The ABC versus News Corp and Abbott: This farce is about politics, not terrorism

tim burrowes landscapeThis week’s scandal over Q&A’s decision to allow a former radical on air is being fuelled by cynical self-interest on the part of the Government and News Corp, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

So I’m an idiot.

On Tuesday, when the ABC admitted it had blundered over the previous night’s Q&A episode, I told all and sundry: “That was smart. Now it’ll be a one-day story and everybody will move on.”

That’s not quite how it turned out.

abc news corp tabloids Q&AIf you thought newspapers no longer have influence, just wait until News Corp’s tabloids go properly nuts about something.

I should have seen it coming. Karl Marx was right when he said that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.

Editorial decisions about sensitive Middle East issues by public broadcasters. Angry governments. A live broadcast. News Corp-driven tabloid outrage. Public inquiries. It all happened a decade ago.

The only difference was that last time round, it happened in the UK, and there was real tragedy – somebody died. And the boss of the BBC lost his job.

This time round, at least it’s only a farce. Even if the politicians and tabloids once again want heads to roll.

I  was amused (and given the ISIS context, a little horrified) that Prime Minister Tony Abbott used the phrase “heads should roll” yesterday. There’s long been a saying about Britain’s public broadcaster the BBC when a controversy occurs: “Deputy heads will roll”.

And it’s a lesson the ABC has followed over the years too. Almost exactly five years ago, Amanda Duthie was the deputy head in question when The Chaser’s controversial dying kids Make A Reasonable Wish Foundation drove the tabloids nuts.

But it was nothing compared to one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of British democracy.

It kicked off just over a decade ago in May 2003 on BBC Radio 4’s Today Show. Think RN Breakfast, but even more influential.

Journalist Andrew Gilligan reported that Tony Blair’s Government had knowingly “sexed up” the case for going to war with Iraq, including its abilities to use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. The report of a misleading dossier was accurate, but in one of the live two-ways between the journalist and presenter, he went too far in his claims.

Things became febrile when Government and newspapers, including the News Corp stable, went to war on the BBC. Five weeks later, the source of the BBC story, David Kelly, was outed after the Government confirmed his name to journalists. A week later, Kelly turned up dead in a field.

The government announced an inquiry. It was a wonderful distraction from the fingers pointing at them over the man’s death.

The Hutton Inquiry process ran for five months, examining the inner workings of the BBC and government communications.

The result was a whitewash on behalf of the Government. Nobody could have anticipated Dr Kelly would take his life, the inquiry ruled. If the dossier making the case for war had been tampered with, it was only because the government had “subconsciously influenced” staffers.

Instead, the blame lay with the BBC chain of command in how the story was researched and presented.

Greg Dyke, one of the best director generals the BBC had ever had, resigned. None of his successors were a match for him. One of them, George Entwistle, lasted just 54 days. The BBC hasn’t been quite the same since.

It was a victory for the Blair Government, and for News Corp, which arguably dislikes the BBC even more than it hates the ABC.

But back to this week’s events.

First, let’s nail down what didn’t happen.

Despite what you may have read, Zaky Mallah did not go on air and advocate for Muslims to go and join ISIL. (Embarrassing declaration: For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, that’s how we reported it too.) In fact, he claimed that the rhetoric used by politicians might encourage that.

And let’s nail down what the ABC hasn’t apologised for.

The broadcaster has not conceded what went to air was out of order.

It has admitted that editorial processes in taking the risk of putting a loose cannon on the air went awry.

As Mark Scott put it in his excellent speech last night:

“The risks and uncertainties of having him in a live programming environment weren’t adequately considered before the decision was made to accept his application to be in the studio audience.

“It’s one thing to pre-record an interview and exercise editorial judgment on the content before you put it to air. But live television doesn’t give you that option. And in Q&A’s case, it took place with a large studio audience present.

“These things needed to have been thought through carefully and referred up internally. We have detailed upward referral on editorial judgment at the ABC to help guide thinking in complex or contentious matters.”

