The ABC of ending embarrassing questions

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PM Abbott’s assault on the ABC is all about stopping it from reporting news that is inconvenient or embarrassing for the democratically elected Government, writes Dr Adam Hughes Henry.

THE RECENT ATTACK on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is an excellent example of the lingering influence of antiquated anti-left politics. It is also an indication of the continued desire for the government broadcaster to undertake what some believe is its proper role — to be the compliant broadcast wing of the government, spruiking its propaganda.

In comparison to the modern Australian commercial stations, the ABC and SBS now have the false appearance of something like Igor Stravinsky to Justin Bieber. The difference between belligerent ideological stirrers such as Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones or Ray Hadley and almost any mainstay on the ABC or SBS is telling.

The dedication of the former to the cause of doubt, smear, and spreading ignorance is their greatest contribution to public life. Their respect for the facts is always secondary to their self-appointed ideological mission, namely to attack almost anything connected to the last lingering vestiges of progressive Australian politics. Not that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have anything now much to brag about in terms of unique moral mission or political honesty.

In truth, the ABC is far from a picture perfect example of journalistic brilliance, integrity or innovation but, like SBS, it does have its moments.

In many respects, the ABC has historically been overly eager to please its government masters by providing the sort of news service which has often promoted official government policies and programs, at the very least not attacking them, or within such narrow parameters as to make critical examination highly conscious of potential accusations of anti-government bias irrespective of which of the major parties holds power. This is the origin of the formula which enables ABC shows such as Insiders, Q&A and The Drum to give copious amounts of air time to nearly professional right wing ignoramus’ in order to provide so called ‘balance’.

The Australian Human Rights Commission will now get to experience this winning formula with the appointment of its new boss. The formula provides for nothing more than equitable political spruiking by all the ‘acceptable’ sides of mainstream Australian politics — with the currently elected Government wanting the whip hand.

The commercial stations ‒ like the commercial print media ‒ make no such obvious efforts, which is precisely why you will often find certain politicians ecstatic with the Jones’, The Australian’s or the Daily Telegraph’s, no matter how low the quality of public comment and journalism become.

The ABC has highlighted issues that have, undoubtedly, caused irritation to the government. However, many of these issues would appear to be pretty basic news stories — that is, issues you can hardly expect any news service to ignore, let alone a statutory regulated news service. But, nevertheless, irritation has been caused.

In East Timor, despite Indonesia’s military being directly and indirectly responsible for at least 183,000 deaths from a population perhaps no greater than one million in 1975, Paul Keating was consistently irritated by human rights reports about East Timor in the Australian press. It was clearly irrelevant that the slaughter and death in East Timor was statistically comparable to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The ABC were an obvious villain helping to undermine Keating’s wondrous vision of a new era of cooperation with Suharto — one of the most brutal and corrupt dictators in the history of modern Asia. The ABC were, by definition, undermining government foreign policy objectives, therefore, by even raising questions about any obvious human rights issue in their news reports about East Timor.

Now Tony Abbott has attacked the ABC for being unpatriotic and biased.


Because the ABC has apparently smeared the Australian Navy over reports about possible abusive behaviour towards asylum seekers at sea; because it reported the revelations that the Australian Signals Directorate tapped the phone of the Indonesian President, his wife, and his inner circle; and because this leaked information came from Edward Snowden — a man described by Abbott as a traitor to his country.

Do we know categorically that the allegations against the Navy abuse are true or untrue?

No — all we know is that allegations have been made. But our Government has, in essence, rejected the need for any further investigation.

The allegations are being made and reported in Indonesia; the source — individuals whose refugee boats have apparently been turned around by an Australian Navy. So, for the Government, it is wrong to express doubt or raise questions about these issues.

In an interview with Virginia Trioli on ABC radio some years ago, Peter Reith belligerently played the ‘how dare you smear the sacrosanct members of the Australian Defence Force’ card, by questioning whether children were really thrown overboard. We all know the answer to that question now. Reith played an integral role in the political manipulation of the ‘Children Overboard’ incident. He also pops up as a regular right wing commentator providing ‘balance’ on ABC 24.

In short, Abbott is seriously suggesting that it is treacherous to ask questions or have news reports that raise critical points. Better yet, as Reith highlighted all those years ago — how dare the ABC, or anyone else it seems, ask pretty basic questions about what the government claims to be the 'truth'. This is itself a ridiculous proposition for the elected government of a liberal democracy to hold, yet they do.

It does not end there, of course.

