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Rick Morton on the ABC’s doomed bid to host an election debate and what it says about the relationship between the Morrison government and the media.

The Vote: Why you won’t see a debate on the ABC

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The latest leaders debate has been described as “messy” and a “joke” by observers. 

There’s one more debate to go before the election — but it won’t be hosted by the public broadcaster, the ABC — despite the organisation’s best efforts.

In fact, the ABC has been effectively sidelined, as the rocky relationship between the government and the national broadcaster continues to play out.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on the ABC’s doomed bid to host an election debate and what it says about the relationship between the Morrison government and the media. 

 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

 

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media and 7am, I’m Ruby Jones, and this is The Vote.

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Tonight, the leaders of the two major parties are facing off”

RUBY:
The latest leaders debate has been described as “messy” and a “joke” by observers. 

Archival Tape -- Morrison and Albanese arguing during debate

RUBY:
There’s one more debate to go before the election - but it won’t be hosted by the public broadcaster, the ABC - despite the organisation’s best efforts.

In fact, the ABC has been effectively sidelined, as the rocky relationship between the government and the national broadcaster continues to play out.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on the ABC’s doomed bid to host an election debate and what it says about the relationship between the Morrison government and the media. 

It’s Tuesday May 10. 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Rick, when you think about the relationship between the Morrison government and the national broadcaster, the ABC, what strikes you?

RICK:
It's pretty extraordinary. 

You know, at this point I'd describe the relationship as hostile and it certainly seems like the broadcaster has been sidelined by the government. 

You know, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has only given a handful of interviews to flagship ABC shows like 730 in his entire term. So it stands out in and of itself. But earlier this year he seemed to rule out appearing again on the ABC before the election. You know, Leigh Sales asked him on 730, will you do two more interviews? And he refused to respond. 

Now if you look at where they choose to appear, you can see it's on Sky News, it's, you know, through the tabloid newspapers. But at the same time, as the debates have moved towards these kind of commercial channels, the debates themselves have also become less watched and less important. 

Now, only about 100,000 people at any one time tuned in to watch the Sky News Australia People's Forum. There are about another hundred thousand on the live stream through the different channels, but that is a phenomenally low viewership and it was one of their highest viewership on record for Sky News, the channel. 

So, you know, this is about as good as they could have done. And it was still woeful when we you know, when you look at the number of voters there are in Australia who want to make decisions about politics.

RUBY:
Hmm. Yeah, it's certainly not very many people, Rick, but just how far removed is the 100,000 audience from what we used to see when political debates were aired in this country? Because my sense is that leader debates used to be a much more prominent feature of election campaigns and more popular as well.

RICK:
Look, I mean, that's certainly true. And I'm not I'm not here to make a moral judgement about whether debates in and of themselves are, you know, the most important thing in an election campaign. I would probably suggest that they're not, but they are part of the process. 

And, you know, if you look back at some of the contests in the past, the leader debates were huge platforms and they did actually draw big audiences. 

Archival Tape -- Kevin Rudd: 
“Right now I put before the Australian people a long term plan for the nation's future. I fear Mr. Howard has put before them a short term strategy to win the election. I submit new leadership for the nation's future.” 

Archival Tape -- Moderator:
“Thank you, Mr. Rudd. Mr. Howard, your opening two minute statement.” 

RICK:
They kind of hit their peak around 2007 with the showdown between John Howard and Kevin Rudd, which was watched by 2.4 million people.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:  
“My fellow Australians, I agree with Mr. Rudd on one thing and that is that this election is about the future of our nation. But my view of the future is very different from Mr. Rudd's.” 

RICK:
And I don't know if you remember, but that was at the height of the worm when they used to have live audience reactions. Here they turn a dial left or right based on how they're vibing. 

RUBY:
Yes, I remember the worm.

RICK:
I miss the worm, I do. 

And then we had that 2010 debate between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott 

Archival Tape -- Julia Guillard:
“Tony knows what it's like to think that your political party needs new leadership. That's why he's standing here instead of Malcolm Turnbull.” 

RICK:
And that got an audience of about 3 million viewers across numerous networks. 

Archival Tape -- David Speers:
“Tony Abbott, your response?”

Archival Tape -- Tony Abbott:
“Sure. Look, this has been a bad government and the problem has been the government, not the Prime Minister. The problem has been the policies, not the face at the top.”

RICK:
And for context, you know, that year's AFL grand final was watched by 3.6 million. 

Since then, the political debate has been in decline. So 2019 election leaders debate with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten peaked at 400,000 viewers. Mind you, that was an increase on the very first of 2016 election leader debates, which clocked a pitiful 54,000 viewers.

RUBY:
And so when you say the political debate has been in decline in Australia, what do you think is actually going on? Do you think that people are less interested in watching political leaders go head to head? Is this to do with political fatigue or something else?

