Why the Chasergate furore is about the future of the ABC

So let’s recap.

Youve got presenters celebrated for pushing boundaries.

They do precisely that with something in incredible bad taste. But the show’s prerecorded, so it gets referred upwards to the woman in charge.  

For some inexplicable reason she allows it to go to air.

The media gets into it. The public is outraged – even to the extent that credible questions are asked about the standing and funding of the public service broadcaster. The level of genuine public anger is pretty much unprecedented.

The show is suspended and the woman who let it through faces a major career issue, so does the MD, a chap called Mark.

If you haven’t already worked it out, I’m not talking about last week’s scandal over The Chaser, but what went on in the UK late last year. The consequences were among the most serious ever faced by the BBC. They will have scared the hell out of ABC boss Mark Scott over the last few days.

To recap, Russell Brand (whose TV series Ponderland recently finished airing on Seven) had as a guest on his national BBC radio show Jonathan Ross (whose show is currently airing on Monday nights on Seven as it happens. Eerily enough, as I write this on Monday evening with Seven on in the background, Ross is interviewing Brand. But I digress…)

The pair were doing a prerecorded show, in which they were due to conduct a phone interview with the septagenarian actor Andrew Sachs – Manuel in Fawlty Towers. There was no answer, so they left a message – part of which was Ross blurting out: “He fucked your granddaughter.” Which was true. He had.

Prior to broadcast, the exchange was referred upwards to Lesley Douglas, the controller of BBC Radio2. She approved it without considering it properly.

After broadcast – and once the media got their teeth into it – the public became increasingly outraged at the treatment of an elderly national treasure. Eventually there were more than 38,000 Sachsgate complaints. It was a major media issue for weeks.

The BBC’s managing director issued a public apology and announced a suspension of Brand from his show and Ross from his TV and radio engagements for the BBC. Brand immediately resigned, but it wasn’t enough to save Douglas who resigned the next day.

Even now, the consequences are still continuing for the BBC. Ross only recently came back on air – and he is now banned from doing live radio for the network, despite being one of its highest paid performers – at least until his contract runs out. MPs have called for changes to the funding of the BBC. And the broadcasting regulator fined the BBC the equivalent of more than $300,000 dollars. Director general Mark Thompson’s own job was under threat.

So you can see why the ABC appears to be viewing Chasergate as something to take seriously.

And – based on the contents of tonight’s Media Watch – I can’t see that the ABC’s Amanda Duthie can credibly keep her job. Her email exchange with the programme makes it clear that she failed to refer the sketch upwards.

Just like Lesley Douglas, she is generally well thought of. But just like Lesley Douglas, unless there’s a dramatic development she may well have to go.

The ABC management will be praying that the furore dies down now . It’ll take a few days yet to see if that’s the case – most of the newspaper columnists and talkback stations have now had a bite. But the broadcaster will have to say something about its internal procedures and what went wrong.

And when the show returns to the air on June 24 the scrutiny will massive (Update: I’ve just noticed that’s also State of Origin game two, so the audience will be anything but massive – deliberate timing for the return I wonder?) . They’ll get away with far less than they did before – certainly no scenes like the one featuring the lynching of a black woman which they did in episode one. By going far too far, in the future they’ll be able to go far less far.

It’s a nightmare for the ABC – as well as the backlash of public sentiment and potential regulatory or even future funding sanctions, there is another challenge to be faced – that of loss of nerve.

If events follow the same pattern as the BBC, the organisation will spend the next few months in paralytic risk-averse mode. Don’t expect to see anything edgy anytime soon.

What to do with The Chaser is an even bigger problem though. Part of the case for ongoing public funding of the broadcaster is its ability to reach all Australians. Along with The Gruen Transfer and Spicks & Specks, The Chaser is one of the few shows to connect with a younger audience.

To quote the late Fergus Cashin, this one will run and run.


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