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The ABC and the coalition

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Coalition party room meeting yesterday was apparently focussed on the ABC and what ought to be done about it, or to it. There were some there who would sell it off, some who would just abolish it, some who are just angry with it but don't have a solution, and some who would sack the CEO, Mark Scott. For my part, I would simply like it to stick to its excellent principles and code of conduct, about which I've written before, here and here. I think Australia would be better off with a properly independent ABC.

Senator Cory Bernardi said that whatever else it was, it was 'not our ABC' - by which he certainly meant 'the Coalition's ABC' - and on that he is certainly right. Mr Turnbull, the responsible Minister, said that Mark Scott had made a shocking error of judgment by collaborating with Guardian Australia in publishing further leaks from whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden. No doubt Mr Scott hasn't made the Coalition any happier with his performance by saying that he might do it again, if there were a suitable story.

It needs to be remembered that Mr Howard appointed both a Chairman and Board members who might be thought to be independent. One of the Board members, Ron Brunton, later wrote a more-than-sorrow-than-in-anger essay about how management duchessed the Board throughout his time there. The Chairman in question, Maurice Newman, also seemed to feel that he and the Board had been unable to control what I have called the 'political culture' of the Corporation's staff.


In late 2012, after he had left, he wrote a couple of pieces on the ABC and climate change, which drew a good deal of ire from those within the ABC. You can read all about it here, and in that essay he told a story which is worth repeating in this present context:

In March 2010 as chairman, I addressed an in-house conference of 250 ABC leaders. In a speech titled "Trust is the future of the ABC", I asked, "how might we ensure in our newsrooms we celebrate those who interrogate every truth?" I lamented the mainstream media's role as an effective gatekeeper. It was too conformist and had missed the warning signs of financial failure. I blamed group think and used climate change as an example. My mistake was to mention climate change.

While most company chairs would find the tenor of my talk unremarkable, Jonathon Holmes, the presenter of Media Watch, was so angry "he could not concentrate". He found it an inappropriate forum for such remarks. I was interviewed by PM and teased as to whether I was a "climate change denier or not as obvious as that?" As a further censure, that night Tony Jones read a statement on Lateline saying: "Tonight, ABC management responded to Mr Newman's speech, saying it stands by the integrity of its journalists and its processes."

Journalistic integrity? Encouraging the leadership to achieve higher standards is to question its integrity? Surely wanting to improve performance is an elementary objective for any organisation, but rather than take on board the challenges I outlined, management decided to put a distance between us.

I remember all this very well, and it points to the problem that Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull will have if they want to change things. What exactly would you do? I have said before that the ABC's formal statement of how it should behave are excellent. The problem is that those who work under them interpret these rules in a what I would call a blinkered way. For them what they do is, or so it seems to me, already unbiassed and independent (and virtuous, and on the side of history, as well). Someone like Mr Newman is plainly, to them, well to the right, and a climate change denier as well.

Nothing seems to change. The ABC has been reporting what the newly formed 'Climate Council' has to say, as though it possessed some kind of gold standard as an authoritative source of knowledge on global warming and 'climate change'. It has no such authority, and lacked it even when its proponents worked for the Labor Government as the Climate Commission. In my judgment it was as close to a Ministry of Propaganda as Australia has even seen.

And at much the time I was writing this essay, the ABC broadcast an interview with a Melbourne academic who was telling listeners that we were in for a four-degree-warming world. Not even the IPCC says this, and the interviewer had the grace to be startled:

The planet has warmed only about 0.8 of a degree since the industrial revolution. The latest IPCC report shows the pace of warming has actually stabilised in recent years. Isn't this just too extreme an analysis to be taken seriously?


To which the academic replied:

Look, the stabilisation that has occurred at the moment is regarded by most climate scientists as temporary. These sort of projections that we are now looking at the moment are not alarmist at all. I think they're actually probably conservative under the circumstances. They don't factor in a number of other feedbacks which may occur as warming continues and as we move past certain tipping points.

I can only describe this as old-hat alarmism, based on model projections which have no status for accuracy, and on extreme estimates for climate sensitivity. Why is the ABC broadcasting stuff like this, and why is no dissenter called upon to point out its obvious errors?

Maurice Newman described it as 'religion', and I agree with him. But how is the Government to put a stop to it? Does freedom of religion apply to the ABC?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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All articles by Don Aitkin

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