RICK:
I think it's a combination of political fatigue and the fact that in general people watch less TV. Certainly they watch much less now than they did ten years ago or even five years ago. Ratings are in decline, not just for political debates, but across the board mostly. And the networks, the television networks know that. 

Now, that is obviously to do with some alternative things, such as social media and how people use the Internet to stream different platforms and have content on demand. But for many people, the debate circuit is still an important part of the election campaign, and it's about the workings of democracy, really. You know, it's the opportunity to test out both leaders and to see how they perform under pressure and to provide the public with the platform to make a judgement on who they think would be a better Prime Minister. 

Is it a perfect platform? No, I don't think so. But it is one of the platforms that we use and that's certainly how the Australian Broadcasting Corporation sees it, that this is an important piece of democracy and that they were once important stewards of that piece of democracy. 

And this election has been a little bit different. You know, they've been making the ABC that is a concerted effort to host a leaders debate, but it hasn't exactly gone how they would hope.

RUBY:
Right. Okay. So tell me more about that, Rick. What exactly do we know about what the ABC has been doing to try and host a leadership debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese?

RICK:
Yeah so for months now the ABC managing director, David Anderson, the host of Insiders, David Speers, who is formerly of Sky News Australia himself, who hosted a Sky News forum in 2019. In that election he has been working with David Anderson and the producer of of Sam Clark to try and negotiate a lead of debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese that would be on the main channel and it would also run across the 24 hour news channel. It would run on radio. It would be available on iView and on YouTube, which would essentially give it the biggest audience reach out of any offering in the Australian market. 

Now the ABC's managing director, David Anderson had written to the Liberal Party of Australia federal director Andrew Hirst and Labor's national secretary Paul Erickson, proposing a prime time leaders debate. And on April 21, when there was some kind of murmurings on social media that, you know, the ABC wasn't interested in doing this. The spokesperson for the broadcaster Nick Lees released a pretty optimistic statement saying, We have been working on this, we have been discussing this and this is all true. And at that point in time, they said they were optimistic. You know, we're hopeful in securing an election event. He said the ABC is encouraged by the discussions so far and looks forward to sharing details of the debate when all parties are in agreement.

RICK:
Hmm. Okay. So what happened? Rick?

RUBY:
Well, they failed. 

It's not their fault. I don't think the hold up wasn't on the Labor side. Albanese seems willing to appear on the ABC. In fact he did alone on Q&A on last Thursday's programme. Scott Morrison has not and is not keen to go on the ABC. 

Archival Tape -- David Speers:  
“Now, Prime Minister, if you are watching, the invitation still stands here on Q&A next week….”

RICK:
It seems he couldn't bring himself simply just to say no, which would have been the appropriate, some would say, polite thing to do because that would have looked bad. And instead what he did was he pretend the public broadcaster simply never asked. 

So the Prime Minister told reporters on April 28. So this is a full week after that statement was released by the ABC indicating that David Anderson had written to the major parties. So in April 28 in Cairns, he said: 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 
“I said I’d do three. I've already done one. He said he would debate me anywhere anytime. So Seven and Nine, they’ve booked the hall, I'll be there. I look forward to seeing you.”

RICK:
And so by publicly name checking seven and nine, when he already knew he had a written invitation from the ABC, he was stitching up the national broadcaster. He knew what he was doing. And so this is a broader trend of the Coalition snubbing the national broadcaster and leaving it out in the cold.

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Rick It sounds like the Coalition just isn't really engaging with the national broadcaster at this moment in time. That's become especially apparent during the election campaign with these three leader debates going to the commercial networks instead of the ABC. But you're saying this isn't just about this election campaign. This is part of a longer term trend of of the ABC being somewhat sidelined by the coalition. But why would that be exactly?

RICK:
Yeah. The decision to ignore the ABC's invitation for an election debate in favour of commercial stations kind of raises two points in this election campaign. 

One, there are elements of the Coalition, quite a few elements within the Coalition who believe that the ABC's audience won't vote for them and that they don't need their vote or they can't convince them anyway because they're all rusted on Labour lovies. 

You know, I was talking to one Liberal campaign staffer who was like, you know, if you were Scott Morrison, would you go on that? He said, there's nothing in it for him. And this person went on to say, you know, elections aren't won in the debates, which is true, but if we're going to do them, we're going to go with the undecided voters are. So the implication is clear the ABC is not friendly to the Coalition and its audience is not for turning.

But that doesn't explain the antipathy to the ABC. And I think that's something much bigger and much more significant. So that brings me to my second point, which is that aside from the fact that, you know, liberal voters do watch and listen to the ABC, it's the broadcaster of record. It has chronicled the prime ministerships of everyone since we had a public broadcaster. 

