Au revoir for ABC luminaries, while Leunig lays into the Age

·10-min read

Fran Kelly and Gaven Morris step down, with latter highlighting pride in diversity push. Plus: tributes for Crikey co-founder Christian Kerr

It was a week of goodbyes at the ABC as Fran Kelly farewelled her loyal audience after 17 years and outgoing news chief Gaven Morris highlighted much-needed improvements in diversity as a source of pride during his six-year tenure.

Kelly might have been all misty-eyed from the musical and political tributes that flowed in her last program – only Scott Morrison was notable for his absence – but she wasn’t going to let Christopher Pyne get away with claiming he had “almost always” given her a direct answer.

“Christopher Pyne, I don’t know that you always gave direct answers, or even that you almost always gave direct answers, but there you go,” Kelly countered with her trademark directness.

Morris told the Melbourne Press Club that ABC News was setting the standard for reflecting the full diversity of modern Australia in its workforce and content.

“The ABC has made more progress here in the past five years than we made in the 50 years before,” Morris said. “And it’s about time.

“Bridget Brennan, who was Australia’s first Indigenous foreign correspondent, is now on the news leadership team. Isabella Higgins, our London correspondent. Stan Grant, well, everywhere in primetime.

“Nas Campanella is disability affairs correspondent and the chair of ABC Inclusive. Charles Brice is an excellent reporter in SA for News Breakfast. Both with lived experience of having a disability.”

Earlier in the week Campanella revealed on air that she was pregnant.

Perhaps Morris’s tribute to the improvements in diversity was a nod to the likely appointment of the ABC’s managing editor of coverage, who is also diversity lead, Gavin Fang, as his replacement.

‘Too successful’

Amid all the farewells there was a message for the ABC’s detractors, including social media critics, the Australian, the IPA and members of the government.

“I’ll say one thing to our increasingly shrill critics, from the vested interests of the media to the unhinged rantings on social media: we’re not your target because we’re failing, but because we’re succeeding,” Morris said.

“We don’t have to remember too far back when the criticism of ABC News was its audience was too small, too niche, too urban, we didn’t break stories, we didn’t have an impact, we were too narrow.

“I don’t hear those criticism now. We’re too big, too popular, too successful on digital, too impactful in our journalism, too many stories leading the agenda, too omnipresent in Australian’s lives, too diverse.”

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For Kelly, the claims on Twitter and on the program’s text line about her alleged allegiances with either the left or the right are laughable.

“I’m happy for the audience to critique me and critique my work,” she told Weekly Beast. “But it’s a bit tedious being branded [as partisan]. One running criticism of me on Twitter is that I’m best friends with Angus Taylor’s wife, which is absolutely not true. I don’t think I’ve even met her.”

Regional expansion

Gaven Morris’ last day as news director was marked by good news.

Swan Hill, Whyalla, Victor Harbor, Northam and Gladstone will get their own dedicated ABC reporters in 2022, thanks to multimillion-dollar deals the ABC has signed with Google and Facebook.

They will be part of an influx of more than 50 new regional reporters to be hired by the broadcaster, a 10% increase in the regional content-maker team.

This week the ABC inked a deal with Facebook, to add to its money from Google, under the news media bargaining code which became law in February.

An agreement was signed with Facebook this week and follows an agreement reached with Google last month. Revenue from both will go towards increasing the ABC’s investment in regional and rural journalism across Australia.

“We decided at the very start of these negotiations that any net revenue we received from these deals would go where it is needed most – and that is in regional Australia,” said the ABC managing director, David Anderson.

“We want to provide greater coverage of regional stories in areas that are under-served by the media or are in news deserts. Extra regional services are a great way to start 2022, our 90th year, and this announcement is fitting given the ABC’s relationship with rural and regional Australia over those nine decades.”

Swords and Shields

Reaction on Twitter to the appointment of Bevan Shields as editor of the Sydney Morning Herald this week was not uniformly celebratory. Quite a few people pointed out that Shields had blocked them, and some had no idea why.

Among those who were blocked was Guardian Australia columnist Greg Jericho and Shields’ former colleague at the SMH, Peter Hannam, who has left the paper to join the Guardian as economics correspondent.

Is there a pattern here?

The increasingly pointed attacks on the ABC chair, Ita Buttrose, which are often sexist in nature, were raised this week in Senate estimates by Sarah Hanson-Young as she questioned Senator Jane Hume, who was representing the communications minister, Paul Fletcher.

