Friday 18 September 2015

Vichy TV: Salisbury Review, Autumn 2015

The cover of the Autumn 2015 edition of The Salisbury Review

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) runs a television programme called Q&A, our very own version of the BBC’s Question Time. Five (mostly left-leaning) public figures make up the panel, along with left-leaning host Tony Jones, who responds to left-leaning questions posited by a left-leaning audience in what the ABC officially calls “adventures in democracy”. The purveyors of left-wing opinion in Australia, the ABC, the Fairfax press, the cognoscenti, the Labor-Greens and so on, are not only subject to groupthink but the kind of groupthink that is seemingly incapable of entertaining a contrarian position on anything. For the most part, Q&A’s treatment of token conservative politicians or pundits has all the attraction of watching Romans feeding Christians to the lions.

Ordinary Australians have more pressing things to attend to on a Monday evening than watch the tax-funded commentariat disparaging ordinary Australians. Only occasionally do they sit up and notice. This happened, for instance, back in 2010 when a member of the audience threw a pair of shoes at former conservative Prime Minister John Howard. Controversy again ensued again this year, after the Monday, June 22, programme when a chap called Zaky Mallah turned up in a Q&A audience to censure the Abbott government’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Steven Ciobo, about the Coalition’s proposed new citizenship rules for those joining violent Jihadist movements. Mallah was found guilty in 2005 of threatening to kill Australian government officials but was acquitted of terrorist charges. His pre-approved Q&A question asked whether Parliamentary Secretary Ciobo thought the government’s proposed new anti-terrorist legislation, had it been in force a decade ago, would have denied Mallah justice. This disingenuous thrust was sharp enough to draw immediate applause from the “non-partisan” audience representing the – cough, cough – full diversity of Australian opinion. The crowd, to be fair, might have been unaware of Zaky Mallah’s on-going terrorist sympathies and so had the impression everything was proceeding according to Q&A's customary narrative: victim holds to account a conservative through an act of public shaming. Cue for two minutes (or fifteen seconds) of Orwellian hate.

And then it all went wrong. This attempt to embarrass the Abbott government came undone because Steven Ciobo happened to know the full particulars of Mallah’s case before the Supreme Court along with the Islamist’s continuing endorsement of militant Jihadism. More than a decade ago Zaky Mallah purchased a rifle and ammunition and made a farewell video after being denied a passport to travel to the Middle East. Soon after he was charged under Australia’s new anti-terrorism act when he accepted $500 from an undercover agent posing as a journalist. Mallah, in exchange for the money, planned to take hostages at the headquarters of ASIO, Australia’s security agency, before providing the ‘reporter’ with the inside story. Mallah, according to Justice Woods, was less a full-blown terrorist (excuse the expression) than a professional provocateur who “enjoyed posing as a potential martyr” – just the sort of character who now encourages an increasing number of Australian Muslims to identify themselves as victims of institutionalised bigotry and oppression. This is the mouthpiece the ABC selected to undermine the Abbott government’s anti-terrorist legislation.                       

Instead of beating a retreat in the face of Mallah’s phoney victimhood, Parliamentary Secretary Ciobo took the offensive: “I am happy to look you straight in the eye and say I’d be pleased to be a part of a government that would say you’re out of the country as far as I’m concerned. I would sleep very soundly with that point of view.” Mallah was panicked into disclosing his real agenda on live national television: “The Liberals have justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of members like him.” The formerly supportive audience was silenced. An alarmed Tony Jones went into emergency mode, ruling Mallah’s admonition “out of order” and insisting on an abrupt change of topic, but it was all too late. “Traitor TV!” screamed the headlines in the morning tabloids after discovering the ABC had facilitated Mallah’s not-so random appearance on the show. Even Prime Minister Abbott, usually circumspect in his comments about the national broadcaster, came up with this question for the Q&A team and the ABC in general: “Whose side are you on?” He also placed a temporary ban on his ministers appearing as guests on the programme.

