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As the debate on same-sex marriage continues, the ‘No’ case is exploiting the ABC’s charter and complaints process to gain prominence for ugly views. By Alex McKinnon.

How the ‘No’ case is abusing the ABC

Roger Corbett appearing on ABC’s 7.30.
Credit: ABC

It took two days, but the Australian Christian Lobby did lodge a complaint with the ABC. At issue was Joe O’Brien’s line of questioning on the breakfast show News Mornings.

The lobby’s managing director, Lyle Shelton, had been invited to debate same-sex marriage with City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster. Almost immediately, he pulled the conversation to “children being taught radical LGBTI sex education”.

The “bias” of which Shelton later complained related to O’Brien asking whether there was “inconsistency” and “hypocrisy” in Shelton cheering a queer athlete such as Ian Thorpe, while at the same time arguing against his ability to marry.

“I haven’t encountered much balance on this issue since the debate began … but this particular line of questioning is probably among the most bizarre that I’ve heard,” Shelton said afterwards. “It does worry me that this mindset exists on the other side of the debate that even wants to take away the freedom of those who will always support marriage [as] between a man and woman to even enjoy their sport.”

Three days later, Shelton had recovered from his concern and was on ABC News Breakfast to warn, again, of the perils of “radical LGBTIQ sex education”.

Shelton is experiencing a renaissance at the ABC. The reason for this is simple. It is not that he is a persuasive or even reasonable commentator: it is that the ABC is forced to have him, and people like him, on air. That is one of the reasons behind the push for a postal survey and attendant national debate in the first instance.

There is serious disagreement inside the broadcaster about this. Some believe the ABC should take a stand and refuse to put to air views that would be ordinarily rejected or would be regarded as possibly injurious to vulnerable sections of the community. Others believe there is an obligation to report both sides of the debate on equality, no matter how specious or cruel. They argue that the ABC charter mandates this.

The ABC’s editorial director, Alan Sunderland, said the broadcaster had been “very conscious from the start of the [same-sex marriage] debate to ensure, in providing a forum for genuine public discussion and for all views to be raised from an appropriate diversity of perspectives, we do not unwittingly become an outlet for hate speech, discrimination or unnecessary offence”.

He said that “in covering any sensitive or controversial issue, there is a risk of causing offence” but that the ABC had “covered the debate comprehensively and appropriately”.

ABC editorial policy manager Mark Maley reminded staff in August: while the ABC “should not be seen to condone or encourage prejudice and discrimination”, the broadcaster has an obligation to see “all perspectives are given a fair hearing and treated with respect”.

One ABC worker told The Saturday Paper the directive rankled, not because it meant staff couldn’t express their views on marriage equality but because it implied they couldn’t be professional about the issue. “People think he’s right: that presenters have to be seen as impartial. What didn’t go down well was the way he worded it,” the worker said. “Senior staff said, ‘Fuck off, you don’t need to tell us that, we’ve been doing this for 20 years.’ ”

But how far that professionalism can stretch when things get hateful is another matter. When one side of a “debate” is arguing to deny a historically persecuted minority equal rights, the ABC is virtually bound to promote misleading, hateful and dangerous points of view. Proven false claims about homosexuality leading to bestiality and incest, deliberate conflations of the postal survey with other issues such as Safe Schools, and fearmongering that darkly hints at homosexuals as secret child molesters are not only presented as on a par with reasoned, relevant arguments about equality and discrimination – they must be presented, if the “No” side is to feel fairly treated.

Shelton has seized this moment with both hands, running arguments not just against same-sex marriage but against gender non-conformity and same-sex adoption. Since the campaign began, Shelton has been everywhere.

On SBS’s The Feed, Shelton stood by an earlier description of children of same-sex couples as “the new Stolen Generation”, earning nonplussed looks from his two Indigenous interviewers. A day earlier, he told BuzzFeed News that parents should have the right to send their children to conversion therapy, a widely discredited pseudoscience purporting to “cure” homosexuality. In a televised speech at the National Press Club, Shelton spent time on one of his favourite talking points: that same-sex marriage will see politically correct gender ideologies forced on vulnerable schoolchildren via programs such as Safe Schools. “If gender is taken out of marriage,” Shelton warned, “I don’t think we’ll have any opportunity to stop these programs.”

All things being equal, the national broadcaster might be a little more circumspect about giving someone with such fringe views so much airtime. But things are not equal. Shelton is the public face of one side of a public debate, and therefore he and his views must be given a hearing.

He is not the only one to take advantage of the ABC’s commitment to balance while crying silence. The “No” case is also exploiting the ABC’s cumbersome complaints process to cow presenters. Internal ABC documents reveal that most complaints received by the broadcaster in recent weeks have come from “No” campaign supporters aggrieved about perceived “bias” from programs and presenters “failing to give a voice to those on the ‘No’ side”. There seems little evidence of this, but it will tie those presenters and programs in weeks if not months of paperwork. Sometimes it is easier just to put the call to air.

