The current chaotic state of the ABC cannot be blamed on a single high-ranking person. And nor can its woefully mundane programming. Instead, it’s the fault of the c-word – compromise. By Helen Razer.

Guthrie, Milne and ABC programming

The Tonightly team (above, from left) of Greta Lee Jackson, Bridie Connell, Tom Ballard, Greg Larsen and Nina Oyama.
The Tonightly team (above, from left) of Greta Lee Jackson, Bridie Connell, Tom Ballard, Greg Larsen and Nina Oyama.
Credit: Courtesy ABC

Just a fortnight ago, Michelle Guthrie was perceived as the source of every ABC misstep. Since she was axed, though, it’s Justin Milne who has been followed right down from his executive floor by unfavourable footnotes. Since learning that the chairman of the ABC board instructed Guthrie to “get rid “of a decent correspondent, local media have been united in hate. It’s not quite at the level of “fricken hate” that Milne believed the government held for Emma Alberici. It’s chiefly plain old solidarity hate. The sort that workers reserve for the figure of a boss.

Yet it was less than a year ago when Alberici was the embodiment of every ABC wrong. It was not just Bolts and Hendersons who dismissed her good work as plain wrong. There were Fairfax liberals lining up to call this an act of Bolshevik ruin. Alberici had provided her audience with nothing more dangerous than a now mainstream view of market-friendly failures. She had provided them with nothing less than facts.

The facts about Guthrie and Milne are more difficult to determine. We can suppose they were both kept so busy by Project Jetstream, augmented reality innovations and loathing each other, they failed to make much of a mark on ABC TV’s actual television content beyond compromise. This stuff has been compromised by collective effort, and not by individuals. We can’t hold Guthrie to account for recycling all those midlife Chaser “boys”. We can’t blame Milne for every tedious televised neuroscience experiment on himself.

The worsening mess we see on screen cannot be explained by Guthrie or by Milne. Milne’s two-glass emails and uneven speech only reaffirm what we already see if we care to – the current and most prevalent tragedy of ABC TV is not the compromise the state forces it to make. The tragedy is compromise itself. It has become a habit.

This year, we saw Leigh Sales introduce a story on the Chinese appetite for dog meat – 7.30 has never been top-drawer, but this really was sinking near to the bottom of the Eurocentric barrel. This year, we saw Q&A pursue its delusion of balance well past the point of democratic return. This year, the ABC permitted an even greater number of neo-nationalists to trade away all our liberal faith in the Marketplace of Ideas. This year, the ABC gave Annabel Crabb another ruddy cooking show. Back in Time for Dinner was not a delightful romp through our quaint Australian past to a joyous culinary present. Back in Time for Dinner served up End of History tripe so overdone, even Francis Fukuyama would not dare to compromise his gut. Compromise is now the work of the ABC.

Compromise is the work of War on Waste. The “shareable” feel of its content may have endeared the show to Milne. But the wanton failure of this “factual” program to be factual is the work of years. It was in 1996 that I believe I saw the compromise begin. Australian Story is the sine qua non of War on Waste and all the broadcaster’s moments of aggressive individualism. Craig Reucassel wasn’t born to compromise a crucial discussion on environmental damage. Michelle Guthrie didn’t send him on this path. This mania for shrinking a society-wide problem down to individual size started years ago. The dependence of the ABC on this path has led it to meaningless compromise.

We could ask Reucassel if he feels compromised into persuading the individual, instead of the corporate vandal, to change. We could try asking Sarah Ferguson if she felt compromised into asking Steve Bannon almost nothing this year on Four Corners. We could ask if she was compromised when asking unsuccessful presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton if even she herself could understand how such a qualified lady didn’t score the job. We could ask Beverley O’Connor from The World on News 24 if she feels compromised daily to report on only the general misdeeds of China while reporting on only the specific misdeeds of the United States president. We could ask John Lyons, the head of investigative and in-depth journalism, if he felt compromised into withholding those hundreds of source documents known as the “cabinet files”. We would probably hear the answer “No”, or, perhaps, “How very dare you?”

