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It’s time to scrap Australian Story

In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa famously rehashed the words of Samuel Johnson by describing prayer as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. But that isn’t true. There’s always Australian Story.

At first blush, ABC TV’s long-running program might not seem like much of a magnet for controversy. Its episodes comprise personality-focused, empathy-building, talking heads fests with a sweet and humane core: This Is Is Your Life for a more sophisticated, latte-sipping crowd.

The vices of its subjects are brushed over and/or halfheartedly considered. The perspective of the show tell us that the positives of a person’s life and character are more worthy of attention than the negatives. That may be a fine philosophy to adopt in one’s day-to-day existence. But when applied to a current affairs program that investigates people of influence, whose ideologies and actions can be controversial and far-reaching, it becomes painfully problematic.

For people like Sam Dastyari, Australian Story is a godsend; a perfect tool for rebranding and professional rehabilitation.

Last week’s episode Playing With Fire, about the life of disgraced Labor senator Sam Dastyari, is a case in point. Outraged political opponents of Dastyari, and of the ABC, swooped in like starved vultures, arguing the network had delivered nothing more than a puff piece – timed to coincide with the release of Dastyari’s new book.

The show addresses the elephant in the room (last year’s expenses scandal that saw Dastyari retire from the front bench) in a typically Australian Story-like, no-hard-questions way. There is a mention of it at the start, with a grab from George Brandis condemning his actions, as if to indicate that the episode will be framed in an objective manner.

Dastyari’s parents, reflecting on war torn Iran, explain to us that their son’s indiscretion means little in the scheme of things. His wife tells us the debacle was actually a good thing: it forced him to slow down, reflect, stop working at such a cracking pace.

If you’ve ever answered “I’m a perfectionist” during a job interview, addressing the question of what your greatest flaw is (or “I have trouble switching off”) you can relate to what they’re doing. It’s about framing a negative as a positive, and entrusting that the listener will accept – or at least tolerate – the pish-posh and move on.

It is the profiles of influential people (which presumably get the best ratings) that most draw attention to Australian Story‘s problematic underpinning ethos.

On the other side of politics, the most recent episode about Malcolm Turnbull, The Making of Malcolm (to use one of countless examples) is just as blatantly skewed, with the critical depth of a greeting card. Perhaps we should refer to the Prime Minister as “Malco”, as he at one point refers to himself, following the words “poor” and “little”, speaking in front of a log fire on the subject of a toy bunny. Poor little Malco is introduced on horseback and seems like a swell guy. His greatest regret in life is not having more kids.

We are living in a time when encouraging critical analysis of media content is more important than ever. With news rooms confronting decimated resources, the appeal of cutting corners and/or rehashing press release is strong. As is the temptation of sensational, hot-and-cold, P.T. Barnum-esque headlines, informing us that whatever matter in question is the best or worst of its kind. Most of us also acknowledge that we live in bubbles and ideological, social media-reinforced echo chambers that reinforce our own opinions and preconceptions.

As Australian Story unwittingly but rather shamelessly demonstrates, virtually any kind of controversy or wrongdoing, committed by virtually any kind of person, can be re-engineered to reflect the opposite. Trump calls this “fake news.” Orwell called it “doublethink.”

If Australian Story were to profile Adolf Hitler, much would be made of his time as an arts student. A friend or family member, perhaps speaking in front of a log fire, might reflect on Dolfy’s political views using words like “controversial”. If you think that comparison is outrageous, you might not have seen Australian Story‘s sympathetic portrait of Robert Farquharson, a man found guilty (twice) of murdering three children.

The kind of ‘take their word for it’ approach epitomised by Australian Story is not just lazy; it’s dangerous.

The quality of the episodes, like any program, varies from week to week, as does the nature and status of the subjects. Many are not famous, but it is the profiles of influential people (which presumably get the best ratings) that most draw attention to Australian Story‘s problematic underpinning ethos. The very structure of the program discourages considered thought and critical thinking.

Not every television program needs to be – or should be – overtly cynical; gotcha-fests revelling in the ‘art’ of catching of people with their proverbial pants down. But the kind of ‘take their word for it’ approach epitomised by Australian Story is not just lazy; it’s dangerous. It doesn’t take a genius or a media expert to envision how this might be taken advantage of (and already has, on many occasions). For people like Dastyari, Australian Story is a godsend; a perfect tool for rebranding and professional rehabilitation.