But although it seems that (just like with the Make A Reasonable Wish Chaser sketch), it didn’t get referred upwards. But nothing went wrong.

Mallah did not call for Muslims to go and fight in Syria. And he certainly didn’t repeat the sentiments of his horrible tweets he’s previously made about News Corp columnists.

He took a slight crack at Ciobo. After Ciobo told Mallah he’d be pleased to send him out of the country, he retorted “I’d be happy to see you out of this country.”

It’s only one up from the playground “No. You smell”…)

Here’s the transcript (6.45pm update: This full, updated version sourced from the ABC Q&A website)

ZAKY MALLAH: As the first man in Australia to be charged with terrorism under the harsh Liberal Howard Government in 2003, I was subject to solitary confinement, a 22 hour lockdown, dressed in most times in an orange overall and treated like a convicted terrorist while under the presumption of innocence. I had done and said some stupid things, including threatening to kidnap and kill but, in 2005, I was acquitted of those terrorism charges. Question to the panel: What would have happened if my case had been decided by the Minister himself and not the courts?

TONY JONES: Steve Ciobo.

STEVE CIOBO: Sir, I’m not familiar with the circumstances of your case. I remember certainly seeing video of comments that the questioner asked but, from memory, I thought you were acquitted on a technicality rather than it being on the basis of a substantial finding of fact. I could be wrong but that’s my…

TONY JONES: Well, I mean, we’ll go back to – to Zaky. I mean, you did, in fact, plead guilty to making these threats you just mentioned – death threats to Commonwealth officials and you did – you were convicted of that so you are admitting to that but it’s the other side of the coin you were not convicted in the end on any terrorism charges. That’s correct?

ZAKY MALLAH: That’s correct. I was charged with planning a terrorist attack in Sydney in 2003 and was acquitted by the Supreme Court jury in 2005 of those charges. However, as a plea bargain happened, I pleaded guilty to threatening to kill ASIO officials.


STEVE CIOBO: Well, I got to tell you, Tony, my understanding of your case was that you were acquitted because, at that point in time, the laws weren’t retrospective. But I’m happy to look you straight in the eye and say that I would be pleased to be part of a government that would say that you’re out of the country as far as I’m concerned.

ZAKY MALLAH: Rubbish. Rubbish.

STEVE CIOBO: I’m telling you I would sleep very soundly at night with that point of view.

ZAKY MALLAH: As an Australian, I would be happy to see you out of this country.

TONY JONES: Okay, Joel Fitzgibbon.

STEVE CIOBO: The difference is – but hang on, Tony.

TONY JONES: Yeah, okay.

STEVE CIOBO: The difference is I haven’t threatened to kill anybody, I haven’t threatened to kill people that put their lives on the line for the values that this country represents.

DEE MADIGAN: But don’t you think…

STEVE CIOBO: And so in that sense, with the greatest of respect to you, my understanding – well, no, my understanding – I don’t apologise for this point of view. My understanding is that the reason you got off terrorist offences was because they weren’t retrospective in application and that’s the only reason.

DEE MADIGAN: But don’t you think we have courts to decide these things, not Ministers? That’s why we have courts?

STEVE CIOBO: Okay. So the difference here is that and this is – I mean, up until just when Joel spoke about Labor’s position my understanding…

DEE MADIGAN: I don’t agree with that position.

STEVE CIOBO: …was that Labor required a conviction. So, I mean, I’m pleased that Joel has overruled the Shadow Attorney General. But the position is this: do we allow people or do we require people to come back into Australia and pursue a criminal conviction or do we say, no, a Minister can do that based on intelligence advice, based on the advice of others, subject to, as I said, the rule of parliamentary democracy?

DEE MADIGAN: So what you’re saying though, is a Minister…

LINDA TIRADO: Always let your (indistinct) decisions.

DEE MADIGAN: …a Minister can get rid of someone’s citizenship and then they have to appeal to the courts to get it back?


