, its vacillations, its inclinations—rather than the stories of Australian life that should hold centre stage. I have said before, much to the dismay of my colleagues, that I love the ABC. It is a platonic love. I love Gardening Australia on a Saturday night at 6.30. I love Grand Designs and Kevin McCloud. And I have started to become a little bit obsessed by Inspector George Gently. As someone who grew up in rural and regional Queensland, I am a friend of the ABC—and the best friend you can ever have is someone who will be an honest friend and who will speak a hard truth when they see a problem.

I have previously spoken in this place about my concerns as to the direction of the national broadcaster, its political biases and the attitudes of some of its staff. Sadly, even when these issues have been raised with the ABC through the Senate estimates, there has been nothing but weasel words and stony-faced denials. According to the ABC, comments by a radio presenter that Osama bin Laden was 'honoured and respected' by his supporters were editorially consistent with the context in which they were made. Google search terms to promote coverage of the passing of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam were considered necessary, yet no search terms were considered necessary to be purchased when the former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser passed away. This shows the clear political bias of the ABC. Gough Whitlam, that great demigod, goes to meet his maker in the sky: 'Oh yes, we'll buy search terms for him.' But, for Malcolm Fraser, as much as he had made a political journey in the later decades of his life, because the ABC holds in the bowels of its basements those who are still maintaining the rage about what happened in 1975: 'No, we will not buy Google search terms for a Liberal Prime Minister—but we will for a Labor Prime Minister'. Presenters can interrupt and badger senior government ministers during interviews. They can be aggressive, but in ABC land they just call it 'tenacious'. And staff can post abusive statements on social media about government policies affecting the ABC—a topic I will return to later.

According to the ABC, there is absolutely, definitely no cultural 'group think', no left-leaning bias. But the most grievous example of the ABC's systemic issues in terms of its bias to the left is that bastion of the leftist 'Twitterati', Q&A. The ill will that Q&A generates through toxifying the ABC brand is damaging to the reputation of the ABC and has undermined the broad array of good work that it does, particularly in rural and regional communities. Back in May, during the budget estimates, I raised with the ABC managing director the clear lack of balance on Q&A panels and the persistent slant. I use 'slant' in the broader sense of the word, but it is more than a slant; it is sort of like a Titanic slant, in that it is so biased in terms of having on the Q&A panels people who accurately represent all viewpoints in Australia.

In some circles, it was controversial for me to say that most, if not all, coalition senators and members thought that Q&A had a prominent left-wing bias. Mr Scott rebuffed the criticism, preferring to reshape the test of bias by asking whether a range of issues were raised and an opportunity was given for a diversity of viewpoints to be expressed. Yet it is quite apparent that, on every program of Q&A, the centre right representatives are always outnumbered by those of the centre left. I am not calling for a Q&A that is dominated by Liberal-National politicians. I am not calling for a Q&A that is dominated by Labor Party politicians. I would like a Q&Athat is balanced in terms of its viewpoints and how it represents Australians. Consistently this program has this Titanic slant to the left, and those on the centre right always outnumbered, especially when you consider the position and the attitudes of the host, Tony Jones.

I want to talk about what we have seen since late May in terms of the program aired where Zaky Mallah, a notorious convicted criminal and extremist, was permitted to ask a live question seeking to justify terrorism. This did not demonstrate balance or good journalism. What it demonstrated was how out of touch the national broadcaster has become from normal, ordinary Australians. But, to be fair, the ABC did take action. The following day, the ABC issued a statement acknowledging its error in judgement in allowing Zaky Mallah to ask a question from the audience and saying that it would review that error.

On 25 June Minister Turnbull ordered the Department of Communications to undertake an urgent review of the chronology and facts of the incident. The department confirmed Mr Mallah's criminal history and the failure in Q&A vetting. But then, in an unprecedented step for the ABC, in July of this year the ABC board issued a statement of its own, reaffirming ABC management's earlier admission of error. The board noted a failure of editorial processes and judgment, saying that the matter should have been escalated to senior management.

The board also announced details of an editorial review of Q&A by the former Managing Director of the SBS, Shaun Brown, and journalist Mr Ray Martin, covering the 23 episodes that aired in the first half of 2015. But let's not kid ourselves. For those people who are listening at home: Ray Martin through his public comments has shown his true colours. He is an apologist for Q&A; he is not a reviewer of Q&A, and he should have stood aside following his comments, which implied—actually, more than implied; they explicitly cleared Q&A. I would love to know how much Mr Martin is being paid for this community service that he is doing on behalf of the ABC.

But more recently, in August, the ABC Board made the decision to shift Q&A to its News Division by the beginning of 2016. It is good that finally the decision-making processes around topics and questioners, audience and panel selection, and social media on Q&A are being examined. This is something that I had previously requested of Mr Scott during budget estimates. But the fact that it took such an outrageous incident indicates that the concerns about balance have been taken not at all seriously by the ABC up to this point. They only acted when it was starting to become a public issue that they could not control.

Following the incident, I have taken my own steps to try to put some pressure on the ABC to try to lift its game. In June I wrote to Mr Scott to reiterate the views I had expressed to him in person about Q&A and the cultural bias of the ABC. In his annual Corporate Public Affairs Oration, Mr Scott had characterised Mr Mallah's appearance as a matter of free speech and used the ABC's independence to deflect a broader criticism of bias. The duties of the ABC to maintain independence and impartiality do not absolve it from the need to satisfy the expectations of the Australian people, especially considering the $1.1 billion that Australian taxpayers put into the ABC. Rather, the taxpayer funded broadcaster must rightly use its reach and influence to benefit Australia and uphold our freedoms and values. I copied my letter to the ABC Board chairman, and Mr Spigelman has since responded, indicating a desire to meet, which I will do.

Shortly after I wrote to Mr Scott, I launched a petition on the Be Better ABC site. So, if you are listening at home or you are reading the Hansard later when you are trying to get to sleep, please log on to Be Better ABC and sign the petition, because we want our national broadcaster to be better. But sadly, in response to this petition, a senior producer of the ABC wrote on Facebook: 'I have just the one feeling. That the senator should STFU.' I am not going to elaborate on what STFU stands for, but it is an acronym for a colourful expletive phrase that invites the person to perhaps sit down and be quiet. This seemed contrary to the ABC social media policy, and I have also written to Mr Scott over that. What this shows is that the taxpayer funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation is still out of touch and is failing to understand its responsibilities, its accountabilities and its duty to the Australian people in the 21st century.

In my maiden speech, I noted the troublesome editorial trajectory that the ABC had established for itself, and I called for a review of the ABC Charter to restore balance. Based on the revolving doors of quality assurance reports and editorial reviews over recent years, I do not think that the ABC is going to do much more. That is why the need for the charter of the ABC to be reviewed is now a pressing and urgent problem for this government to consider.