Premiering in May 1996, the show has had a good run. The time has come to axe it. Or maybe it could be saved by fundamentally redeveloping the premise. A similar format could be used, for example, to focus exclusively on groups of people whose lives have been given short shrift when it comes to media attention on mainsream networks: like the disabled, the sexually and racially diverse, the poor and downtrodden.

As it stands, Australian Story is a news program without a meaningful perspective or ideology. Or, worse, an ideology that bends every week according to its subjects, who may or may not be scoundrels. There is no place for it.

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Main image: Sam Dastyari as a schoolboy on Australian Story

84 responses to “It’s time to scrap Australian Story

  1. I can’t help but agree with the author. It is always the “influential” people in politics, business and sport who are given massive preferential treatment by this program. It operates as a sort of lifestyle of the rich and infamous – particularly in the case of politicians and business leaders. It expects us to sympathise with whatever plight they have inflicted on themselves. It operates a sort of absolution process. For people like Dastyari – who didn’t want to pay his bills. For Rhinehart and Turnbull? And the show expects us to feel his pain when the common person has to fork out for whatever expenses he or she incurs. What next? A piece on how Ivan Milat was some misunderstood child who was not given enough of a good upbringing or was given too long a leash to roam with that he couldn’t tell right from wrong, good from evil. I agree it has lost its original premise and it is too late to reinvent itself. The ABC is all about ratings with shows like these – puff pieces, light and airy. It has had some good episodes in the past and I like its focus on the downside of life on some of its participants but when it comes to controversial elites who do dodgy things it has lost me and I don’t think it can recover. Best we forget.

  2. I once, many years ago, heard an ABC camera operator tell why they didn’t like working on Aust Story: it was the diligent prepping of subjects to say just what the producer required, even if it took a dozen takes. First think of a story that a subject might have, then find that subject and make them tell the desired story. Exaggerated? Relic of the past?

  3. Australian Story isn’t a current affairs program … I think the writer kinda missed that glaring point. That show that comes on a few minutes later … that’s the current affairs thingy … and they actually did a bit on Sam’s Chinese stuff up. It’s was good to complete the picture of Sam on Australian Story, keep up the good work!

  4. I gave Australian Story the “big miss” after The Rinehart interview which was, for anyone with any sensitivity, simply odious.

    The “Deny!” “Deny”! “Deny” syndrome was in play from the word, Go! Excusism also played its part, rationalising aberrant behaviour
    such as the off-hand way the asbestos scandal was handled. Largely unchallenged, by the way.

    My reaction was disbelief – an unpaid commercial on the national broadcaster.

    Now? It’s a dead man walking.

    In short: your article is timely and entirely apropos..

  5. Australian Story is one of the most interesting shows on television And that includes the one on Sam Dastyari who is, whatever you think of him, an interesting politician Tonight’s episode on a woman who had attempted suicide could not have been done better, And it was also socially responsible as a suicide prevention program. Who can forget the two Chinese, one a Maths teacher and the other, a lawyer working in a school Or the profile of Cheng, the comedian?. One of the most rewarding shows on ABC There is no end to the fascination of the human personality, and Australian Story presents them, and their story so well..

    1. It would be a damn sight more interesting if they had asked DustyAiry why he took sides with China against Australia (and the rest of the world) publicly.

      Reality = Australian Story either needs to find some journalistic integrity or be classed as programming for children.

  6. Perhaps if we should have ‘UnAustralian Story’ and then we could pillory everyone all the more.
    ‘Australian Story’ is old because it’s lasted. It had its origins in ‘The Search for Meaning’. Caroline Jones is a great old trouper and she added a human touch in the middle of the snarling dog pack.

  7. I don’t want to see Australian Story get the chop but I just wish they would re-fresh the format a bit! Does every episode have to end with the subject gazing reflectively into a golden sunset? Or at some point be filmed strolling through a park or along a beach staring with a serious expression into the middle distance?

  8. Although agreeing with the Buckmaster critique of the Sam Dastyari slot on Australian Story, the reason for my wilful refusal to watch the program is because the subject seemingly had to be famous; a famous sports person suffering a terrible disease, a famous sports person who kicked a football, a famous sports person who had found god; or anyone with an incurable disease which is in remission.