A representative of Q&A was forced to admit “an error of judgement” but in our modern-day Kulturkampf only one side gets to play victim – and that, of course, can never be the side of ordinary Australians, let alone the conservative Coalition government. Two days later, the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott was blasting Tony Abbott for wanting to turn the tax-funded corporation into an ideologically driven state broadcaster of the type currently operating in North Korea, Russia, China and Vietnam. Scott had it wrong on a number of counts. Nobody in Australia can name a single journalist, director, writer or presenter in the ABC’s vast radio, television and online network who might be even vaguely sympathetic to our conservative Abbott administration. The ABC is not the mouthpiece for government viewpoint but the intractable enemy of it. The editorial bias of the ABC makes its creedal orthodoxy analogous to that of state-aligned broadcasters in North Korea, Russia, China or Vietnam – not because of government interference but, rather, in the absence of an outside authority demanding a strict adherence to its charter, which insists upon a balance of political viewpoints being presented.    

The bohemian socialist dogma of the ABC might not be as deadly as North Korea’s Juche or Kimilsungism but it is tiresome and stultifying enough. Australia’s national broadcasting network abhors ideological diversity but has taken upon itself, in the name of so-called cultural diversity, to provide a platform for the grievance industry. This rainbow of incongruous discontents is held together by a kind of negative cohesion, necessitating a shifting hierarchy of victimhood depending on the circumstances at play. When Q&A's Terry Jones, at the outset of the 29 June programme, apologised on behalf of the ABC for allowing Zaky Mallah to be a part of a live television audience, the contrite host did so on the grounds of two misogynist Tweets coming to light and not because of the Islamist’s past criminal record or known sympathies for violent Jihadism.

This devotion to diversity and inclusivity, opined ABC managing director Mark Scott, was why an extremist such as Zaky Mallah was on Q&A in the first place: “At times, free speech principles mean giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree. It was the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument last year and, of course, the source of the maxim that was used to describe Voltaire’s beliefs.” The idea that the ABC defends the rights of conservatives – let alone to the death – whilst employing only left-wing staff for political commentary strikes many as risible. The Charlie Hebdo allusion is especially odd, since the Australian left tends to the view the French journalists and artists provoked their own deaths. But there are still honourable voices among Australian journalists. Chris Kenny, responding to Scott in the Weekend Australian newspaper, encapsulated the disingenuousness of the ABC’s managing director: “The artists and journalists slaughtered in Paris in January were targeted because they refused to cower in the face of Islamist extremists. What Q&A did was virtually the opposite.”                       

When watching an ABC programme or listening to its radio service I often experience a sense that Australia must have lost an important war somewhere – our own Battle of France – only the public has yet to be informed. It is not so much “Traitor TV!” as Vichy TV. The nihilism at the heart of modern-day Leftism blames Australia, and more generally the West, for everything from the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming hoax to the genesis of the Islamic State. Our way towards ‘national revival’, as per Vichy, can only come from blaming ourselves for all the wrongs of the world and atoning for past sins. The appearance on Q&A of Zaky Mallah, convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser, constituted a ploy on the part of the ABC to propagate a leftist delusion about the inequities of strengthening national security. Mallah has now admitted as much: “The producers called me back and got back to me and said, ‘Look, we are going to restructure your question, take some things out, add some things in’”. The ABC’s plan to denigrate the Coalition was only foiled after a conservative politician stood his ground, causing the terrorist sympathiser to abandon his carefully scripted performance and explicitly justify Global Jihad in terms of blowback from Western bigotry.     

Jolted by the cries of “Traitor TV!” the national broadcaster did announce the formation of an editorial review to investigate any political partisanship in Q&A over the past 23 programmes. Two left-leaning former ABC employees were duly appointed for the task, administrator Shaun Brown and television personality Ray Martin. The latter went on the record – before the panel’s first meeting – to predict a not guilty verdict: “I suspect that [Q&A host/moderator] Tony Jones was just as tough on the Labor government as he is on the Coalition right now.” Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism at the Queensland University of Technology, was not alone among progressives in dismissing as spurious the notion of a “conspiracy within the ABC to denigrate or undermine the right-wing of politics in Australia”. Nevertheless, the good professor anticipated “some impartial, fact-based answers to the charges of Q&A bias” from the Brown-Martin enquiry, despite admitting this “might be touching naiveté” on his part. That would be one way to describe it.