ABC Radio National’s The Minefield claims to ‘unpack‘ the moral and ethical issues of our time. Sadly the show fails to unpack anything.
Hearing the start of the weekly show by the virtually unknown Scott Stephens and the very much ‘wants to be known’ Waleed Aly, repeated at 10 am Sunday reminded to put the finishing touches to this piece.
Amid the wasteland of what passes for television current affairs on our national broadcaster, I’ve turned to ABC radio for refuge. The experience has, at best, been patchy although I’m determined to persevere.
Some is better than you might think, but for the moment, let’s turn our attention to The Minefield which goes to air nationally once each week and — as mentioned — is repeated (as are so many ABC productions in order to fill the 24 hours in each day).
This vacuous blast of hot air showcases a couple of mid-career males — one with a multi-media profile to promote and the other with a publicly-funded ABC website to promote. Aly appears on multiple media platforms, among them that crucible of moral rectitude The Project on Network Ten.
Self-styled polymath, Aly, scarcely needs an introduction since his name boastfully saturates a multitude of platforms and his side-kick Scott Stephens is editor of the ABC’s less well-known Religion and Ethics website.
Aly claims to be an academic, writer, lawyer and broadcaster – but wait there’s more. He’s also a guitarist and songwriter. Gosh, what a remarkable fellow he is. I recall that Waleed was also a sports expert and appeared on the ABC TV Outsiders on Sunday mornings. Maybe he still does? In addition to authoring People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam from the West, Aly plays in a rock band, Robot Child.
There is literally nothing, it seems, that this self-promoter, does not have an opinion on or does not do.
But now, let’s enter The Minefield with Waleed and Scott. Barely a show escapes a breezy mention of epistemological, deontological, determinism, complexity theory and in the last episode, the word ‘telos’ got a run. Anyone who’s studied even the most rudimentary tenets of philosophy will spot the use of these ‘hot button’ terms designed, of course, to position Aly and Scott above their audience and to underscore their erudition.
The two of them yack away biliously with Aly doing some of his best work nonchalantly asking Stephens at the top of the show, “What shall we talk about today, Scott”?
A recent public contribution focused on the entirely appropriate conviction and sentencing of US policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
The show stands as emblematic of the way Aly and Stephens like to operate. Up goes a random proposition that they pretend to have thought deeply about. They then politely and routinely determine that their views coincide — thus relieving the audience of any particular need to think at all.
After a ponderous, meandering and profoundly forgettable introduction to the subject of Chauvin’s sentencing by Aly and Stephens a reliable voice of real substance finally entered the discussion in the form of American academic Charles McKinney Jnr.
As a scholar of the black freedom struggle and an associate professor of history at Rhodes College, Charles McKinney appeared initially flummoxed by the low level of the discussion. Eventually however, McKinney realised that it was he who would have to do the heavy lifting and carry the show entirely.
More than once, he appeared to walk backwards from the contorted propositions put by Stephens and at one point simply said, “Nah” when asked if the case signalled a moment of “moral transformation” for the world. Scotty from the Religion and Ethics desk was belted away for six.
McKinney is a realist and a highly experienced and respected academic in the United States. He was not about to be shoe-horned into some casually concocted theme dreamt up on the run by Stephens and Aly.
This single episode of The Minefield brought into sharp focus the extent to which our national broadcaster (television mostly, but also radio) has become hostage to the special, and frequently commercial interests of its contract presenters.
The ABC has become a taxpayer-funded trampoline catapulting folk such as Waleed into a media vortex where profiles are sustained and bank accounts filled over multiple platforms.
Put another way, taxpayers are forking out while the ABC develops the profiles and media careers of certain presenters on a range of media platforms outside of the ABC.
The recent exhaustive ABC promotion of a book by ABC luminary, Norman Swan, is a further example of the broadcaster looking after its own, while for the rest of us the prohibition of advertising on the ABC remains just that. Swan’s book is not about Covid or management of the pandemic. It’s about healthy living — and for Swan it’s about making money and boosting his profile.
The practice is rife, unaccountable and outrageous. Numerous ABC presenters take work outside their full-time jobs at the broadcaster based on their so-called ‘celebrity’ status developed at the ABC. It’s known that Swan has a private company from which he profits, and so do other high profile, taxpayer-paid presenters who consult privately as conference moderators, adjudicators and the like.
According to the ABC Managing Director, with a heavy dose of contorted logic, this is all fine as it raises the profile of ABC presenters. It sure does… and whose to say this lot don’t use time at their ABC desks to feather their nests away from the ABC.
I’d hate readers to think I’d formed an opinion about the quality of Aly and Stephens efforts based simply on a single show of The Minefield. I have persevered with the program hoping one day it might actually improve. It hasn’t.
The most recent Minefield exposé focused on the plight of people living in Myanmar. Things got a bit sticky at the start when Aly expressed his surprise at Stephens’s language and retorted : “I’m surprised by your nomenclature.” In using this phrase I doubt Aly was rehearsing for an episode of The Project. “Nomenclature”! How often do you reckon you’d hear this term around the kitchen tables of Australia?
While these two split hairs on ‘nomenclature’ finally another quality guest in the form of Nick Cheeseman managed to totally shut down both Stephens and Aly by his clarity, knowledge and acuity.
Cheeseman is a scholar of the politics of law and policing in mainland Southeast Asia, in particular Myanmar.
With every outstanding contribution by Cheeseman, the anti-intellectual vacuity of the points raised by Aly and Stephens were underscored.
As a seasoned media consumer and a former broadcast journalist myself, I have a keen ear for artifice. In an industry dominated by artifice — especially evident in ‘bottom feeding’ shows such as Ten’s The Project — nothing repels quite like people pretending to be what they obviously aren’t.
At the very moment when the ABC’s editorial and governance standards are under scrutiny by those of us who pay for its existence, the broadcaster could do worse than dump these two purveyors of know it all trash.
Robot Waleed can do quite well enough on his own without being propped up by the taxpayer.
If ABC RN had a shred of self-respect it would dump this low-brow junk and treat its audience with the respect it deserves.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.