    Such dolorous subject matter, especially in the middle of winter is enough to make me contemplate slitting my wrists. So adieu Australian Story. No vale la pena.

    1. You nailed it Venise! It started off as low-key stories about under-recognized Australians doing good works and somehow morphed into the tripe you have described so perfectly.

  9. Right so you’ve picked 3 or 4 examples out of the years of programs and ignored all the good ones which told an interesting, personal, Australian story, or raised awareness of serious environmental or social issues. This is current affairs with a human, personal element and there is not much like it (if anything) on Australian TV. Just because the format does not exactly fit your definition of current affairs doesn’t make it less worthy. Part of the point is seeing how people try to redefine and justify their mistakes so they can move on – that’s a very human and inevitable behaviour. We’re not stupid enough to take it at face value and be suddenly miraculously convinced of the innocence of this week’s subject.

    Anyway, along with other commenters, you lost me at “latte-sipping”.

    1. More bloody awareness raising on first world problems?? Couldn’t care less.
      How was anyone’s awareness raised by the DustyAiry PR stunt? It failed to address the most serious transgression a politician can make.

  10. I enjoyed the Dastyari backstory, but thought the producers could have gone a bit harder on the Chinese donations angle. It didn’t have to dominate the show, but it needed to be harder, considering the proximity in time to those events. I wonder if anyone has the story about how the Dastyari show got to air. That might be interesting.

    1. Yes. That would be good to know. Howver I suspect all we would get would be, ‘We often promote ABC programs within the ABC’ and neatly sidestep the true motives behind it.

  11. The problem is that it exists within the mindset of ABC News and Current Affairs–a walled garden of muddled progressive biases. The ABC should be honest enough to admit the obvious: it just can’t get out of the same old progressive groove even as society around it changes and abandons the left/right binary system. Australian Story is just tired–so reinvigorate it by opening up the slot to non-ABC staff.

    1. Yep. Maybe they could replace it with ‘Planet Europe’ shedding light on people like Jeremy Corbyn and his party’s love of South American dictators who torture and murder people.

  12. Leave Australian Story alone. I like the format in that you don’t hear the questions from the journalists. It’s just people telling their side of the story. Yes, sometimes they’ve screwed up with their stories. But, that shouldn’t justify cutting the show out. Improve it, but don’t remove it from the ABC.

  13. Buckmaster says Australian Story’s approach is lazy while resorting to tired cliches like “latte sippers”. Spare me. In the course of its long run, Australian Story has, of course, had its share of missteps. The Mary Moody episode (way back in 2003) certainly seemed like a promo for an upcoming book. The 2011 Farquharson story was roundly and rightly criticised – not least by the ABC’s Media Watch. The Malcolm Turnbull story was soft. There may be many more examples, but they are exceptions. Australian Story has provided some of the most inspiring and thoughtful stories I’ve seen in more than 50 years of watching Oz television. It is unique. It’s an institution. Baby, bathwater.

    1. I totally agree with Steve’s comments. I found the pathetic “latte sippers” reference put me off from the start. Can we stop the name calling and putting people in boxes, a more nuanced commentary would be appreciated. Australian Story has had many high and low moments over time. Viewers can watch and decide for themselves. The previous week’s episode on our local doctor James Best and his son was delightful.

      1. You could form a lobby group called “MorallyVainLatteSippersInInnerSuburbanCitiesOfAustraliaAgainstThe Deplorables”
        -MVLSIISCOAATD……………………………………for short.

  14. A tad harsh Luke. We watch Australian Story because it is a bit light and we will learn about a mix of Australians. Yes a few things were missed about Dartyari but we know those anyway. And I agree, save your wrath for something meaningful. We have to help the refugees on Manus and Nauru, that’s where we should put our energy.

  15. “ … unwittingly but rather shamelessly … ” is a direct quote from this story.

    If it’s unwitting, then there is no deliberative agenda-pushing, so how can it be shameless?

