ABOUT the time Q&A’s audience was bagging the editor of Hobart’s Mercury for not denouncing his employer on the front page of a determinately provincial publication, the urge to switch off the telly became almost irresistible. Almost. Was it the perverse pleasure to be mined from outrage that kept the screen alive, or that the dregs of a nice drop and their bottle were not worth carrying all the way out to the study? Probably the latter, so the Monday night ritual of pap and piety and ex cathedra pronouncements was allowed to continue its drone and whine from the corner of the livingroom. The bottle died and, soon after, so did the box. The web had won the battle for attention once again, as it increasingly does, and the ABC lost another viewer to its omniscient rival.
The nastiest notes from Tony Jones’ orchestration of imbalance were still echoing on the stroll through the garden, fresh bottle in paw. So, too, the irritation that surges almost every Monday night. Why had Jones felt it necessary to introduce that poor editor as “a Murdoch editor” and to do so almost with a wink? How could he permit that lisping pommy pistil-fiddler to thunder so, mostly about the magnificence of his own, planet-loving moral worth? And when the creature from the green lagoon reviled The Australian for leading simple souls astray, why did Jones not pull her up, point out that the Gillard Gouge is genuinely unpopular and that Rupert Murdoch, even at the height of his wicked powers, could have fanned no more than a small front of such a fire?
Because he is Tony Jones and it is their ABC, that is the simple answer. After yet another Monday festival of sneer and bias, a parade that begins with 7.30, runs often through Australian Story, and builds to its preachy climax with Four Corners, Media Watch and the Q&A, the conclusion that the fix is in is undeniable.
And last night, as the Billabong’s computer fired up, so did a sense of rueful astonishment. How did the rather appealing idea of an honest, inoffensive national broadcaster metastisise into such an ugly growth. Every Monday sees the pillorying of the unfashionable. On other nights, much the same via other vehicles. Mark Scott, the media mogul who needs not turn a profit, swears his ABC is a “market failure broadcaster”, that it plugs a gap the commercials will not fill. How then to explain Crownies? Young hornbags shedding their gear to the accompaniment of a clunky script, it’s a concept quite thoroughly explored, one would have thought, by Seven, Nine and Ten (not to mention cable’s cavalcade of tits and teeth.)
Somehow it happened, the transformation from Mr Squiggle to Mr Straight Party Line. At televisionau.com, a site devoted to the history of Oz viewing and its ephemera, the buffs have very kindly collected images of what they call “classic TV Guides”, and last night, after Christine Milne’s use of the ABC pulpit to promise that “hate media” would soon be examined, judged and regulated, it seemed worthwhile to turn back time and take a quick look at the ABC of three decades past. The entry for July 29, 1981, isn’t relevant because all stations’ schedules were dominated by live coverage of Princess Di’s wedding, but a facsimile page from May speaks to how much things have changed, to the mission creep that would see Bellbird, if it were to re-made today, devoted to Joe Turner’s wind generator, Olive’s hunza pie and the local rag’s crusade for carbon justice. Can anyone doubt that John Quinney would be a big polluter, not to mention a cross-burning foe of the sweet family of Muslim refugees modern scriptwriters would feel obliged to introduce and extol?
Back in 1981, apart from an afternoon news broadcast at one o’clock, the daytime schedule was devoted entirely to kiddie fare and educational programming. By 7pm, it was the nightly news, followed by Big Country, then documentaries and imported drama, with another 40 minutes of current affairs before the evening tailed off with the lightweight laughs of Three’s Company.
Now look at the today’s ABC. Having been awarded a dedicated cable channel to mind Australia’s children, it has stacked the early mornings with japanimation -- second-rate superheroes smacking each other around without pause or plot. Again, what is it about such shows that does not replicate the commercials’ offerrings? After that, lots of stuff like this.
On the web, for semi-grownups there is the Drum, where the ABC feels obliged to replicate the piffle that Eric Beecher serves up at Crikey. Again, where is the market failure? Beecher mines a profit from morons, and good luck to him, for that is the way markets work. But at the Drum, there is not the excuse of profit, only green left ideology leavened with the odd quisling entry by a token writer from the right. As the late Alene Composta demonstrated, no opinion is too ridiculous for the Drum, so long as it appears to originate on the left.
You could on and on about the ABC – not least the the way in which, say, the Q&A guest roster reads like a list of those invited to a family gathering. The whining Anna Rose, of the Children’s Climate Crusade, gets a seat on the panel; she is the lovemate of Simon “Shakedown” Sheikh, who also gets his frequent dollop of government-guaranteed exposure. An Australian convert to Islam, Susan Carland (on last week’s Q&A), is introduced as a sociologist; more relevant, one suspects, is that she is the spouse of the ABC’s (and SBS) favourite tame Muslim Waleed Aly. Those unofficial networks of friends and mates and lovers, you get the impression they carry an awesome weight with ABC bookers.
It would be nice to shrug off the ABC’s advocacy of its employees’ personal views. As the web demonstrates, there are more alternative sources of information and opinion than in 1981, so if you can stomach the ABC’s pushing one side of the political divide while largely ignoring the other, it is, or should be, no big deal.
But then, chillingly, you hear Christine Milne’s vow to bring dissident opinions to heel, even when they represent bodies of opinion far larger and much stronger than that of the other-worldly 15-odd percent who supported her party at the last poll. And she will, too. Make no mistake about the shamelessness of your typical crypto-fascist.
It would be nice if the ABC could be restored to the wholesome inoffensiveness of entertainments like Blue Hills and the Argonauts, but that can never happen. As an institution it has been colonized by the tawdry, the vulgar and the true believer, often all at the same time.
There is only one way to fix the ABC and that is to defund it. As Tony Abbott and his handlers count the days until this staggering government falls at the next election, whenever that might be, he should keep a running tally of Aunty’s outrages. John Howard had the spine only for fiddling at the edges. Abbott needs to punch out the ABC’s lights. And then he must drive a stake through its irredeemable heart.