This week, the Attorney General, George Brandis, took the extraordinary move of making certain that even the appeals hearing regarding archival documents requested by a lecturer at UNSW at ADFA, Clinton Fernandes, would themselves be closed.

The appeal process can be undertaken by researchers when documents requested through the National Archives of Australia (NAA) are closed by examiners ‒ who, in my experience, are often retired diplomats of former intelligence bureaucrats ‒ on national security grounds. No doubt, if information from the appeal hearing got into the wrong hands, for example, the ABC, just imagine the damage? Even Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister at the time, has said that he is happy for materials about East Timor or Indonesia to be released. 

Why do any of this?

To prevent any information about the possible contents of the documents being disclosed. The documents pertain to Australian knowledge and discussion about the infamous ‘Fence of Legs’ military operations conducted by the Indonesian military in the early 1980s. A very notable war crime, even amongst the numerous examples committed by the Indonesian military in East Timor.

What would the release of the documents show?

Perhaps they would show that a number of high ranking Australian officials had detailed information from Australian signals intelligence about these operations and various crimes.

The obvious beneficiaries of such information being unavailable to researchers at the NAA can be categorised in two groups:

  1. various Australian officials who can continue to enjoy their comfortable retirements without embarrassment; and, of course,
  2. those who conducted the ‘Fence of Legs’ operation itself. 

What do the Snowden leaks show?

Well, that primarily the U.S. ‒ with assistance of its allies and many multinational corporations ‒ are engaged in a global intelligence gathering operation of staggering proportions, not only against citizens, but seemingly against entire nations, even allies.

Many in the US do not consider Snowden or, for that matter, Bradley Manning traitors, but rather heroes.

Those like Abbott and Brandis who argue that we must operate such unaccountable intelligence operations, hide any evidence of such operations, use legal mechanisms to prevent free access to legitimate information requests and then blame organisations such as the ABC for daring to report the news are immense, profound, hypocrites. We do not need to entertain the political reaction that would be engendered if it was revealed that China or Russia had a current operation on the scale of the NSA, do we?

Let’s consider some of those questions that perhaps the ABC or someone like that should investigate and ask about.

If the ASD phone tapping operation was merely an Australian operation, for example, approved by the previous Rudd/Gillard government, why did information about this operation end up in leaked NSA files in the way that they did? Irrespective of intelligence sharing arrangement between the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, if this had been approved solely by the previous government, it is hard to imagine that Abbott would not have poured as much of the blame on his predecessors as he possibly could have. 

But what if the operation was a joint Australia-US operation or, even more troubling, what if the NSA requested that the Australians conduct the phone taps? Then, I would imagine, one would have to protect one’s main ally from further embarrassment and humiliation. Abbott has not been asked such questions by anyone in the media — his main concern seems to be that the ABC reported the Snowden phone tap revelations at all.

A very strange position indeed.

The ABC itself is not really the problem. It is the odd perception that all those that work and run it are the type of educated latté sipping left-wingers, who will only cease their evil conspiracy of inconvenient news reporting when an Indigenous transgender bisexual vegetarian environmentalist with an Arts/Law degree becomes Australian Prime Minister. At this stage, the sky will fall and fair-minded decent and objective Australians like Piers Akerman or Alan Jones will be sent to university ‒ AKA “re-education camps” ‒ and forced to read scholarly books full of referenced facts.

(Image by Michael Ryan AKA @mryan89)

When once asked about climate change and environmentalists, former Senator Nick Minchin actually argued that the environmental movement was largely driven by fallen communists whose main ambition was to use the movement to de-industrialise the west:

“For the extreme left it [the existence of climate change] provides the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left...and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.”

This is the something like ignorant and lazy ideological attitude of conspiracy from the Liberal-National governments of the 1960s and early 1970s, who used ASIO to run checks on various ABC journalists, academics, activists, feminists, Aborigines, politicians and, for that matter, anyone else it seems that displeased them almost as a matter of course. After all, there was a Cold War to fight, or the Vietnam War to support, or the relationship with our precious ally to protect. And these horrid people, no doubt ,would be intent on damaging national security or be on the way to doing something even worse — for example, publicly embarrassing the democratically elected government by reporting news and asking some inconvenient questions.

The latter would appear to be the greatest sin in the eyes of many politicians, particularly our current Government.

If the meek news reports and occasional questions from the ABC have become a problem for the current government in Australia, yet the commercial media with its spiralling quest for the lowest common denominator journalism is not, the basic assumptions of democratic accountability have, in fact, been turned on their heads.

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