Abuse posing as analysis ... the ABC.

Abuse posing as analysis ... the ABC. Illustration: Simon Letch

The attempted killing of United States Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, allegedly by 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, has sparked a blame game as to who is responsible for the murders and the mayhem outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, at the weekend.

It was not surprising that some voices on the American left were quick to sheet home the blame to the Tea Party movement in general and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in particular. There were also hints that the Fox News channel had blood on its hands.

Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik did not mention any of the above when he blamed the deaths and casualties on "the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country". But, watching his media conference, it was evident that he had the Tea Party/Palin/Fox News trifecta in mind.

Dupnik's rush to judgment can perhaps be excused. But by yesterday morning Australian time there was reason to be wary of theories - especially as evidence was gathered about Loughner's personal views and mental state.

Nevertheless, on ABC TV and radio, commentators were quick to run the line advanced by sections of the American left.

On ABC News Breakfast yesterday the co-presenters Mary Gearin and Waleed Aly made it clear early in the program that they saw the hostility to Barack Obama's program - as exemplified in the Tea Party and Palin - as providing a spark which could ignite a murderous rage against the likes of Giffords.

This became evident in the segment reviewing the morning newspapers shortly before the 7am news bulletin. The guest commentator was the academic and Herald Sun columnist Jill Singer. It was one of those ABC discussions where everyone essentially agrees with everyone else.

Eventually Gearin put the leading question: "Can we blame Sarah Palin?" Singer had a bit each way and concluded: "I don't know."

The proper answer was - wait for the evidence.

Soon after the co-presenters read from the program's message board. Gearin cited the view of "Purple Tomcat" that it was Palin's fault. And Aly referred to the position of "Mark", who commented: "I notice Republicans are saying 'let's not politicise this' and then it's always Democrats that end up getting shot or killed." Aly acknowledged that perhaps the comment was "generalised". You can say that again. The targets of the previous two political assassinations in the US were Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Later in the program both Gearin and Aly acknowledged that all theories about Loughner's motives were speculative.

On ABC metropolitan radio Philip Clark expressed concern about the "extreme opinion" in the US political debate by what he termed the extreme right-wing. He mentioned Fox's Glenn Beck. And a listener phoned in criticising, you've guessed it, Israel.

Certainly both News Breakfast and metropolitan radio did hear alternative views. Yet the message of the presenters was to condemn shrillness in political debate. If ABC presenters are going to proclaim the need for high standards - and if the ABC managing director, Mark Scott, intends to continue delivering speeches about journalism - the public broadcaster should examine its own performance.

In recent times the ABC has used some of its taxpayer funding to move into opinion writing, which was once the preserve of newspapers and such online commercial publications as Crikey. Under Scott's management, ABC online publishes The Drum (for in-house journalists) and The Drum Unleashed (for outside contributors, many of whom are paid a fee).

On January 3 The Drum Unleashed ran a piece by Bob Ellis about NSW politics in which he predicted a Labor victory in March. Fair enough. Ellis is entitled to his opinion. What was unacceptable in his comment piece turned on the author's use of personal invective and sectarianism.

In a tirade of abuse, Ellis described Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell as "a serial fatty with an Irish name", depicted former Liberal leader John Brogden as "a suicide" and claimed that deputy Liberal leader Jillian Skinner "looks like a long-detested nagging landlady with four dead husbands and hairy shoulders".

In personal correspondence with me, Scott supported The Drum Unleashed's decision to publish Ellis's abuse-as-analysis. According to the ABC managing director, Ellis's article was "colourful" and "particularly robust". Moreover, it generated "more than 800 comments". Scott declined to reply as to whether he would have published such vindictive material if he were still a senior editorial executive at the Herald.

Presumably Scott would also defend The Drum Unleashed's decision to run an Ellis article on August 5 last year in which he asserted that Julia Gillard "has a merry laugh that has no equivalent in human behaviour, like a dead rabbit out of a threadbare hat, and moves not a few of us to nausea".

In September the ABC did remove from The Drum Unleashed website an article by ABC favourite Marieke Hardy which described Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne as "a douchebag". But it left untouched Hardy's earlier reference to Tony Abbott as a "lunatic".

The advent of the internet age has encouraged the rise of abuse as analysis. This is engaged in by the extremes of both sides of the political debate. Scott cannot change the culture of language. But he can lead by example. And ABC presenters can desist from criticising the language of others while the public broadcaster runs such abuse on its own website.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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