‘Systemic bias’: ABC under fire from Coalition MPs in wake of Porter case

The ABC has come under fire from Coalition MPs who want federal action against the public broadcaster to stop what they claim is “systemic bias” in the coverage of a rape allegation against Industry Minister Christian Porter.

Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen called on the government to take action against the ABC, saying this should start with its chairwoman, Ita Buttrose.

George Christensen suggested action against the ABC should start with the broadcaster’s chairwoman Ita Buttrose.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Christensen raised the case of Mr Porter and the ABC in the regular meeting of Liberal and Nationals MPs on Tuesday morning and drew applause from some colleagues, amid anger within the government at the coverage of the claim against Mr Porter.

But the ABC’s supporters warned against calls for “reprisals” when the coverage of Mr Porter had its origin in a complaint against him that deserved to be aired and was in the public interest. Mr Porter vehemently denies the rape allegation.

Mr Christensen told colleagues the case showed “systemic bias” that needed to be stopped.

“The iron is hot and you should always strike while the iron is hot on these issues,” he said.

“And it should start with the chairman.”

George Christensen accused the ABC of “systemic bias”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Christensen did not explain what action he wanted against Ms Buttrose.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded briefly by saying “these are live issues” but this appeared to be a reference to the defamation case Mr Porter brought against the ABC rather than any plan to act against the broadcaster.

Coalition MPs did not add to Mr Christensen’s remarks in the meeting but Queensland Liberal Julian Simmonds later said the ABC had a responsibility to be fair and unbiased.

“The reporting in this incident certainly has me worried that those standards are not being upheld consistently,” he said of the coverage of Mr Porter.

“The ABC regional and kids content is world-class but when it comes to news and public interest reporting, all Australians expect better than partisan hatchet jobs.”

Fellow Queensland Liberal Andrew Wallace said the ABC and many of its journalists had demonstrated a “distinct bias” against the conservative side of politics.

“The ABC must be held to account to abide by its charter. At present they are acting as a taxpayer-funded institutional mouthpiece for the ALP and the Greens,” he said.

Former ABC director Quentin Dempster, a journalist and host at the public broadcaster for many years, said the coverage of Mr Porter was not ideological and was based on a complaint against the minister.

Journalist Quentin Dempster said the ABC balanced privacy against the public’s right to know and questions about a minister’s fitness to hold office. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It was journalism based on [sources] talking to the journalists,” he said.

Mr Dempster said News Corp had reported in a similar way on former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce three years ago, balancing privacy against the public’s right to know and questions about a minister’s fitness to hold office.

“The answer to George Christensen is to please think deeply about the reprisals he is advocating because the journalism is not ideological – it is based on complaints in the Porter case,” he said.

Mr Dempster also drew a parallel with media coverage of former Labor NSW Premier Neville Wran in the 1980s when reports were said to be ideological but were based on complaints from NSW magistrates speaking to journalists.

Labor communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said Mr Christensen’s remarks were hardly newsworthy because they confirmed that a Coalition “cabal” would keep undermining and attacking the ABC.

“When the ABC does its job and holds power to account, the far-right dream up vendetta-style attacks on the public broadcaster,” Ms Rowland said.

“What we’ve got here is a lazy attack from a backbencher on the way out, and one would expect the Prime Minister to show leadership and not pander to these crazy obsessions.”

Under the settlement agreement struck between Mr Porter and the ABC, the parties agreed to seek a court order that 27 redacted pages in the ABC’s 37-page defence “be permanently removed from the court file”.

But shortly after the parties announced the settlement on Tuesday, journalist Louise Milligan tweeted: “We are still absolutely committed to the 27 redacted pages being in the public domain.”

An ABC spokeswoman declined to comment about whether Milligan’s comments represented the broadcaster’s position that the documents should be made public. Nine, the publisher of this masthead, and News Corp have joined forces to fight the non-publication order over the documents in the Federal Court in a bid to access the ABC’s full unredacted defence.

Mr Porter’s lawyer Rebekah Giles said she could not disclose details of the settlement, but estimated his mediation costs, which the ABC has agreed to pay, were around $10,000.

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