Ferguson is not compromised. She is a courageous defender of an ideology she perceives as truth. Lyons is not compromised. He is the brave opponent of a style of transparency he truthfully dislikes. A very great part of ABC staff knows no compromise at all. Alberici knew compromise and selflessly named it all year. Guthrie knew compromise but failed to name it. Right until last week, when she got the fricken sack.

Guthrie was no Meryl Streep in The Post. Still, inside her dossier we can find a little of the misery we can imagine the real Katharine Graham might have felt. “I can’t do this anymore,” Guthrie wrote to a colleague in May. Attached to this lament were the uncompromised views of the chair. The now cancelled program Tonightly had prompted Milne to provide Guthrie with some strong editorial advice.

“It’s not OK to call somebody a C... on an ABC comedy show … Not one person I have spoken to thinks this is OK,” wrote the bloke who thought it “could be cool” to pay Kylie Minogue $750,000 to sing about the ABC.

Guthrie claims she made every effort to explain that it was okay to call somebody a C… on an ABC comedy show. She claims Milne made no effort at all to canvass offence standards outside Parliament House. She claims she really lost it at Milne over Tonightly. Per the cabinet files I accessed, this is likely. Guthrie, who attended several tapings of Tonightly with her daughter, became rather attached to the show.

Perhaps she was attached to the principle of talent incubation, or perhaps she just found it funny. Tonightly did become funny when its talent had the chance to incubate. In its first season, it wasn’t much chop. It seemed destined to live and die inside that ABC twilight of compromise. In its second season, it was often the funniest of all the funny news programs delivered in the English language.

It was funnier than The Daily Show and much funnier than Samantha Bee’s predictable enslavement to the absurdity of Donald Trump. It was every bit as funny as Michelle Wolf, whose cancellation by Netflix remains unfunny. It was far less pleased with itself than John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. There was a continent between Tonightly and whatever woke glacier is keeping Charlie Pickering so cold. I haven’t laughed so much at the ABC since the Kates of Get Krack!n last appeared and/or the philosopher Slavoj Žižek lost his temper with Tony Jones.

Skits such as Australia’s Best Asian or songs about sex pests may not be to the universal taste. Clearly, that sketch in which no one was truly described by the C… word was offensive to Milne. If a Milne type failed to complain of a funny bone sprain, a liberal-leftist would be injured. I may have found the show problematic at some point. I routinely found it painful. I felt that pain known only to sods who wish they were that funny. To the writers and performers of Tonightly, I offer the prize of true resentment. To Milne, let all of us offer a third or fourth glass of a soporific red.

Surely, we can offer Guthrie a scintilla of compassion. She couldn’t take it anymore. Not only can we understand that kind of compromised labour, we can be mildly grateful that it was perceived and then identified by a former managing director of the ABC.

If Guthrie can feel the pinch of compromise, perhaps Sarah Ferguson can, in time. If a former News Corp staffer can call out compromise, perhaps current News Corp staffers can come to know it when they see it. Perhaps the journalists of legacy media will not confuse Emma Alberici’s next account of emerging economic consensus with an “error”.

Perhaps mainstream Australian pundits could emerge from their own very compromised twilight and cease their search for a single ABC villain. And, perhaps the ABC could cancel its promised “fresh approach” to comedy – Tomorrow Tonight will be hosted by Charlie Pickering and Annabel Crabb. Together, the pair will joke their way through entirely hypothetical news events. I’m serious. This parody of parody can compromise only the idea of compromise itself.

Very soon, the ABC may know no compromise at all. Very soon, the ABC may genuinely believe that its comedy shows are no place for the C… word. Very soon, the ABC could endure its ultimate tragedy. And even those who paid no attention at all to the compromises that took it there will find its every broadcast impossible to take.

If history should ever oblige us to remember Justin Milne, let’s remember him as the guy who failed to deliver an “emotional campaign”. Let’s remember Michelle Guthrie as that “chick” who just couldn’t take it anymore. Let’s remember that neither of them survived for very much longer at the ABC than Tonightly. Let’s remember that, once, the ABC made a pretty funny show about the news.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 6, 2018 as "ABC on the bland".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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