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Lavartus Prodeo carried a good post and entertaining commentary thread about Eric Abetz and his long-running and somewhat bemusing campaign to address the issue of ‘audience balance’ at the ABC program Q&A.

The issue can be traced through the Hansard of the Standing Senate Estimate Committee for Environment, Communications and The Arts in its sittings for ‘Broadband, Communications and The Digital Economy Portfolio’.

In constructing this post I have read the relevant sections of the transcripts for:
26-May-2008 (Hereafter: May 2008)
20 October 2008 (Hereafter Oct)
23 Feb 2009 (Hereafter Feb)
25 May 2009
(Hereafter May 2009)

Mark Scott, Managing Director Of The ABC, represented the ABC at the Committee Meetings

The Coalition And The ABC

The Coalition developed a hatred for the ABC at some point during the leadership of John Howard and viewed it, quite literally, as their enemy.

This drove Howard to try to transform the ABC into an echo chamber for his business-corporate agenda or at least intimidate it into silence as regards to critique. Part of Howard’s strategy for this was to appoint personal friends, ideological fellow travellers and those who hate, fear and despise the ABC (e.g Keith Windshuttle and Janet Albrechtson) to the ABC board. Another part was to harass the ABC via publicly-funded vexatious investigations, forcing the ABC to continually defend itself against allegations of bias. Howard’s most intense attacks on the ABC focused on its critique of Howard’s support for the US propaganda line on the necessity to invade Iraq.

Fear and hatred for the ABC lives on in the Liberal Party and the harassment policy and character assasination live on in within it with Mr. Abetz the designated spear carrier.

Keeper Of The Flame

Abetz has continued the policy of harassment of the ABC via tendentious questioning and orders for supply of detailed yet useless information and statistics through the Standing Senate Estimate Committee for Environment, Communications and The Arts.

In the absence of any substantive issues on which to crticize the ABC, Abetz’s harassment of the ABC has degenerated into a rather comical pursuit of supposed bias into the composition of the audience for the program Q&A. He ends of looking and sounding like a garden-variety street crazy stuffed into a suit and given endless public money to investigate exactly how the Illuminati are using Martian Space Stations to inject Flouridated Gamma Rays into Parliamentary Beef Stroganoff.

What Are Them Damn Commies Up To Now ?

At some stage in 2007 or 2008 Abetz became concerned that the audience of the Q&A audience did not contain enough Coalition supporters.

Why he considers this to be the fault of the ABC is not entirely clear. Registration for audience participation is free to anybody and the producers of Q&A ensure the audience (as well as the Panel) contains a ‘plurality of views’ (Scott) by requesting the prospective audience member to indicate voting intention on the registration form. It is not compulsory to answer the question. (May 2008, pp. 67-69)

Scott explained the intention of the ‘voting intention thus:

‘The aim is not to come up with a precise demographic map of the country but to ensure that the principal relevant viewpoints that exist in the community are represented in that audience, so that is why we do the questioning.’

Abetz requested the audience breakdown figures and, after receiving them felt he has uncovered a noteworthy example of ABC bias, discovering that in one program, the most ALP-audience-heavy, the declared voting intention was 47% ALP, 26% Green and 10% Coalition. The figure for the whole of 2008 was 32% ALP, 24% Coalition, 17% Green. (Oct. p.154).

Focusing on the single ‘worst’ example he could find, rather then the whole year figures, Abetz then asked Scott what he had done to redress the supposed issue of ‘imbalance’ (NB This is the FREAKING audience he’s worried about, not whether the PANEL was stacked or Coalition-friendly viewpoints were or were not given fair hearing). In Abetz’s deluded view the audience composition comprises the litmus test of bias because:

Senator ABETZ—The test surely is that the ABC provide a balanced audience because the chairing, the support, the commentary out of the audience can potentially be off-putting for some people that are part of the panel or, indeed, give those listening at home the impression that this balanced audience is somehow against a particular participant.

Abetz is deluded. A biased audience is as easy to spot as a biased commentator, in fact easier. And the ABC viewing/listening public is likely to be more analytical in these areas than in the audience for commercial television. An ABC viewing public will not be swayed because the audience is rent-a-crowd.

