Features Australia

ABC of Pauline’s revenge

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has two Bills at hand to clobber the anti-conservative ABC. The first would force it to disclose the pay of talent earning $200,000-plus. According to ex-boss Michelle Guthrie, at the top is a female on about $460,000. The other Bill is a symbolic slap adding ‘fair and balanced’ to the ABC’s charter of ‘accurate and impartial.’ Both Bills should be sub-titled Pauline Hanson’s Revenge. She dictated them to ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull in late 2017 as her price for supporting his media ownership liberalisation. ABC-lovers howled but the BBC was forced in 2017 to disclose pay rates of all talent earning more than £150,000, so don’t get precious about our local talent.

Problem: is Scott Morrison mongrel enough to try mauling the public broadcaster? If yes, will the new Senate let him? Or will he welsh on the Turnbull/Hanson deal by letting the Bills languish?

The ABC and the journalists’ union, the MEAA, are enraged about Hanson horse-trading the Bills. Their hacks and quasi-comedians have trashed ‘Pauline Pantsdown’ for two decades. In 1998, Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey (now governor) said:

[Hanson] contended that the broadcast material gave rise to imputations that she is a homosexual, a prostitute, involved in unnatural sexual practices, associated with the Ku Klux Klan, a man and/or a transvestite and involved in or party to sexual activities with children. The [ABC] essentially contended that the material amounted merely to vulgar abuse and was not defamatory. These were grossly offensive imputations relating to the sexual orientation and preference of a member of parliament and her performance, which the appellant [ABC] in no degree supports as accurate and which were paraded as part of an apparently fairly mindless effort at cheap denigration.

Unabashed, the ABC persisted with ‘Pauline Pantsdown.’ Its Complaints crew told me in 2016 there was nothing sexual about such a jolly satire and ‘the image was not in contravention of ABC editorial standards.’ In early 2017 Four Corners ran its ‘Please Explain’ expose which included secret recordings of Hanson’s phone calls with staffer James Ashby. This hit job inspired Hanson to use Senate power to torment her tormentor.

In a rough-as-guts exchange, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield told the ABC’s Michelle Guthrie and SBS’s Michael Ebeid to publicise the pay of their talent by November 2017 or he’d legislate. They told him (politely) to get stuffed. The Senate shunted his Bills to sundry committees. Meanwhile Morrison had tastier electoral fish to fry and the Bills lapsed in July. But Fifield’s successor Paul Fletcher has listed the bills for the session starting 9 September. His department tells The Speccie: ‘The introduction date is a matter between the Minister and the Prime Minister.’

In its cheeky style, the ABC board submitted, ‘As this [pay] Bill is neither in the public interest nor leads to any greater corporate governance, the ABC is of the view that the only intended outcome it actually achieves is the fulfilment of the Government’s agreement with One Nation.’ In another snark, the board said disclosure would catch only 3 per cent of ABC staff, whereas Fifield’s department had more than 6 per cent above $200,000.

On the ‘fair and balanced’ Bill, the ABC’s 2018 Annual Report shows the corporation’s pinkishness. There are two gloats about its fake Trump/Russia coverage (‘unprecedented in-depth analysis of President Trump’s Russian connections’) and on P. 38, Vol. 2 is a lurid montage of a sleepy Trump and a wide-awake Putin lurking in the shadowy background. Geez, who mocked that up? ABC artists also did Trump sandwiched between two onion domes.

The report cited polling that 75 per cent of Australians think their ABC is accurate and impartial and 82 per cent trust its information (conversely, one in three don’t trust Q&A and The Drum). The same polling shows nearly 70 per cent for the five years to 2018 ‘believe the ABC is efficient and well-managed.’ So well-managed that last September the board sacked the managing director, the chair committed hara-kiri and the leadership engaged in a mudfight, with taxpayers funding the lawyers and payouts. For five months until February, the ABC had no chair (welcome, Ita Buttrose) and for eight months to May, no managing director (welcome, David Anderson). To repeat, the polls show 70 per cent think the ABC is well-managed and 75 per cent think it is politically impartial.

The ABC got thrashed in submissions from the Farmers Federation and Cotton Australia. Cotton’s policy officer Angela Bradburn cited ‘misrepresentation, inaccuracies and sensationalism.’ The ABC’s campaigns against Murray-Darling irrigators, pitched to city audiences, ‘have been strongly driven by one or two environmental bodies,’ she said, mentioning the unmentionable.

The MEAA called the ‘fair and balanced’ Bill ‘a calculated insult directed at the ABC and its employees … rooted in a transgressive campaign to undermine the performance and reputation of the nation’s most esteemed (and scrutinised) broadcaster.’ The journos, typically paranoid, claimed the proposed ‘fair and balanced’ addition to the ABC’s charter was pinched from the old Fox News masthead, yet the annual report itself trumpets ‘Fair and balanced.’ Ranald Macdonald, my ex-boss as one-time Age supremo, wrote to Fifield blasting ‘media moguls’ chasing profits and power. ‘Just keep your mitts off and allow the ABC to do its job,’
he warns. The Bills are all ‘part of a deliberate and continued campaign of harassment and assault being inflicted on “Auntie” ABC with clear malice aforethought.’ Climate sceptics are no more entitled to balanced coverage than flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, he writes. He excoriates ‘the IPA and members of the ever burgeoning Murdoch Empire who have everything to gain from weakening public broadcasting – we all lose if the Murdochs (Rupert, Lachlan or the aggressive James) totally rule the waves.’ Isn’t that the Royal Navy’s job ?

On salaries, ABC and SBS argued their boards were accountable for ensuring value-for-money, not public stickybeaks, i.e. ‘a public forum prosecuted by tabloid media.’ SBS, crying poor, said pay disclosure would drain off stars and drive up pay, as happened at the BBC, claimed then SBS boss Michael Obeid (pay grade $800,000). With respect, he’s wrong. Top male stars at the woke BBC are taking six-figure pay cuts to address gender pay gaps. We’ll see if Morrison gets the ABC Bills up. Meanwhile everyone right of centre can throw boots at the screen.

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