ABC managing director David Anderson says he is concerned about the abuse the broadcaster’s Indigenous staff may face in the lead-up to the Voice referendum as he conceded management had fallen short in supporting presenter Stan Grant through a firestorm of negative media and online racist vitriol.
During a four-hour Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, Anderson and ABC news director Justin Stevens faced extensive questioning about the culture and support structures within the broadcaster for non-white staff, days after Grant stepped down from hosting the flagship program.
Grant, a Wiradjuri man and one of the ABC’s stars, quit as host of the show last week citing the need for a break from the media after backlash to his involvement in ABC TV’s King Charles III coronation coverage as part of a panel discussion that critiqued the legacy of the monarchy in Australia.
Anderson said the broadcaster had made a “mistake” in being too slow to publicly support Grant amid the furore, but added he was “very concerned about staff at the ABC” saying there was a correlation between coverage of the public broadcaster by other media outlets and an uptick in abuse they received via social media.
“I’m worried about Stan but I’m also worried about our other staff. I’m worried about our First Nations staff as we head towards a referendum on the Voice, to make sure that they are sufficiently protected,” Anderson said.
He said it was the ABC’s job to continue holding difficult and uncomfortable conversations but the instances of journalists being the target of abuse were increasing, conceding the current support structures were “not enough and we’ve fallen short, certainly of late”.
Responding to questions from independent Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe, Anderson acknowledged that only one of the 17 people in the ABC’s senior leadership was not white. He said while the broadcaster had no influence over board appointments, it had made representations to government in the past about having a First Nations member on the board. He hinted further discussions would be happening at a board level about improving Indigenous representation within the ABC’s leadership ranks.
“You never want to announce anything at estimates and it always looks reactionary, but yes, this is something that has been considered at board level for the people and sustainability committee. We have a board meeting in a couple of weeks and I’ll have more to say about that soon,” Anderson said.
Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, on Wednesday condemned the racial abuse directed at Grant, but wouldn’t be drawn on the board vacancies, saying: “First Nations people are encouraged to apply, and all applicants will be assessed on merit as part of the independent Nomination Panel process for ABC Board appointments”.
Grant’s exit has sparked a broader debate about the culture within the ABC after he said he felt abandoned by the broadcaster’s management, noting in a column that no one had “uttered one word of public support”.
Former ABC radio host Sami Shah, in solidarity with Grant, penned a newsletter on Sunday entitled “Aunty’s got a race problem” that excoriated the ABC for what he described as a pattern of failing to support people of colour. In one example, Shah describes being let go because of his “low ratings and replaced… with a white guy” whose even lower ratings the broadcaster tolerates.
When Shah asked a manager how they justified removing the only person of colour “on the whole floor”, he claims they replied: “It’s clear now that it was too much diversity too soon.”
Anderson publicly apologised to Grant on Sunday and has since announced there will be a review into how the ABC responded to racism. Earlier this week ABC journalists and staff rallied across the country with placards saying “I stand with Stan”.
Anderson said he took Shah’s comments “very seriously” and would investigate. He issued an invitation for anyone who had experienced racism at the ABC to “come forward, and we’ll deal with it”.
Stevens told the Senate hearing that Grant became the face of “any and all criticism” connected with the ABC’s coronation coverage, which has drawn about 1800 complaints and triggered days of critical coverage in other media outlets, as well as a vicious social media pile-on. He said Grant had taken eight weeks’ leave from the broadcaster.
An ABC spokesman later clarified that more than 1100 of the complaints were either racist or abusive content while 169 were “good faith, actionable complaints”, of which 59 were referred to the Ombudsman’s Office for investigation for potential editorial policies issues.
Stevens said the broadcaster was “operating in a new environment now, where it is out of our comfort zone at the ABC, beyond Senate estimates, to publicly defend everything that we do, and every piece of journalism that we do, such as the level of animus and criticism that our reporting draws.”
He cited coverage on Sky News where he said Grant was described as a “whiner in chief” and a headline in the Herald Sun which said “heads should roll at the ABC over coronation coverage”, adding “unfortunately for Stan he becomes the face of this when he takes part in it”.
Stevens said the critical coverage was not limited to News Corp, and included Nine, publisher of this masthead, and said all media companies needed to come together to “figure out how we foster a kinder, fairer discourse”.
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