Tinfoil witch trials

This is a defence of the ABC. It is a defence against a government with no apparent respect for the independence of one of this country’s most important institutions.

It is a defence against the thuggishness of a minister such as Peter Dutton and the madness of a senator such as John Williams, against the blackmail and conspiracies that define politicians’ relationships with the national broadcaster.

This week, Dutton made an appalling intervention in the hiring policies of the ABC. He celebrated a decision to cease programming of a television show hosted by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, seemingly calling for a purge of presenters at the network. “One down,” he said. “Many to go.” Turning his attention to Tony Jones, he called the Q&A host “a disgrace”.

He said: “I actually think there is a fundamental problem with the ABC, particularly around Q&A – the composition of the audience, the selection of these people on the panel and the direction it’s given by Tony Jones. I don’t watch it and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Dutton’s comments followed a despicable piece in the right-wing magazine Quadrant, musing on the benefits of a suicide bomber detonating his vest in the program’s studio audience. The piece was referred to security agencies for the possibility of inciting radicalism, but this was no deterrent for the minister.

The attempts to cow the ABC continued into senate estimates, which have degraded as our politics have degraded. The once useful interrogation of our bureaucracies has become a series of tinfoil witch trials.

And so the broadcaster’s managing director sits through questions about whether a youth news program was being used to recruit children into Daesh and whether the ABC had an effective way to decide if employees were really Aboriginal. Personal grievance overtook the litigation of substantive issues. The ABC’s independence was again dunked into a pool of petty biases.

These unedifying spectacles have a stunting effect on an institution such as the ABC. At a time when our media is in crisis, the impact of this cannot be overstated. The braveness of its journalism is weakened by a politics that conspires to actively undermine it.

There is no surprise that Peter Dutton has become the loudest of the ABC’s critics. He is also the member of this government most reliant on deceit.

His campaign against “fake refugees” is as specious as it is cruel. He has no evidence for the claims he makes against asylum seekers. His only interest is in prejudice.

Dutton’s contempt for the ABC is a contempt for truth. He is an enemy of information. His portfolio is built on secrecy and abuse.

Dutton treats all journalism as inconvenience and sees the ABC as an inconvenience he can control. For the health of our country, this impulse must be arrested.

When a government minister jokes about the sacking of journalists – as Dutton has done with reference to Fairfax and now to the ABC – his joke must be recognised for what it is. This is a minister who governs through ignorance. That is what attacks on the ABC amount to: a desire to rule an uninformed public. It is that same public that must fight back. The ABC is too precious, too important, to be left to the hucksters and hungry-mouthed wolves that lately lead us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Tinfoil witch trials".

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