ABC executives say they did not anticipate the level of racist vitriol that led to Q+A host Stan Grant taking extended leave, despite discussing attacks on the host’s character with him months ahead of the broadcaster’s coronation coverage.
Appearing alongside ABC managing director David Anderson at Senate estimates on Wednesday, ABC director of news Justin Stevens said he spoke at length with Grant about the racism he was subjected to ahead of the coronation but still didn’t anticipate the attacks that ensued.
“I proactively contacted him a couple of months before the coronation coverage,” Stevens said, “to say I feel uncomfortable raising this, and by raising it, I don’t want to legitimise it or draw your attention to it because [Grant’s] not on social media.
“We talked about it, and he pointed out to me that he has been subjected to this sort of racism all his career.”
Grant, a Wiradjuri, Gurrawin and Dharawal man, announced in his weekly column last Friday that he would step away from his role as Q+A host for an extended period, following a sustained conservative media campaign that included more than 150 mentions of Grant’s name in the pages of The Australian and in footage on Sky News over the preceding fortnight.
Grant said that since appearing as a panel guest as part of the ABC’s coverage of the coronation of King Charles III, he had seen “people in the media lie and distort” his words, and had faced surging racial abuse on social media, directed at both him and his wife.
In the column, Grant took aim at ABC executives for withholding public support of the coverage or taking steps to refute “the lies” written and spoken about him. He called the silence an “institutional failure”, before giving an honorary mention to Stevens, who Grant said had been a source of “support and comfort”.
Even still, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi suggested that the ABC, through the testimony of countless staff and multiple internal reviews, has had ample opportunity to develop a response strategy to handle racist attacks on staff from both internal and external sources.
“Could I posit … to you that why Stan Grant wasn’t defended earlier, and why you didn’t anticipate this level of hatred and vitriol towards Stan Grant, is because your board and your executive and leadership team is overwhelmingly white, and has no lived experience of racism?” Faruqi said. “Is that something you would agree with?”
In response to a separate line of questioning, Anderson said the ABC executive leadership team is making inroads to improve diversity among senior ranks at the broadcaster. He pointed to the appointment of Suzanne Dredge as head of Indigenous news, and eluded to the forthcoming announcement of a second culturally diverse appointment set to be made “in the coming weeks”.
In an email to staff late Sunday afternoon, Anderson maintained that Grant has “always had” the “full support” of leadership at the ABC, even as executives remained silent on the racist abuse levelled at him.
So far, the ABC said it has received “around 1800” instances of contact made by members of the audience over the broadcaster’s coronation coverage, of which more than 1100 were deemed racist or abusive content or did not raise a substantive issue.
An ABC spokesperson said the broadcaster has received 169 “good faith, actionable complaints”, of which 110 were general in nature. The remaining 59 raised issues related to editorial policies, which have been referred to the Ombudsman’s office for investigation.
Anderson, in response to questioning from independent Senator Lidia Thorpe during Wednesday’s hearing, said the ABC has implemented a number of measures to try and thwart discrimination levelled at staff, even if the organisation isn’t “doing a good enough job”.
He said the measures have included blocking the email addresses of those who launch abuse at ABC journalists, as well as disabling notifications.
“The people who are evil will find a way around it, create another profile, of course, and then come back at us again,” Anderson said.
“And so the very long list of emails we’ve blocked to try to protect our staff — this isn’t an excuse for what we’re doing — things are still getting through and we’re still going to have to work hard at that,” he said. “Hence, the review.”
Anderson announced on Sunday that the organisation had accepted a recommendation from the ABC’s Bonner Committee to launch a review of how the ABC responds to racism directed at staff, and what more it can do to offer institutional support.
The Bonner Committee, the broadcaster’s peak body for issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and content, said it would push for the review to be led by an independent expert alongside the committee and all other staff representation groups.
Anderson on Wednesday said he worries for the ABC’s First Nations staff heading into the referendum on a Voice to Parliament later this year, as the instances of abuse increase “over time”.
“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,” he said.
“It’s time that we have a review of how we’re supporting people. Are we doing enough for all the things that we’ve done in the past? The things that we put in place? Clearly, it’s not enough and we’ve fallen short, certainly of late. So that’s the review that we’ve asked for.”
For some corners of the organisation, the ABC’s failure to offer Grant full-throated support until Sunday struck at the heart of his reasons for leaving. Sources in the broadcaster’s Melbourne and Sydney newsrooms told Crikey that Grant’s departure had lowered morale, particularly among staff from culturally diverse backgrounds.
On ABC Radio Melbourne on Monday afternoon, Stevens said he regretted not coming out in defence of the broadcaster’s coverage and Grant “10 days ago”. He went on to pan the News Corp papers for sustained anti-ABC reporting.
“Now, we can’t be beyond scrutiny. In fact, we welcome it. But it is clearly a concerted campaign to chip away at the ABC and people’s sense of trust in it, by them.”