Scott continuously emphasised the PANEL and time given for their VIEWS in all this wacky questioning of Abetz because, sanely, he realises that’s where the litmus test for bias really lies. Abetz can’t find any bias in the Panel, Chair or balance of views expressed so, in order to justify this particular adventure in his pananoid vendetta against the ABC, he rakes over the audience composition. When presented with statistical evidence of an audience comprising a reasonable plurality of views over one year, he ignores it to concentrate on an anomolously low turn-out of his cheer squad in one particular episode.

In fact, Abetz knows that the ABC does not want the Coalition to be under-represented.

Senator ABETZ—Q&A supervising executive producer Peter McEvoy allegedly told The Weekend Australian:
… anyone could register on the program’s website to be chosen to join the audience.
“We want more Liberal supporters and National supporters and Labor supporters—the more
registrants we have the more representative Q&A will be,” McEvoy said.

(May 2008, p. 68)

The ABC Needs To Fix My Problem

I suspect this whole line of inquiry by Abetz is an act, a posture. He’s just shaking around a few shibboleths to keep his constituency outraged and provide the impression he’s doing something useful rather than just quaffing tax-payer funded Port or overindulging in free PacMan in the Shadow Cabinet Lounge.

More curious though is why Abetz thinks its the ABC’s responsibility to go out and motivate Liberals to sign up for the audience. If Abetz wants the cheer squad to turn out, shouldn’t HE be out there telling them there’s a game on ?

Senator ABETZ—Do you agree that there is an over-representation in all or most of your audience from—let’s call it the centre—the Centre Left of Australian politics?

Mr Scott—I have given you the voting intention. I have given you the breakdown.

Senator ABETZ—Does that tell you something about the balance or imbalance?

Mr Scott—No, we are working assiduously to try to ensure that there is a full range of
viewpoints that are evidenced in our audience. This is the first time this has been tried on
Australian television.

Senator ABETZ—Yes, and I am asking you how you are trying to make it better [UTMW – by drumming up more Liberals to sit in the audience].

(Oct. p.156)

What the ABC did was go and ask Liberal MPs for ideas where they should recruit studio members from and were given various suggestions, then in addition to that they wrote to a whole bunch of organisations. Abetz asked for the list and after receiving it began an even more intensively tendentious line of attack – that some of the organisations were not guaranteed to be hotbeds of Coalition support and that when the organisations were contacted by the ABC they were not explicitly told that the ABC was seeking Coalition supporters for the audience. (Feb. 2009, pp. 55-57).

Scott informed Abetz that the breakdown for the first episode of 2009 was ALP 29%, Coalition 36%, Greens 10%. Abetz purred his delight ‘It just goes to show that these questions at estimates do bear results’.

In the May 2009 Senate Commitee, much the same ground was gone over. With Abetz making a meal of the point that in a written answer to Abetz, Scott had said ‘the following organisations were written to to recruit more Coalition supporters for the Q&A audience’ but that the actual emails to those organisations had not explicitly stated that their purpose was to attract more Coalition supporters to the audience of Q&A. (May 2009 pp. 50-52)

Of course, Abetz himself knows that the groups that the ABC wrote to were perfectly sensible choices as Coalition-friendly groups, though the ABC did not confine itself totally to Coalition majority organisations.

Senator Abetz – Suffice it to say, whatever you have done seems to have worked, given the latest figures, and I am pleased about that. Allow me to finish that bracket of questions with a tick.

(Feb. p. 57)

So is tax-payers money spent.

By the way, the groups that Abetz felt may not be sufficiently Coalition-friendly enough were Sydney University Politics Society, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Brown Wright Stein, business groups including the Sydney Chamber of Commerce. He was only completely happy with the University Of New South Wales Liberal Club, and as Mark Scott mischevously pointed out, the Facebook Group ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Liberal…

All In Favour Of Mindless Screaming Say AARRGHH.

Unfortunately for we tax-payers, who are footing the bill for Abetz’s mission to ensure that the composition of the Q&A audience reflects as near as possible the results of the last Federal election, Eric is wasting our money. The fruits of Abetz’s labour will be a degredation in the quality of Q&A.

Access to the Q&A audience is open to any interested party. Those who attended of their own spontaneous volition were obviously attuned with the vision of Q&A to provide stimulating discussion over a range of issues with questions drawn from interested members of the public in attendance. The audience would self-evidently be politically and socially motivated persons interested in putting, hearing and debating alternative points of view.