DEE MADIGAN: I mean, they’re using the appeal process to prove their innocence.


DEE MADIGAN: Do you not think that’s skewed on the head?

STEVE CIOBO: I think that’s a fundamental principle of putting safety first.

DEE MADIGAN: Okay, I’m just going to go to the other side of the panel here. First of all, I’d like to hear Joel Fitzgibbon on the question raised by Zaky Mallah. He has admitted and was convicted for the offence which he described but he was acquitted on the offence of terrorism. Now, Steve Ciobo here says, well, it’s because it wasn’t retrospective or the laws weren’t retrospective in those days. But he was found innocent in the Supreme Court of that particular offence. What do you say?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: And his main point, correct me if I am wrong, is that you were detained over a protracted period. That’s your main contention or complaint?

ZAKY MALLAH: Well, I was at Goulburn supermax for two years waiting for trial and then eventually the Supreme Court jury acquitted me of those charges.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Yeah, so this is a…

TONY JONES: So we’ve just heard one side of politics say that for the offence committed, they believe, Steve Ciobo believes he should banished from the country. What do you say?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, I’m not familiar with the details of the case so I’ll be careful. But I think we’re talking about two different things here. We’re not – we’ve moved away from citizenship. The issue here is whether the Parliament has legislated to deal with a pretty serious threat that is terrorism in a way which starts to impinge on civil liberties. So what the Parliament has basically done is pushed the balance and determined that if there’s doubt, we are going to hold this person longer than we were ordinarily able to do in the past and the Parliament, or the government of the day – I’m not defending John Howard – but the Government of the day has decided that the threat was so great that it was necessary to impinge on those civil liberties. So they’re different questions. Now, we can debate all not about whether…

TONY JONES: Well, the question that he actually asked was whether you’d be comfortable with a Minister making the decision, not the courts?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the Minister making the decision. What I am comfortable with…

TONY JONES: Doesn’t that contradict what you just said a minute ago?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, no, because what I am comfortable with…

TONY JONES: As long as they’re out of the country the Government can make the decision.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: …is – is the Government – is the Government submitting legislation to the Parliament, legislation which is subject to independent review by the relevant Parliamentary committee, which has been doing great work to keep a check on some of these more recent attempts to change legislation and then, after that, the law being changed if the Parliament deems it acceptable to push the balance, the pendulum back away from civil liberties, to ensure we avert terrorism attacks in this country. Now, again, people will have strong views about that but me personally? If it means saving one life, I’m more open to pushing the envelope on civil liberties than many others in the room would be.

TONY JONES: Grahame Morris?

GRAHAME MORRIS: We are jumping a couple of shadows here. While we have been meeting, the Cabinet has been meeting. The party room will talk about this tomorrow morning and there will be, despite Dee Googling all over the place, there will be the court will have a role in all of this. But, you know, spare a thought for the legislators. You know, some of these people are going overseas to be trained to be killers. Some of them are shooting at our own soldiers. It is not all that long ago, if that happened, that would be called treason, they’d be shot. Now, just imagine if you are a legislator, one of these people did go overseas, came back and there was a disaster and they’d done nothing. You know, just imagine the upheaval in this country that the legislators knew this person was a complete lunatic, they let him back into the country and, apart from that, you know, we’re talking about the Court. I have seen Family Court judges in awful trouble with people who want to almost blow up the Family Court. Imagine the danger we are going to put some of the judges in if they try…

TONY JONES: Can I just say – can I just go…

DEE MADIGAN: That is the most ridiculous reason…

TONY JONES: Hang on, if you don’t mind, I’ll just go quickly back to Zaky Mallah because he, in fact, did go to Syria but he fought with the Free – or I don’t know if you fought with them but you were with the Free Syrian Army, who, of course, are backed by the United States.

