Last October, the ABC aired two consecutive episodes of its flagship science programme, Catalyst, which claimed the causal link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease was ‘the biggest myth in medical history’. It also cast doubt on the efficacy of cholesterol medications, known as statins. In the Sydney Morning Herald, health editor Amy Corderoy quoted Professor Emily Banks, whom she referred to as ‘Australia’s top medicine safety expert’, urging the ABC not to air the second episode because it could lead people to stop taking life-saving medication. A later survey indicated many patients did just that. Corderoy said on Twitter that the ABC rescinded its offer to send a preview tape of the second episode after she indicated she would interview other medical experts about it. The ABC’s Media Watch later labelled the Catalyst episodes ‘bad journalism’ that was ‘sensationalist and grossly unbalanced’ and relied on fringe science from people with questionable qualifications.
So where was the outcry, pray tell, from the ABC’s critics on that occasion? Where were the thundering columns and splash headlines demanding an apology for this misleading and potentially deathly programming? Even Gerard Henderson, whose media blog is largely dedicated to sledging the national broadcaster, only managed two paragraphs on the subject — an afterthought to his more pressing complaint about ABC programmes taking a summer break.
And so I began to wonder: perhaps those who have hounded the ABC in recent weeks, smelling blood, are not actually impartial observers in pursuit of accurate journalism. Perhaps they are just hypocrites. At best they are foot soldiers in the culture war, deployed into battle at the first siren, thrilled to take up where the fight left off last time around. At worst, they are the sort of gullible conspiracy-theorists willing to blindly accept the narrative that the ABC is a puppet of the political Left. The reported the Navy ‘burns’ allegations as exactly that — allegations. Of course, publishing any claim necessarily involves some degree of endorsement. It helps if the claims you publish turn out to be true, and that’s looking unlikely.
The ABC has issued a statement saying it regretted if the reporting led people to believe it supported the allegations. It said its word choice needed to be more precise. And if we’re honest, that’s what this debate really is: a J-academic’s wet dream about phrasing and emphasis. If the worst criticism that can be levelled at the ABC is that it should have accentuated the Navy’s denial and distanced itself more clearly from the allegations, then I will continue to sleep easy, knowing that the national broadcaster is the most heavily scrutinised news organisation in the country, and the most trusted to boot. We should be much more concerned about the secrecy in which the Navy’s operations have been cloaked. If only there were more transparency, the ABC would have been able to air the alternative proposition of what happened on those boats. But when you deliberately create an information vacuum, as Scott Morrison has done, conjecture naturally rushes to fill it.
What the ABC’s critics are asking us to do is place blind trust in our government and military. That’s what the Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine was doing when she declared the claims were ‘never plausible’ because they were ‘uncharacteristic of Australian culture and inconsistent with 100 years of Australian military history’. Oh. Were they inconsistent with secretly filming sex with female cadets and broadcasting the footage over the web? Were they inconsistent with calling asylum seekers ‘f—ers’ on Facebook? Were they inconsistent with joining an online hate group that seeks to fight the ‘Muslim infiltration of our country’? No, no and no. Indeed, the astonishing thing about the Navy allegations was just how believable they were. But unquestioning trust is what Tony Abbott was urging when he said the ABC should have given the Navy ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and should display ‘at least some basic affection for the home team’. As a former journalist, he probably knows that invoking journalism as a form of patriotism was a serious overreach. He would have been on stronger ground calling this lazy journalism in need of greater oversight.
The point is: I don’t intrinsically trust the Navy, or the Indonesian police, or the asylum seekers — they all have barrows to push. As Ray Martin told Q&A: ‘Governments and politicians lie. We know that.’ All journalists and commentators are free to question the ABC’s editorial judgments: that’s only fair. But they should do so with some modicum of consistency, not just when it suits their partisan agenda.