The ABC made a dire error of judgement this week. Not in its much-criticised broadcast of Q&A, but in its refusal to defend the program against a campaign aimed at undermining the network’s leadership.
The broadcaster was right to put to air former “terrorist sympathiser” Zaky Mallah on Monday night. Though inelegant in his expression, he made a valid contribution to the debate on terrorism legislation and citizenship revocation.
The director of ABC Television, Richard Finlayson, was wrong to say the program had “made an error in judgement in allowing Mallah to join the audience and ask a question’’.
Equally, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull acted inappropriately in contacting the network’s chief executive, Mark Scott – as well as chairman Jim Spigelman and host Tony Jones – over the segment.
It was inappropriate for the prime minister, Tony Abbott, to suggest “heads should roll” at the ABC. It was wrong, also, for him to ask of its journalists “whose side are you on?”
It was wrong for Liberal MP Sarah Henderson, a former ABC presenter, to demand the program’s executive producer be sacked. It was ludicrous that Alex Hawke suggest the program be taken off the air while a review into the broadcast be conducted.
None of this is to suggest Mallah is a person of decency or substance. He has been convicted of threatening to kill ASIO officials and acquitted of charges relating to the plotting of a terrorist attack. Importantly, both these points were made during the broadcast.
Mallah is abusive and unlikeable, but that does not detract from the point he made during the program, one he is supported in by counterterrorism academics: that the government’s treatment of marginalised people in the community can serve to radicalise those people. When the government tells people they might be stripped of their citizenship at the behest of a minister, they are not making a case for inclusion.
But the attack on the ABC is about more than the editorial judgement made in putting Mallah’s statements to air. It is about scaring the broadcaster away from its central function – independent reporting.
In an update to her memoir, reissued this week, former prime minister Julia Gillard put it this way: “The government’s bullying of the ABC early on was paying off, with the national broadcaster frequently pussyfooting around potential criticism of the government.”
For News Corp – enthusiastic in its condemnation this week – it is about trying once more to shake Mark Scott from his leadership of the network. His competence is a sore for Rupert Murdoch’s company. His push into digital is unwanted competition. His network’s fair reporting is irksome balance.
Scott leads the ABC well, a source of irritation to opponents. He erred this week in not defending Q&A – and, worse, in reportedly pulling an interview with Mallah to be aired after the incident. But his error pales alongside the indulgence of his critics, alongside the histrionic front pages and the government’s obscene attacks on the network’s independence.
The ABC is an institution in which the country places enormous trust. It ranks second only to the High Court. But it is also an institute that requires defending, and the more vociferous its critics become, the more steely that defence must be.