Ian McAuley. The ABC and a second chance.

Jul 1, 2015

Current Affairs

Most reasonable people would be fully behind Mark Scott’s spirited defence of the ABC “as a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster”, reminding us that “at times, free speech principles mean giving platforms to those with whom we fundamentally disagree.”

Tony Abbott’s reaction to Zaky  Mallah’s remarks on Q&A is comparable to the religious fundamentalists’ hysterical reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. When Abbott said “heads should roll”, he was undoubtedly speaking metaphorically, but such language spurs hotheads to extreme violence. It’s a chilling reminder that journalists have been beheaded for upsetting the delicate sensitivities of religious bigots.

How could Abbott, so familiar with Catholicism and English history, forget the unintended violence King Henry incited when, in a similar offhand remark, he said “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest”?

Of course Abbott and his loyal followers would be happy if all the media, particularly the highly-trusted ABC, were as uncritically supportive of the government as the Murdoch papers are. But the government doesn’t usually react so strongly as it has to the Q&A incident. Perhaps it touched a couple of raw nerves that other criticisms do not.

The first raw nerve was touched when Mallah suggested that the intemperate language of government ministers (“dog whistling”) has encouraged people to go to Syria to join IS. His statement was hardly elegant, and if taken out of context could be interpreted as urging people to join IS, but if one listens to the full interchange that is certainly not what he was saying.

It is quite plausible that government ministers and their strident supporters on talkback radio, have intentionally or otherwise contributed to a feeling of isolation and rejection among some young Muslim Australians, thus elevating the attraction of movements such as IS.  It’s a possibility worthy of serious consideration.

An academic or professional journalist would not have put the question in the same way that Mallah did, but Mallah is not an academic or journalist. As Shakespeare reminds us fools often speak truths in ways that more respectable people tend to avoid.

The other raw nerve touched by the incident was the audience reaction to Mallah’s suggestion that Steve Ciobo should leave the country. In one aspect it was simply a tit-for-tat return of Ciobo’s rudeness. But, asAnnabel Crabb  points out, what may have grated with the government was the applause from the audience.

Maybe the applause was just a normal “goodonyermate” approval of someone giving as good as he gets when confronted with ill-mannered behaviour, particularly when that behaviour is from a politician of the governing party.

But maybe it was more. A group of Australians, be they in a television studio or any other setting, carries the legacy of our convict history. That history is a rough one as Robert Hughes pointed out, but at its core is the story of redemption – the criminal whose death sentence was commuted to transportation and who made good in New South Wales, and whose genes so many of us now carry. Even though such successes were in the minority, the idea of redemption has helped shape our nation.

Mallah presented himself as the ticket-of-leave redeemed criminal. The audience was in no position to know whether that was contrived or genuine. But the reaction to the story was a very Australian one, by people who are on the side of redemption.

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