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On Tuesday, the Australian boss of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire batted away suggestions that his organisation had played a major role in contributing to Stan Grant’s decision to take indefinite leave from the ABC through a sustained campaign of criticism.
“ABC director of news Justin Stevens has made a raft of unsubstantiated claims about News Corp’s reporting of how the ABC covered the coronation, and the ensuing fallout that Stan Grant says contributed to his decision to stand down as host of Q+A,” News Corp Australia’s executive chairman Michael Miller told his own masthead, The Australian.
Stan Grant stood down from hosting Q+A over the racial abuse directed at him on social media.Credit: Chris Hopkins
“The ABC needs to stop passing the buck and blaming others for its own internal problems,” he said. His comments were a response to direct criticism from Stevens that News Corp had fanned the flames of abuse targeting Grant.
In a similar vein, Janet Albrechtsen – a regular contributor to The Australian and a former member of the ABC board – and Tom Switzer, executive director of the right-leaning Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter on ABC’s Radio National – wrote on Wednesday that “so far the ABC is using the Grant affair to blame News Corp for highlighting the public broadcaster’s editorial fiascos and increasing on-air activism, instead of recognising ABC management’s failure to enforce the division between news and opinion”.
Are they right? Is Justin Stevens imagining the Murdoch media in Australia is waging a campaign against the ABC, a campaign that merely went into overdrive following the coronation coverage on May 7?
The evidence would suggest not.
A search of news stories conducted by Nine, the publisher of this masthead, using media monitoring service Streem (but not supplied by Streem) for the terms “ABC” and “Stan Grant” turned up 34 mentions in the two weeks prior to the coronation panel that sparked sustained criticism of Grant. All but three of them were in News Corp-owned properties.
Rita Panahi, Rowan Dean and James Morrow, the hosts of the Sky News program Outsiders.
Two were in Nine properties, and referred to Grant’s cameo in the Hollywood comedy Ricky Stanicky, and one was in regional publisher Australian Community Media’s Illawarra Mercury, and advised that Wollongong residents had been invited to join the studio audience of Q+A.
In the News Corp papers, The Daily Telegraph led the charge in print/digital with four mentions, followed by The Australian, the Geelong Advertiser and The Courier-Mail with three each. Some of these were syndicated (and thus duplicated), some merely advised where to watch the coronation coverage, but a number took Grant to task over the role he was expected to play.
The four mentions on Sky News were the only appearances on television, and all were critical of Grant.
It’s fair to conclude, then, that even before the coronation coverage, News Corp media properties were more than a little invested in the ABC and Stan Grant.
In the 12 days following the coronation and up to the moment Grant announced he was stepping down from Q+A, the same search produced 78 results. Ten of those were in The Australian and 22 were on Sky News, spread across a suite of right-wing opinion-led shows: Bernardi, Outsiders, The Late Debate, The Rita Panahi Show, The Bolt Report, Chris Kenny Tonight.
In all, 64 of the 78 mentions came in News Corp properties, and virtually all of them were critical. (Following Grant’s announcement, mentions of him and the ABC skyrocketed across all news outlets; that spike in interest has been excluded in order to concentrate on the relatively “normal” patterns of coverage.)
From this admittedly small sample, there is evidence of a sustained campaign from News. What’s more, the evidence is not merely quantitative – it’s qualitative too.
Referring to the portion of the ABC’s coronation coverage in which Grant was a member of the panel, The Australian‘s media reporter Sophie Elsworth said on Sky News’ The Media Show (May 11), “that one hour … was one of the most disgraceful moments in their television history”. She described it as “an absolute pile-on on the British monarchy”, accused it of “ripping this country’s history to shreds”, called it “an hour of hatefest”, and decreed it was an “absolutely disgraceful editorial decision to have such a lopsided panel”, concluding “the ABC has no balance”.
None of those assertions was challenged.
On Sky’s The Late Debate on May 8, former ABC staffer and now-Sky regular Kel Richards opined “this is an ABC which has lost its way, and it’s either got to have its funding cut off or be dragged back to what it once was.” (Demands to “defund the ABC” are a recurring theme on Sky and in The Australian.)
An article published on Sky News online claimed a “fellow host” of Grant on the ABC had said the broadcaster was “derelict in its duty” in allowing him to blur the line between presenter and commentator (a favourite line of attack on Sky, which presents itself as a news outlet but runs wall-to-wall commentary). The fellow host in question was Tom Switzer, a former opinion editor of The Australian. News Corp declined to comment for this story.
The Australian’s letters pages were full of people accusing Grant of “hijacking” the coronation coverage by bringing in the perspective of Indigenous Australians. And lest there be any confusion about what The Australian itself thought, the paper thundered in its editorial on May 12 that the discussion of the relationship between Indigenous Australia and the crown amounted to “a one-sided tirade of bitterness and bile”.
Grant framed his decision to step away from Q+A as owing much to the relentless attacks he had endured on social media. “Racism is a crime. Racism is violence. And I have had enough,” he wrote in what he said would be his last column for the ABC online for the foreseeable future.
But he also suggested he had become a target in mainstream media too.
“I was not the producer nor presenter of the coronation broadcast yet every newspaper article accusing the ABC of bias has carried my image,” he wrote.
On Monday, Justin Stevens explicitly accused News Corp of “piling on … with a clear agenda” of seeking to undermine trust in the public broadcaster “just because we threaten their business model”.
Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday at an event to promote his book The Queen Is Dead, Grant elaborated on the way the modern media had conspired to fuel division, including along racial lines.
“The 24/7 news cycle is a competition,” he said, according to ABC reporter Dan Bourchier. “If you can shout the loudest, you can be heard over the din. When you start to shout, you stop thinking, and it gets louder and louder and more hoarse, and more nasty, just to be heard. ”
Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.
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