The silence of the bland

In the list of creatures able to diminish and camouflage themselves at a moment’s notice sits the giant leaf-tailed gecko, a reptile that flattens itself to refract light making it practically invisible to a predator’s eye. Giant leaf-tailed geckos lie with their heads shoved into the ground to improve their invisibility as prey, a tactic that should also become known as the ABC Management Manoeuvre.

Last week we saw an ABC management team only one set of gecko scales removed from cowering with their mouths slammed into the forest floor. And it all happened because one of the ABC’s most senior journalists, Ms Laura Tingle had a bit of a chat at a writers festival. This isn’t usually much to bother the vast majority of Australians, but nobody ever accused the ABC of truly understanding an Australia beyond their Sydney and Canberra studios. Within the ABC management’s collective siege mentality, a trio of boof-heads at the Australian and a few coalition politicians pass for “the vast majority of Australians”.

The vast majority of Australians on the other hand, hopping on the bus to work, picking up the kids from school, looking after their elderly parents, or driving trucks, do not give a flying CEO’s bonus about what Laura Tingle said last weekend in some room at a writer’s festival in inner Sydney, but the Murdoch-confected culture wars are always of the highest priority to the insular sectarians running the ABC.

The trap they’ve fallen into, indeed the invisible toxic culture that now pervades all of the ABC, is to manage the organisation as if it was a political party and not a fearless public broadcaster reflecting a vast, diverse, modern nation. Anthony Albanese’s style of governing is almost an exact replica of the way the ABC is now run.

Albanese, he of the once strident views on everything from Palestine’s right to exist or the toxicity of our capitalist media overlords, has now become the incredible shrinking man, glad-handing to the Israeli lobby and making pilgrimages to Murdoch central, probably doffing his cap and smoothing his scales as he enters.

What Albanese sees as the path to great leadership is not by way of Boris Johnson, Trump and the loud, controversial style of populist government in the west. Albanese sees success in staying as low to the ground as possible, keeping out of harm’s way, playing the small target, giving in when there’s the slightest sign of unrest. Does the Dutton opposition think there are too many immigration detainees causing problems in the community? Why yes Peter, let’s capitulate and change the legislation for you. Keep yourselves small, keep the government away from targets, as unseen as possible, giving us an Anthony Albanese nothing like the great leader he dreamed he’d be, unless of course he dreamed of becoming an obsequious recreant.

And speaking of obsequious recreants, let’s return to ABC management because they’ve taken some leaves right out of Albanese’s book and covered themselves with them on the forest floor. Laura Tingle isn’t the problem. This experienced, intelligent, highly analytical ABC employee is a symptom of the problem – a symptom of the problem at the very core of the ABC.

The ABC has fallen victim to OSS – Organisational Survivalist Syndrome. Of course they’ll deny they have, because cloth-eared denial is what they’re best at. The ABC is an organisation practising small-target survival broadcasting, just as surely as Albanese practices small-target survival politics. Keep your head down. Don’t make waves. Say nothing. Stand for nothing.

We live in febrile, quarrelsome times. The entire world has an opinion, none more so than the rage-baiting hacks infesting pay tv and youtube with their hot culture war takes. And in a war you have two choices, you can arm yourself and fight back or you can dig a trench and keep yourself camouflaged and quiet and low. The ABC has chosen the survival tactics of the shallow trenches.

What happened to Lateline, what happened to The Drum? Their biggest sin was not that they cost too much, (their budgets would hardly match the ABC’s social media wages), or that they didn’t appeal to under-35s, because the ABC has done nothing to replace those programs with any content appealing to that age bracket. No, their sin was to have people discussing views and ideas, making the ABC a target and causing rage-spittle with the headline makers and drooling neckbeards of the culture war fields. Getting rid of those programs meant getting rid of people with opinions, and less opinions means less targeting. 

The evidence speaks for itself, with an ABC online news site peppered with stories about mullet haircuts and acne treatments. Far better to keep it light and fluffy and not upset the powerful. Why does the ABC no longer follow up its own news stories? This week, the always undaunted but rapidly shrinking Four Corners, reported on the sometimes desperate plight of Australia’s ex-prisoners. No follow up on major ABC news platforms the next day? No, that would mean talking about something controversial, maybe creating waves. Yes, the ABC knows they have to keep Four Corners alive but that doesn’t mean they have to talk about their program in the attic; just focus on acne treatments instead.

Rather than confronting Australian politicians with punchy interview questions guaranteed to upset the Liberal party’s emotional support senator Sarah Henderson at Estimates, why not throw on soft-focus interviews about politicians making sponge cakes on their kitchen cabinets and hard quiz yourself into blandness in the process?

Better to do away with them all. How to improve an Insiders fronted by the forthright, pull-no-punches Barrie Cassidy? Just recreate it with the master of beige, David Speers hosting a tight little circle of his coffee-club Canberra mates. How to get rid of a beehive of demented Zionists threatening to create outrage over ABC presenter Antoinette Latouff? Don’t stand up to them, don’t create attention, just get rid of her. Get rid of anything sticking its head above the trenches. Don’t be bold or brave or factual. Be balanced, be bland.

The most galling thing about the entire confected non-issue around Ms Tingle is that it came from a handful of ABC men who have allegedly practiced ABC’s evidence-based newsroom journalism for decades.

The ABC’s Director of News, an experienced newsman, a trained journalist no less was moved to pass official ABC comment on unevidenced tea-room chatter from some slap-headed hacks at Newscorp with less audience numbers than a teenage Tiktokker’s account. Second-hand manufactured scuttlebutt is now considered worthy of ABC management issuing formal statements. This is how low into the freshly dug dirt the ABC has fallen to protect themselves – experienced news and media executives will tie themselves up in knots over gossip from some Z-grade Murdoch shills who’d shit on them if given half the chance.

No data, no evidence was presented to support the idea that ABC’s Australians were upset by Ms Tingle. No evidence was provided that the great unwashed majority of Australians were bothered by Antoinette Latouff either – only whispers from tiny little cliques of vested interest gossips. No supporting facts. Nothing else. Zilch.

This is what yours, theirs, nobody’s ABC has morphed into, an evidence free zone of former journalists who’ve forgotten their own journalism, bowing to unelected nobodies, lurching from one imagined crisis to the next, driven by grovelling, hand-wringing, knee crawling, arse-licking, kowtowing, toady, piss-weak ABC management that would collapse on their own spines if they had them.

If newsrooms and their journalists are always playing safe, keeping their heads down, focusing solely on protecting themselves, always operating from a siege mentality, then good journalism and good public broadcasting will die.

It takes bold and brave people to make great leaders, and great public broadcasters.

The slow death of the ABC won’t be the Laura Tingles, or the allegations of partisanship, or the imagined crises they desperately strive to avoid – their slow death on the forest floor will ultimately be their own self-inflicted silence of the bland. 

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