Debates — Coalition bans the ABC (and it shows)

In an extraordinary display of his dislike for the national public broadcaster, the Prime Minister has refused to take part in a leaders debate on the ABC.

The results, so far, have been two disappointing contests that have undermined the very democratic process that the ABC works so hard to uphold.

It’s the first time since John Howard that the ABC has been snubbed.

The first debate on the 20th of April, conducted as a so-called “people’s forum,” was only available to voters with a Sky subscription, or those who can watch the Murdoch-backed network for free in some regional areas.

As a result, the great majority of the Australian population was cut off from the discourse — a fact reflected in the dismal ratings for the programme.

The second debate, conducted on Channel 9 on Sunday night, descended into a shouting match between the Prime Minister and Opposition leader.

Important points were missed or left out altogether due to the moderator losing control.

It was so bad that even the conservative Nine radio host Ben Fordham spent much of his Monday morning 2GB programme in Sydney lambasting his own network.

Ben Fordham told his audience:

It wasn’t great. It was a shambles. It was messy, disjointed, awkward. All over the shop. Fordham said this morning.

Channel 9 was not the winner. When the TV ratings come out, I think it will show that. I think the ratings will show that Australians would have largely turned off the contest.

The government has announced that the third and final leaders’ debate will take place on Kerry Stokes’ Network Seven.

It will follow an episode of Big Brother.

The Saturday Paper’s Rick Morton says Scott Morrison has been “stringing along” the ABC, which spent a great deal of time and energy drafting proposals for a debate and submitting them to the PM’s office.

Rick Morton wrote:

Behind the scenes, senior ABC staff, led by Insiders host and press gallery stalwart David Speers, had been working for months on proposals that would secure an election debate on the main channel and across the news channel, radio, iview and YouTube. It was all for nought.

Quoting unnamed Liberal sources, Rick Morton said the Liberals decided on Channel Seven, rather than the national broadcaster, because “Elections aren’t won in the debates but if we’re going to do them, we are going to go where the undecided voters are.”

Rick Morton wrote:

The implication is clear: the ABC is not “friendly” for the Coalition and its audience – many members of which live in regional and rural Australia – is not for turning.  But Morrison couldn’t bring himself to simply say no, because that would have looked bad. Instead, he pretended the public broadcaster simply never asked.

(Note: Paywall)

ABC Alumni Chair Jonathan Holmes, who was interviewed for the Saturday Paper article, said:

To be honest, I really do not understand it, this attitude of ‘anybody but the ABC’. There are many Liberal voters who watch it.

You get the feeling that any agreement by the Coalition to have a debate on the ABC would be seen to reduce them in the minds of their supporters. Which is frightening. We have got to the point where the national broadcaster is seen as untouchable and that is scary.

The ABC Alumni released a statement about the issue, which cut through to the real reason why Scott Morrison would want to avoid a debate on the ABC:

ABC Alumni believes Mr Morrison’s avoidance of the ABC is because only the ABC, in its news and current affairs programs on radio, TV, and online, regularly conducts robust interviews that hold both federal government ministers and federal opposition leaders to account. By comparison, Sky News clearly favours the Coalition. That appears to be why Mr Morrison, with the acquiescence of Mr Albanese, has preferred to conduct the first debate on a Pay TV channel rather than with the national broadcaster, despite inevitably smaller audiences. The commercial broadcasters cover federal politics much less thoroughly than the ABC.