“So what is it with some of the men in your party and the way they speak about the female chair of the ABC?” the Greens senator asked.

“Is it reflective of the Morrison government and its members that Ita Buttrose is ‘a terrible failure’ and ‘a hopeless failure’?

“I would say the comment, ‘Squealing like a cut cat,’ is pretty gendered.”

Hume rejected the suggestion.

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“That’s very convenient, isn’t it,” Hanson-Young replied. “You can have your members running these lines, attacking the ABC, and the minister can say, ‘Oh well, not my fault. Nothing to do with me.’ It is the culture in this government, isn’t it, that no one takes responsibility for anything.”

The Australian’s associate editor Chris Kenny has said called Buttrose’s claims of political interference are “utter rot” and Murdoch loyalist Terry McCrann has asked if Buttrose is “really that dumb”. The former Liberal minister Richard Alston told Sky News that Buttrose was “squealing like a cat”.

The Age ‘demonising’ anti-vaxxers

Cartoonist Michael Leunig has rejected a suggestion by the Age editor, Gay Alcorn, that he “romanticised the anti-vax movement” and that was why he lost his spot on the editorial page after a 5o-year career.

Alcorn finally gave Leunig’s Monday editorial cartoon the flick in October after rejecting a cartoon in which he he compared mandatory vaccination to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Leunig is unabashed and posted the drawing on his personal Instagram account instead.

Talking to Lisa Main from the Judith Nielson Institute for a session on “cancel culture” this week, Leunig was prickly when he was told that Alcorn had a problem with his affectionate portrayal of the protesters. “Well, I think that’s very disrespectful of her,” he said.

“I’d say the Age has demonised them. It is typical of what has happened to any protest movement from the Vietnam war to the Iraq war. When were protest movements ever respected as an important democratic reflection of a society?”

Leunig, who still has a Saturday cartoon in the Age and a Christmas calendar, accused the paper of treating the “mostly conscientious” protesters as “conspiracy theorists and rightwing lunatics”, “without ever having moved amongst them or knowing them”.

No wonder they broke up.

Laptop story rebooted

There’s another book out which you may want to add to the stocking filler list: Miranda Devine’s Laptop from Hell is the “inside story of the laptop that exposed the president’s dirtiest secret”.

“When a drug-addled Hunter Biden abandoned his waterlogged computer at a Mac repair shop in Delaware in the spring of 2019, just six days before his father announced his candidacy for the United States presidency, it became the ticking time bomb in the shadows of Joe Biden’s campaign,” the publicity blurb says.

Devine, who is a regular contributor to Fox News, says Hunter “owes the American people an explanation” but the mainstream media are ignoring the scandal. Luckily the Australian journalist is based in New York, at Murdoch’s New York Post, to pursue the story.

“And unfortunately, though, I think that unless the Washington Post and New York Times and CNN and MSNBC actually start being honest with their audience, the White House can just continue to ignore it.”

Farewell to Christian Kerr

Christian Kerr, who with Stephen Mayne co-founded Crikey,died in his sleep this week aged 56.

Kerr, a former political lobbyist, was a trailblazer in the 1990s, before social media and blogging, with an emailed must-read political column under the pen name Hillary Bray.

He remained on good terms with Mayne – who owned the Crikey masthead – after it was sold to the former SMH editor Eric Beecher, but Kerr was not a fan of what Crikey became after the first glorious eight years.

A lifelong conservative whose last job was at the Spectator, Kerr said Crikey had become “anti-free speech, anti-pluralism, doctrinaire, conspiracy theorist (and, presumably, tax-efficient loss generator)”.

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The original Crikey, on the other hand, was “loud, lively, likeable and liberal-minded”, he wrote on his Facebook page.

This tension was acknowledged in Crikey’s generous and warm tribute to Kerr by its politics editor, Bernard Keane.

“It’s fair to say Christian didn’t exactly approve of what Crikey became after his tenure, and he was unabashed in letting us know,” Keane wrote. “But that doesn’t change how crucial he was to our early success.

“There’s probably no more room for snark-filled, in-jokey political gossip in the media landscape. Social media provides more than enough of that as it is, anyway. Even many of those nicknames of 20 years ago no longer pass any sort of taste test. But there should always be room for wonderful writers. Christian was one of them.”