ABC managing director Mark Scott has launched a staunch defence of his organisation during a speech at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs on Thursday night.
Answering prime minister Tony Abbott’s question “Whose side are you on?” Scott said the national broadcaster “is clearly Australian, it’s on the side of Australia”.
“The part we play, what we do for the side, is a vital one, central to our culture and our democracy – that of being an independent public broadcaster,” he said.
While Scott didn’t mention prime minister Tony Abbott by name, he mentioned former Labor PM Bob Hawke, NSW ALP leader Neville Wran and Liberal PM Bob Menzies as politicians who’d challenged the ABC along similar lines, comparing the public broadcaster to state-run broadcasters in communist countries such as China and Vietnam.
“A state broadcaster is the communications arm of the Government. Its role is to communicate the messages of the Government — and certainly not to do anything that undermines the Government,” he said.
“I hope no-one seriously wants the ABC to be a state broadcaster.”
While Scott said the organisation would “cooperate fully” with the snap departmental government inquiry, announced by communications minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday and due to report its findings next week, he challenged the notion that the ABC should be more supportive of whoever’s in power.
“In Australia, when Governments change, we could change the public broadcasters with them, align them to more positively reflect the Government’s agenda, to do the Government’s bidding,” he said.
“But you would have to change the ABC Act. And you would have to destroy the ABC as we have known it for eight decades.”
The organisation’s editor-in-chief acknowledged mistakes had been made in Monday night’s Q&A, which featured convicted criminal and acquitted terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah asking a question of parliamentary secretary Steve Ciobo, and chastised those in the organisation reluctant to admit the error, but compared the show to “high wire without a net”.
“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,” he said.
Prime minister Tony Abbott said “heads should roll” over the decision, declaring that “many millions” of Australians felt “betrayed” by the ABC for putting Mallah to air.
Mark Scott said it was important to allow people, including the criminal and corrupt to “express views that run contrary to accepted public values” as part of free speech.
“We still need to hear in order to gain insight into thinking, into motivation. To understand the root cause of behaviours and actions that we might find confronting and alarming, or worse.”
The ABC boss said live television was inherently dangerous.
“That it can be unpredictable and compelling. Part of the success of Q&A is that the audience knows it’s live,” he said.
“As we know, Q&A engages audiences and it triggers a response from them too. People will not be happy with every panel or questioner or tweet. Not every editorial judgement made will be right. The show generates passion like few others. No program is more heavily scrutinised by audiences and critics.”
Scott said Q&A had the potential to become as enduring part of Australian public life.
“Amidst this week’s controversy, I don’t want to lose sight of the terrific achievements of Q&A.”
Last night communications minister Malcolm Turnbull appeared on ABC TV’s 7.30, appearing to distance himself from the prime minister’s call for heads to roll in a play on John Howard’s famous phrase, saying “I’ll decide what metaphors I use and the manner in which I use them”.
But, Turnbull said, the ABC made “a very, very grave error of judgement and the management has to take responsibility for it and that there should be consequences”.
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