THE FRONT DORE: It’s time for Laura Tingle and the ABC to be honest about impartial political coverage

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
8 Min Read
THE FRONT DORE: Let’s stop pretending the ABC’s political coverage, led by Laura Tingle, is anything other than what it is. A taxpayer-funded media organisation that promotes one side of politics.
THE FRONT DORE: Let’s stop pretending the ABC’s political coverage, led by Laura Tingle, is anything other than what it is. A taxpayer-funded media organisation that promotes one side of politics. Credit: Supplied/The Nightly

So Laura Tingle thinks Peter Dutton is a dangerous, race-baiting, divisive, negative politician.

The ABC’s top political journalist, the public broadcaster’s Canberra Queen, the light on the hill, also thinks Australia is a racist country. Always was, always will be.

The ABC. Impartial. Objective. Dispassionate. Never has been, never will be.

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You might have stumbled across Ms Tingle’s work while searching for Australian Story or that gardening bloke. Or even recognise her from when you take a sickie, forget your Netflix password and end up enthralled by the drama of a lunchtime National Press Club address while trying to find the midday movie.

In case you’ve never heard of her, she’s kind of a big deal in political circles.

The No.1 political brain at the ABC, the old Channel 2, the national broadcaster, which receives $1 billion in public funding, literally money from your pay slip each year to, among other things, give people like the sincere and serious Ms Tingle a primetime platform to bluster and blather about politics and sneer and snigger at politicians. Well, some of them anyway.

So last Sunday at the Sydney Wankers Festival, Ms Tingle, overloaded on too many double shot oat lattes, got caught up as one does among chums in the free-flowing exchange of ideas, the frisson from the Friends of the ABC crowd, and candidly shared her despair at the dire state of suburban Australia, full of racist ratbags, “it’s very depressing”, and the general depravity of Federal politics, as practised by, well no one, really, other than that populist grub Peter Dutton.

“Sorry, it’s a little rant,” she said as the audience went wild. Sorry! Don’t be ridiculous.

Naturally, news of Ms Tingle’s astounding moral absolutism and plummy partisanship hours later found its way into The Australian, and the obligatory theatrical outrage ensued. The breakout of disappointment. Despair. Disillusion. How could the ABC allow this to happen, again. Political bias. On the ABC. No. Please God. No.

Laura Tingle branded Australia racist at a writers festival.
Laura Tingle branded Australia racist at a writers festival. Credit: Supplied.

According to the ABC’s charter, which wholly taxpayer-funded journalists at the broadcaster grimly swear by but seldom adhere to, Ms Tingle is required by law as well as “strict and rigorous guidelines” to be stonily impartial and stubbornly committed to accuracy.

ABC managing director David Anderson, worn down as he is by that troublesome thing called accountability, assured senators last night that senior staff like Ms Tingle, journalists who are “quite experienced” as she is, are treated slightly differently, permitted to express, hmm, let’s not call them opinions, let’s go with “context and analysis”. How wonderful are words. Can’t find that distinction for Ms Tingle in the charter.

Nevertheless, solemnly, Anderson admits, this time, this Sunday afternoon in Sydney, Ms Tingle chatting with friends, Niki and Barrie and Amy, conversational as it was, had still gone too far. Not on racism. But on the other stuff. Dutton is a dirt bag. It’s a “misstep”. Evidently, Anderson was most upset, not for what she said, but for prompting yet another “pile-on” from the mad Murdoch mob.

She’s “hurt the ABC”. “I wished she hadn’t.” So unfair. How could they justify holding our massive government department of political propaganda to account?

Never again. Even after the last time. No more second chances. We are well past that. She was “counselled” by news boss Justin Stevens. Can’t say how, but she definitely was, for sure.

Stevens, for good measure, reckons Ms Tingle’s remarks at this non-ABC event “lacked the context balance and supporting information of her work for the ABC and would not have met the ABC’s editorial standards”.

Under questioning from senators, Anderson, exasperated — not at Ms Tingle of course, but her critics — last night revealed how the ABC takes this impartiality business very seriously. What with all the principles and charters and guidelines and codes of conduct.

“The adherence to the principles of objective journalism is that you simply don’t take a side. The principle is there to say that you are reporting on the facts as they lay. You can provide context and analysis but you are not arriving at a conclusion.” Don’t take a side. Whatever he is describing, it’s not the ABC.

“For our political commentators that are quite experienced, they have licence to judgment, as long as they put context and analysis with it.”

Ah yes. Context.

Ms Tingle, in the aftermath, was also very disappointed with herself. Regretful. Damn you and your silly opinions Laura, breaking out of your brain at all the wrong times. Angry at herself. And those arseholes who write about her. And Peter Dutton for making her so angry and upset and depressed.

Her formal response was an insufferable 1400-word dissertation, on the subject of well, Laura Tingle mostly. And racism and so on. But also, Laura.

“I am proud of my work as a journalist at the ABC … and I let that work speak for itself.” You should be proud. Why not. But you certainly don’t let it speak for itself.