ZAKY MALLAH: I didn’t fight for the Free Syrian Army. I went there to meet the Free Syrian Army and go to the frontlines and see what the war was all about. I had recorded all my experiences in Syria and it has all been, you know, put on – uploaded on YouTube, so it’s all there. But I went to Syria to experience the situation for myself and why the uprising had begun. But I just want to say a comment before this – this little discussion ends is that…

TONY JONES: If you are quick about it, go ahead.

ZAKY MALLAH: Yeah. Yeah, sure. The Liberals now have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of Ministers like him.

TONY JONES: Okay. I think that’s a comment we are just going to rule totally out of order. I’m sorry about that. We’re just about to end the show.

GRAHAME MORRIS: It was bloody outrageous.

TONY JONES: I don’t think there is really much more to say at this point. Steve, do you want to respond to that quickly?

STEVE CIOBO: Well, I mean, look, I stand by what I said. As best as I know, you know, your circumstances, the comments you have made, the threats you have made that you have pleaded guilty to, to me more than justify the concerns that the Government has. And, you know, I think that it is very wrong, frankly, for you to portray the Muslim population as all being incentivised to do those things because, let me tell you, I know a lot of Muslims. They’ve very good people and I think that they would be recoiling at what you just said.

TONY JONES: Okay. Now, I’m sorry, we’ve just gone over time so sorry to do this but that’s all we have time for tonight. Please thank our panel: Dee Madigan, Steve Ciobo, Antony Hegarty, Linda Tirado, Joel Fitzgibbon and Grahame Morris. Antony, that’s your cue.

In terms of back-and-forth, there are far ruder exchanges on talkback radio and television every day.

In that context, it was not a mistake to have rebroadcast the program in its regular slot the next day, despite Abbott’s claims. There was nothing that needed editing out. The mistake was in opening the door to what might have happened when you put an attention-seeking hothead on the air, not what actually happened.

Yet it’s become the omnishambles coined by The Thick Of It, the British political satire that included several episodes dedicated to a public inquiry after a man’s suicide. (I wonder where they got that inspiration from?)

The ABC is of course regulated by its own board, policies and ACMA. Not by the government.

So why has this one-day story blown up so spectacularly?

The News Corp motivation is obvious. Remember the scene in The Crying Game when the kidnapped soldier talks about the scorpion and the frog?

Why did the scorpion sting the frog? “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

Beating up the ABC in is News Corp’s nature.

But what about the government? Why pick this fight with one of the Australian public’s most beloved institutions?

It’s good politics, of course.

First, it’s a wonderful distraction from headlines about Joe Hockey being a bad treasurer and so on. Every week where somebody else is the political story is a win.

And second, it’s a wonderful way of the Abbott government getting News Corp back on side without pissing off the other commercial broadcasters.

Having followed in the footsteps of former Labor media minister Stephen Conroy, Malcolm Turnbull and Abbott have chickened out of reforming the media ownership laws.

They’re scared of pissing off some of the other media moguls. But it leaves News Corp stalled with just 15% of Ten and 15% of APN, and no other obvious acquisition targets within the current ownership framework.

Which makes News Corp unhappy with Abbott. Until Zaky Mallah came along.

It’s profoundly depressing. There’s nothing that justifies the Government deciding that it should start holding its own inquiries into editorial decisions.

department communications inquiry abc

As Mark Scott observed last night, the ABC is a public service broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. I do urge you to read or watch his speech.

There have also been predictable calls from News Corp columnists for Scott to resign. The ABC is a much better, more confident, more digitally-ready organisation than Scott found it when he took the helm nine years ago. ABC News 24 (a rival for the News Corp-aligned Sky News), ABC iView (a rival for the News Corp-aligned Foxtel), ABC online (a rival for all of News Corp’s online mastheads) are just a few of his achievements.

I’m just about certain that they won’t succeed in getting Scott to resign. (It’s about six months since they last wanted him to. And a year since the time before that. And 18 months since the time before that.)

But it will certainly be a distraction for the final year of his leadership.

Thank god it’s only a farce though. Imagine how muchy worse it would be if it was a tragedy.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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