Abetz, on the other hand, sees Q&A as a microcosm of parliamentary Question Time an exercise in political point-scoring, Dorothy Dixers, spin, evasion, macho chest-beating, insults, immature screaming and finger-pointing. Recall Abetz’s rationale for insisting that ‘audience balance’ was the key to successful debate:

The test surely is that the ABC provide a balanced audience because the chairing, the support, the commentary out of the audience can potentially be off-putting for some people that are part of the panel or, indeed, give those listening at home the impression that this balanced audience is somehow against a particular participant

For Abetz, the winner of the debate is determined by which cheer-squad makes the most noise, not which point of view was best argued.

Abetz obviously wants and expects his cheer squad to provide mindless noise because the viewing audience, in his opinion, will be persuaded that the noisy team is the best team. Eric, that’s Question Time, not Q&A. You have been so long in Parliament you have forgotten what a real debate actually is.

I have noticed that the latter 2008 and 2009 audiences have gone in a lot more for cheering and ‘spontaneous’ acts of applause. I would guess this is a result, on the Coalition side of being under instructions from Eric.

Colonizing Neptune

Why does the Coalition hate, fear and despise the ABC so much? Noam Chomsky said:
Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune

The Coalition unashamedly represents business-corporate-commercial interests. Commercial interests dominates the media ownership. Hence, in general, commercial media editorialises for the same constituency as the Coalition. This leaves the ABC as the only source of critique of the business-corporate tsunami. Because it is the only real voice of critique it sounds like it is being broadcast from Neptune. So weird, so different, so crazy, so hostile! It’s against us (or sounds like it might be). It needs to be silenced or become normal like Channel 7,9 and 10, which is to say yet another mouthpiece for big money and the powerful, like all the rest.

Abetz is trying to colonize Neptune. To turn it into Planet ASX200. Just like home.

The Other Kind Of Balance

The ‘balance’ that Abetz is trying to achieve on the ABC is reminiscent of the ‘balance’ that Town Councils of the American Deep South sought to achieve when critique of their racist town laws was bought to their meetings. They hired their own rent-a-crowd, the Ku Klux Klan to provide balanced commentary and even out the numbers. As former Ku Klux Klan member CP Ellis relates:

We began to make some inroads with the city councilmen and county commissioners. They began to call us friend. Call us at night on the telephone: “C. P., glad you came to that meeting last night.” They didn’t want integration either, but they did it secretively, in order to get elected. They couldn’t stand up openly and say it, but they were glad somebody was sayin it. We visited some of the city leaders in their homes and talked to em privately. It wasn’t long before councilmen would call me up: “The Blacks are comin up tonight and makin outrageous demands. How about some of you people showin up and have a little balance?

We’d load up our cars and we’d fill up half the council chambers, and the Blacks the other half.

I do not suggest that Abetz supports the aims, views or practices of the KKK, but I do suggest that Abetz is not so much interested in ‘balance’ but in maintaing business-corporate dominance of the Australian polity. The ABC represents the ‘Blacks making outrageous demands’ here merely critiquing the pradigms and assumption of the Coalition political agenda. Abetz wants that critique stilled, or at least minimized.

Hence Abetz forces the ABC, under the noble-sounding banner of ‘balance’, to recruit, on his behalf a Coalition rent-a-crowd who have previously shown no interest in the free debate of Q&A. Their role is to make more noise than the opposition. CP Ellis’s councilmen would approve of that.

Abetz Abandons The Free Market

It is of some amusement that Abetz implicitly abandons ‘free-market’ principles when it suits his purposes and here, in the matter of Q&A audience composition insists on quotas to deliver equity. Though it is not in fact clear the market really failed as the 2008 figures as 32% ALP, 24% Coalition with a large proportion undeclared may be within the margin of error for the 2007 election result.

Where Thought-Control Dictatorships Have Got It Right

Abetz is not, in fact, interested in a balanced spectrum of ideas being presented to the public. He only pretends to be. This is easily determined by the fact that Abetz never questions the content or coverage of bulletins emenating from commercial media as being biased. He never would. In the main they are unchallenging to the Coalition’s agenda. Abetz is ONLY concerned about what the ABC does, justifying this by the noting that only the ABC is publicly-funded and has a special obligation to impartiality. By this paper-thin device Abetz can ignore any and all bias except that he would like to believe is sourced from the ABC.