“It’s based, always, on solid research and a lifetime of experience reporting on Australian politics.” The first half is demonstrably false although, prosecuting one side of an argument is technically research. She is certainly experienced. She has spent a lifetime bagging all the prime ministers, you know, Howard and Abbott and Morrison.

Ms Tingle, bemoaning the “pile-on”, didn’t apologise, acknowledge or even give an indication she understood why her remarks might be problematic for someone in her position. Instead, she sought to justify her “little rant”, and provide the context and analysis. On racism, she disingenuously, quite outrageously and pathetically, cited antisemitism to rationalise her outburst.

Self-serving and entirely lacking in self-awareness, the statement was clearly drafted as a defence for the benefit of one person — new ABC chairman Kim Williams, who has expressed disdain for journalistic bias at the ABC, and contempt for those ignorant of the sense and meaning of the ABC’s heroic and ambitious but ultimately unrealistic charter. One he wants to revive and revere.

Some think Laura Tingle is an absolute punish. Painful. Unbearable.

Loyal ABC viewers, Labor voters, and Greens voters think she’s a gem. No one is in any doubt about her politics.

It’s there for all to see. Always has been.

Newly elected President of the National Press Club Laura Tingle speaks ahead of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Monday, February 1, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Newly elected President of the National Press Club Laura Tingle speaks ahead of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Monday, February 1, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING Credit: DC/AAPIMAGE

So why play this silly impartiality game?

ABC presenters and reporters routinely reveal their political views, in tweets, in the stories they choose to pursue, in the words they use, and the angles they take. Why do we pretend otherwise? And really, why do we care? It’s so blatant and so obvious to readers and viewers, why does it matter anymore? No swinging voter is in danger of being persuaded by the pursed-lip predictability of Ms Tingle. She’s celebrated by Labor voters, adored by Greens. Her No.1 advocate in Parliament is that unbearable nong Sarah Hanson-Young.

Likewise, Ms Tingle is despised and distrusted by every Liberal.

Ms Tingle also writes a weekly political column for The Australian Financial Review. It’s worthwhile providing the “context and analysis” of the 14 columns she’s published so far this year. All of them.

She has defended the Labor Government’s spending, insisting on a pragmatic, not a philosophical, lifting of taxes — so the Government can keep spending.

Attacked Dutton on migration policy: “It’s very dangerous politics, populist and misleading piece of political mischief”.

Praised the “economic and political success of Jim Chalmers’ budget”.

Claimed it was the “preserve of the Coalition” to focus on social unrest such as “African gangs”. Labor doesn’t go for base politics, it “may be a testament to their better angels”.

Described how a commitment to free speech in the Coalition was a problem for Dutton.

Attacked Dutton for defending his colleague Linda Reynolds and not sympathising with Brittany Higgins, in the wake of the finding the former staffer was raped in Parliament.

Attacked Dutton over his remarks about Gaza, while defending and praising Penny Wong for her remarks about Palestine. “Cautious tone” versus “colourful rhetoric”.

Attacked Israel, and again lined up Dutton for “simply blaming everything on Hamas and firmly toeing the Israeli line”.

Called out Israel for “flagrant breaches of the rules of international warfare”. Gaza is evidence of an Israeli “military chain of command that is out of control … even killing its own hostages”.

Ridiculed Dutton for talking about “crime and utes” ahead of the Dunkley by-election, and not the cost of living. He was out of touch for not focusing on the “one issue on the minds of voters right now”.

Defended Immigration Minister Andrew Giles over the release of violent criminal detainees into the community. Not his fault.

Attacked the Opposition, but made no mention of the Government, for not “talking about the biggest financial crisis most households have faced in a generation”.

Praised the Labor tax cuts.

Defended Anthony Albanese for breaking election promises.

That’s it. Every single column either attacks Dutton or praises Government ministers. Not one even mildly critiquing, God forbid she would find a reason to admonish Albanese.

Let’s stop pretending the ABC’s political coverage, led by Laura Tingle, is anything other than what it is. A taxpayer-funded media organisation that promotes one side of politics and disparages the other, persistently and without exception. Let’s not shy away from it.

Does it matter? Anyone who watches and listens knows what they’re getting, those producing it know what they are delivering.

Is it value for money? Unlikely for the 50 per cent of the population who don’t vote Labor. But for the other 50 per cent who do? Well, it probably is money well spent. The solution is not to hire more “conservative commentators”, as is often demanded. That misses the point. And wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.

The answer is simple — just be honest and up-front about it.

Loftily, David Anderson, straight-faced, summed it up perfectly in Senate estimates last night.

“We are there to hold everyone to account … we receive money from the Government … that is an investment in the ABC, which is an investment in the Australian people, it’s an investment in democracy, so it’s important that we adhere to our standards and we do it for the Australian people.”

The ambition is admirable but the pomposity and delusion is both palpable and laughable.

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