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Issue #1691      July 1, 2015

Removing the spine from “our ABC”

The furore over last week’s Q&A appearance by Zaky Mallah has not yet died down. The ABC’s Monday night panel show, conducted before a live audience, regularly hits the headlines in the days following its broadcast but never like this. The person at the centre of the controversy spent two years in Goulburn jail waiting trial on terrorism charges. He was acquitted. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of threatening Commonwealth officers and was sentenced to time already served in prison. That was a decade ago when Mallah was a troubled 19-year-old and typical of a section of the marginalised, alienated Muslim youth in Australia’s larger cities finding the “radical” message of fundamentalist groups persuasive.

Zaky Mallah on ABC’s Q&A.

Since that time, Mallah has used his energies to dissuade others from following his early example. He is scathing of IS and similar groups. He took the opportunity as a member of the Q&A audience to ask government parliamentary secretary Steven Ciobo what would have happened in his case if the Immigration Minister had had the power to strip him of his Australian citizenship. Ciobo said he would be happy to be part of a government that would force Mallah to leave the country. At the end of the exchange, Mallah said that the sort of comment made by the federal member for Moncrieff would encourage young Muslims to go abroad to join IS.

Program presenter Tony Jones quickly ruled the point “out of order” and the program moved on. In the days that followed, conservative politicians tripped over each other in the rush to condemn the “lack of judgement” of Q&A program management. What was the ABC thinking? How could they have put the panellists and the studio audio audience at risk by allowing somebody like Mallah into the studio? How dare they provide a platform for this supposed “extremist”? ABC managing director Mark Scott was quickly on the airwaves pleading guilty to an “error of judgement” on behalf of the Q&A crew, whose members were obliged to remain silent.

“Whose side?”

The Prime Minister sensed an opportunity to take public debate away from topics like the bleak economic outlook for the country and the sovereignty-threatening Trans Pacific Partnership. “Heads should roll over this, heads should roll,” he said. The phrase was tasteless but probably deliberate given his frequent reference to human heads severed and displayed by IS forces being used by imperialist forces to affect “regime change” in Syria and destabilise the Middle East.

He channelled US President W Bush’s sentiment that “you are either on our side or the side of the terrorists.” Abbott’s question to anybody concerned about the current legislative trend of his government is, apparently, “whose side are you on?”. He previously coined the term “team Australia” to indicate people should be taking “sides” in the war being waged on political freedoms.

Some have noted the similarity between the attitude of the Menzies government towards the Communist Party in the 1950s and the current “anti-terrorist” hysteria. Presumably, the ABC is acting in an “un-Australian” manner by allowing comments deemed “out of order” to be presented. More than one commentator has pointed to the hypocrisy regarding Q&A given the flood of words about western civilisation, tolerance and press freedom in the wake of the shootings at the office of provocative French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Conservative politicians and their media cheer squad are now talking about a “non-partisan watchdog” to remove editorial control from the national broadcaster which, itself, is meant to be an independent statutory authority. Of course, an ideological battle has raged for a long time over the composition of the board of the ABC. A conservative board will have a heavy impact on what programs survive and what sorts of opinions get an airing. The conservatives have held sway for quite some time but, as the authoritarian agenda is rolled out, more control is needed.

Ducking for cover

The change in political climate is obvious at the ABC in recent times. In 2010, “terror suspect” David Hicks put a video question to former PM John Howard about the appalling record of his government in connection with Hicks’ detention and treatment at Guantánamo. Howard took the question but not before singing the praises of Australian democracy and how somebody with Hicks’ background was free to put such a probing (and ultimately unanswered) question to him on national television. There were no embarrassed apologies and no calls for “heads to roll”.

Abbott feels no need to play the small “l” liberal card. The limits of “legitimate” debate and political and trade union activity are getting narrower and narrower. The current drive to shut down questioning of the authoritarian capitalist agenda must be defeated before it is too late, before the jailings and the deportations start.

Next article – Taking Issue – Stop supporting brutal suppression

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