Shelton is the most urbane face the “No” campaign can muster. While he regularly uses his media appearances to insult, degrade and belittle queer people, he does so with what could generously be described as civility. He does not use homophobic epithets, or openly threaten queer presenters or guests. He delivers his abuse in calm, measured tones, and puts his name to the things he says.

Behind the scenes at the ABC, things are very different. ABC workers have told The Saturday Paper the postal survey has inspired an avalanche of homophobic abuse from the public: radio call-ins, emails, text messages. For every Shelton presenting a mild, genial front to the “No” campaign, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of others emboldened to announce their hatred of queer people in any way they can.

“There are people who call again and again and again, every day, trying to find a different way to say the same horrible things”, one ABC worker said. “Just plain, unadulterated, unadorned homophobic ranters, using the goodwill of the ABC and the openness of its editorial policy and the charter to publicly express statements that were never part of public debate before.”

 

“Can I say one more thing?”

In talkback radio, few questions are more dreaded. ABC Radio Melbourne’s Jon Faine had just spent nearly three minutes chatting with Don in Keilor on his 774 Mornings program. Don called to voice his disapproval of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton for supporting the “Yes” campaign.

After interrupting Hilton several times and claiming the commissioner’s support for equal marriage was “disgusting”, Don had one more point to make. Seemingly feeling charitable, Faine let him go ahead, which led to this now-infamous exchange:

“Hitler had put all of those kinds of people in their own concentration camps. It’s one of the two good things he did.”

“Sorry?”

“I said Hitler had concentration camps for these gay people. One of the two good things he did. The other one was build the autobahn.”

Responding to this call for genocide, Faine reached for Godwin’s law. “There’s an old saying in public policy: when people invoke Nazism for or against an argument, you pretty much know you’ve lost.”

Lest listeners get the wrong idea, Don hastily assured Faine, who is Jewish, that he had “no qualm with you, Jon, not at all”. It was just the gay people he wants exterminated.

Faine and the ABC have since been heavily criticised over the segment: Faine for not immediately terminating the call and the ABC for choosing to post it online. But the incident neatly demonstrated the situation in which the ABC finds itself.

The obligation to give equal weight to two unequal sides has forced the ABC to air the ridiculous as well as the offensive. On 7.30 this week, presenter Leigh Sales prefaced an interview with former Fairfax chairman and Woolworths chief executive Roger Corbett by emphasising that it was part of an ongoing attempt “to bring you insights into both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns”. Before the Corbett interview, 7.30 had spoken with Alan Joyce, the openly gay chief executive of Qantas, and comedian Hannah Gadsby, who gave a confronting and touching account of growing up queer in rural Tasmania as the state conducted its debates over legalising homosexuality.

Exactly what viewers were supposed to gain from Corbett’s seven minutes on air is unclear. His key point was that marriage is “between a man and a woman”. He said this at least seven times. Corbett also said that “a black man and a white man are equal, but they’re clearly different” and that “a black man will never be a white man and vice versa”. He said business had no place in a debate like this, but conceded that if the issue was something like slavery perhaps business should take a stand.

Corbett said he believed there were clearly “merits” to arguments for and against same-sex marriage, but then ended: “In my view, it is the way we were created. It doesn’t mean – I in no way think that gay people should be in any way discriminated a bit. But it is different. You can’t say everyone will be white or everyone will be black. That’s not the case. The majority of the people in this community – the vast majority – are men and women who are married together in a union that is called marriage.”

 

Elsewhere at the ABC, staffers have noticed more than just a rise in the number of hateful messages: there has been a distinct shift towards organised abuse among homophobic, racist and anti-Muslim callers, who now make a game of trying to slip past the ABC’s screening processes and go public.

“They’re getting very good at getting under the radar and navigating the boundaries of what they can get away with and what they can’t”, one ABC worker said. “It’s strategic. They’re enjoying baiting people by shocking them, saying things they know are going to provoke a reaction.

“It’s like poking an ant’s nest. They love it. These people are rejoicing in being able to use the ABC to put out opinions and views that were never previously regarded as part of public discourse.”

Predictably, the abuse is affecting queer employees most. ABC staff in same-sex relationships are doubly constricted by the directive not to comment on the postal vote: they are targeted at work by homophobes, while being unable to publicly defend their lives, relationships and families for fear of breaching the charter and appearing “biased”.

“There are a number of high-profile television and radio presenters who are gay and lesbian. They’re expected to have this Teflon coating and take this stuff in their stride, even though it’s personally deeply hurtful”, the ABC worker said. “Some of my colleagues in same-sex relationships are being openly criticised for their life arrangements.”

Nothing illustrates the bind the ABC is in quite as vividly as that. In its efforts to live up to the demands of the charter, it’s forced to compromise the safety and dignity of its own staff. For a public broadcaster struggling to reconcile public debate with basic decency, Don from Keilor won’t go away when the postal vote’s over.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "How ‘No’ case is abusing the ABC". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon

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