As Abetz further knows, the concept of impartiality can be abused to provide a cloak for propaganda. It is in this very way that the Coalition attacked the ABC mercilessly over the Iraq War, insisting that any time the ABC questioned the US-approved terms to describe the war, intelligence justifications for the war or desciptions of Saddam’s regime, then this constituted bias on the part of the ABC. The assumption is, of course, that the US Government and Military themselves used impartial and unbiased terms to describe their activities and those of Iraq, an assumption so naive it could not possibly be believed by any mature analyst.

This nauseating misuse of the concept of impartiality is rigorously defended by Abetz, who insists that the ABC always use the term ‘war on terror’ with a straight face to denote the true objective of the US War In Iraq and must never use the term ‘so-called war on terror’

From the October 2008 Senate Estimate Committee Hansard, p. 154:

Senator ABETZ—[…] To start off with, did the ABC have a view about using the phrase ‘so-called war on terror’?
Mr Scott—Let me check that.
Senator ABETZ—Because I thought it had been agreed that that term, prefaced with ‘socalled’,
would not be used.
Mr Scott—Do you have an example that has come to your attention?
Senator ABETZ—Yes, I do—the 8 am news on Radio National this morning.

So it would seem that Abetz holds a debased view of impartiality, holding it to mean ‘uncritical regurgitation of Government/Military sourced information’. The editors of Pravda would have no trouble concurring, no matter any thought-control dictatorship you would care to name.

To Sum Up

Abetz harassment of the ABC over the Q&A audience is the continuation of the Coalition vendetta against the ABC. This particular arm of it will result in the degeneration of the quality of political debate on Q&A as it becomes a microcosm of Parliamentary Question Time as a result of the debased notions of ‘debate’ and ‘balance’ held by Senator Abetz.

Abetz’s harassment of the ABC is also hypocritical as he does not require exacting balance of any other broadcaster except the ABC, and his capaign against Q&A represents an opportunistic departure from Coalition market-based philosophy predicated solely on the perception that the Coalition is losing something by being underrepresented in the Q&A audience.

Indeed it is not even clear that the Colition was truly underrepresented based on figures presented by Mark Scott, and even so, the objectives of Q&A being free, fair debate do not require a political microcosm of the Australian electorate to be present.

Amusingly, some of Senator Abetz’s conceptions in regard to impartiality are features of thought-control dictatorships.

Part of Senator Abetz’s strategy of dealing with the ABC is to waste its time and money in order to intimidate it into minimizing or silencing its critique of Coalition policies. He does this, ironically, using tax-payer money which therefore constitutes a double waste.

Senator Abetz’s interactions with the ABC are partisan, self-interested and pathetic. His attitude toward the ABC are precisely those he ascribed to Senator Conroy of the ALP below, (with appropriate reversals of Liberal Party for ALP)

Senator ABETZ—It shows an immature attitude to the public broadcaster, Minister, and, if that is the sort of attitude that you will be showing in your involvement with the ABC, it confirms our worst fears as to how the ALP treats the ABC—as its own plaything.

(Oct., p.155)

The Final Irony

The final irony of all this is that the ABC is far and away the best quality media outlet in Australia. It is the broadcaster of choice for any Australian truly interested in quality current affairs and political analysis. Why Abetz should be attacking the ABC instead of supporting it, only his perverse partisan instincts can justify.

Even the king of all ABC haters, John Howard himself, agrees that the ABC is ‘serious’ i.e. quality media. He directly said so to Kerry O’Brien in his final 7:30 Report interview before the 2007 Federal Election.

KERRY O’BRIEN: I must have interviewed you about 70 or 80 times as Prime Minister. It’s an odd feeling, I must say, to contemplate the possibility that this could be our last, but if this turns out to be the case, thank you sincerely for making yourself available as often as you have even in some of the tougher moments.

JOHN HOWARD: Well I believe in the accountability of public figures in the serious media and even though…

Abetz and the Coalition would be happier if the ABC transformed itself into Channel 10 and reserved its news bulletin for updates on Hollywood gossip. Its objective is the same as that Howard insisted upon as a precondition for his participation in the ABC’s documentary The Howard Years: “No analysis, no commentary”.

While Abetz and the Coalition continue their harassment of the ABC they prove themselves unworthy of forming government in a democracy.

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