And this idea that, you know, it can be completely excised from public life by the party of government, not just in this election, but over years, is a deliberate strategy and it's one that they're quite happy to kind of see unfold because they get what they need from the commercial media. 

RUBY:
And so if the Prime Minister isn't talking to the ABC, then can you tell me a bit more about who it is that he is speaking to? And I suppose more broadly how the Coalition is managing its relationship with the media this campaign. What do you think the strategy is?

RICK:
You can see it in the coverage. 

So News Corp Australia's tabloids have offered up various front page soft interviews with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. You know, whether Kooyong MP declared he was in the fight of my political life while posing for these gorgeous photos with his wife and two smiling children. 

And there was a front page treatment on the Daily Telegraph featuring the caustic, anti-trans Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves And the headline splashed on that one was ‘They Are All with Me’, which just as a matter of statistics I think is wrong. 

So we know and we have known for years in Australia that the Coalition have these relationships. With News Corp. Certainly with Channel Seven. Scott Morrison joked at the mid-winter ball when he said that Simon Benson is the national political editor for The Australian. He was apologising to Benno, quote unquote for not dropping his speech to him before he began at the mid-winter ball.

It's a joke, of course, but very much rooted in reality. 

RUBY:
Hmm. Are you able to speak any more on the relationship? Because I think there is a lot of cynicism out there about exactly how this works. I mean, you and I know, like, it's not a simple thing, right? But we journalists are competing for scoops all the time. And so there is these kind of transactional relationships that are formed around journalists and politicians who are hoping to get exclusives and that kind of thing. But I just wonder, I mean, it's not something that's ever really kind of talked about publicly by journalists.

RICK:
Yeah. I mean, it's one of the reasons why I never wanted to be in the press gallery, even though I did spend a year and a half there because I never got drops that they call them drops where one side of politics or the other will give you a packaged piece of information for a story. And with the expectation sometimes not all the time, the expectation that you won't approach other people for comment until after the story has run. So they get a free hit, essentially saying what they want to say. You get some new information out there, you've broken a yarn, you got an exclusive and away you go. 

I mean, I think most journalists are very good at what they do, but sometimes, you know, you're expected to do multiple stories a day and there just is not the time or even the inclination sometimes to go digging, especially in political journalism, especially when you're going to press conferences every day, sometimes multiple ones that take 45 minutes to an hour, and then you've got to package that up somehow for the TV news that night or for the paper. And I mean, I'd challenge anyone to break the laws of physics in a way that would allow you to do that job properly. So when I talk about these things, it's more of an indictment on the power structures in media.

I mean, the editors of the major newspapers have a hotline to the key ministers and political power players, not just in government, but in opposition, too, and vice versa, those people. And I've seen it happen. Those people can call an editor and just say, hey, what's this all about? And those conversations are constantly happening behind the scenes.

RUBY:
Hmm. Yeah, it's a good reminder. And I suppose just coming back finally to the issue of of the Coalition and the ABC and the the leadership debates, there's been two there's one more to go. And I just wonder, you've sort of alluded to this a little bit, but how, you know, what are these debates actually really telling us about our leaders and how important are they?

RICK:
Look, I mean, he's probably asking the wrong guy because I personally don't think they're important. 

What I do think is important is the shenanigans that go on if you're going to have them, when you've got a leader of the government, the prime minister who's trying to play silly-buggers and not actually commit to a debate on the ABC, I think that's profoundly important. 

And I think fundamentally what we're talking about here is a government that has a reputation for, let's say, kind of a milky, kind of opaque transparency. You know, they talk transparency, but you can't actually see inside. And that's the problem. 

And you have to begin to ask yourself, maybe, maybe they're trying to avoid scrutiny. I know that doesn't sound like a radical idea right now, but that's the problem. 

You know, he even argued, Morrison argued that, you know, an independent commission against corruption would be a public autocracy, as in the people would rule us. What a crazy notion. 

But that, you know, that was a real mask slip moment, I think, because that is what they worry about.

RUBY:
Hmm. Rick, thank you so much for your time.

RICK:
Thanks Ruby. 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today.

 

Around 60 people have been killed after a bomb hit a school in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian authorities. 

 

The news of the latest Russian bombardment comes as the US imposes new sanctions on Russia - targeting the media, the defense industry and restricting the visas of thousands of Russian and Belarusian individuals. 

**

And the head of a major Australian aged care provider has issued a desperate plea to both major parties to act immediately to help the aged care sector. 

 

On Monday, BaptistCare NSW and ACT chief executive Charles Moore said that underfunding was exhausting aged care workers and that the sector was falling into an untenable standstill.

 

Moore warned the pressures on staff were also impacting vulnerable residents.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.