    Unless of course that’s a *subjective* conclusion of a viewer. Or writer. ;o)

  16. In May 2013 Australian Story aired a profile of ultra conservative shock jock, Ray Hadley. In 2006 they went to Antarctica with Barnaby Joyce. Swings and roundabouts people. It’s just a tv show. Save your outrage for something worthwhile. Get over it.

  17. Axing Australian Story would be equivalent to the ABC axing of Catalyst due to some specific issues. Instead, just address any issues that exist and (if required) refocus Australian Story to the format that it “originally” had. Perhaps it needs some downtime in order to identify more deserving subjects? I chose not to tune in to this rather unappetising “portrait” of Dastyari but would point out that Australian Story has provided some superb TV fare in the past and it does not deserve to be canned. As has already been said, that would be throwing baby out with bathwater. In a way, AS has covered a similar area as the old Weekend Magazine used to cover on Sunday nights, with an almost non-newslike approach to it’s stories – and of coure, there were overly serious people at the time who didn’t like WM either…

  18. Save us from the optically challenged critics. I read outside my own political realm in order to see the other sides of the argument. Your opinion on Dastyari is just one. I choose to hear others, even his own. Shut down the program because you don’t like it? I have heard that song too often.

  19. “Australian Story is a news program without a meaningful perspective or ideology. ”

    Isn’t that the point? It is not investigative in the way other programs are supposed to be. However, Lateline, or 7.30 or the lame (defunded) science programs we get these days are the ones deserving a hard kick from you not the personality-driven “lite” programming of AS. It also clearly tries to cover the nation, city, town and country. I usually watch the first few minutes to see if it might be worth my time but I’d say about 50% of AS broadcasts get me channel surfing because a lot of them are pure treacle and more worthy of the commercial channel populist pap. However that doesn’t mean I want to see its demise. The Dastyari program was far more interesting and informative than many of AS coverage of some superannuated sports star. It does fulfil a useful function and it would be just yet another surrender to the downward slide we see with the ABC if it was axed. Probably replaced with some pseudo-reality show.

  20. This is pretty bad.
    Rehabilitation is a possible consequence of the show permitting a commonly accepted audience-based shriving, but it’s not automatic. We the audience decide if it worked.
    Calling for it to be axed rather than having a shake-up (until the very end of the piece) is second rate click bait reviewing.

    Only bright spot was seeing “Quisling” misused in a review that broke Godwin’s law.

  21. 1,000,000 per cent corect, Luke. (I cannot believe I just typed that. No offence.)

    He also got free radio promotion around the country courtesy of the ABC and you and me. I think he got 30 minutes on the ABC across all of W.A. The interviewer asked Sam the ferret about the money he got from the Chinese government. Then just fluff

    He was NOT grilled about the public comments he made supporting the Chinese communist government position about annexing the South China Sea against the stated position of the Australian government, his own damn party and international law!!

    Australian Story has acquired the standard of a first year uni student; one who achieves a 61% score and a comment to improve levels of objectivity.
    As with others, I gave up watching their peurile trash a few years back. Now I want my money back

    Journalistic integrity? They flushed it down plumbing some time ago.

    1. Really Brett. Your sound like a slavish wannabe. There is no real reason to shut down a show that doesn’t kow tow to the “hard hitting” Current Affair garbage that is so common to the commercial channels. If you don’t like there’s always another programme to flick to.
      Like others have said in this thread “Baby, Bathwater”.

      1. Really Lesley. I am no wannabe.
        I sleep well at night for no other reason than I have actually done things over more than a decade that have materially and socially profoundly improved the lives of over 7000 people. I did this willingly and at great cost. DustyAiry will never achieve this unless he does it at the expense of the Australian people……for China.

        I note you didn’t address his support of Chinese communist interests ahead of ours.

  22. Tad harsh, Luke. Sure it wasn’t the right subject for Australian Story, but you make it sound like it’s always like that, and I call that misleading and disingenuous. Kinda like politicians. I doubt if even Dastyari has the clout to manipulate ABC in that way.

  23. Australian Story is not an investigative, current affairs programme. That’s not its remit. In that context, it probably should never profile politicians or people around whom controversy swirls. That aspect of its charter should probably be tightened up.

    But to say that it should be axed and import irrelevant, tired tropes into your argument – Hitler for goodness sake – to support that argument, is an extreme solution to a minor problem.

    1. “In that context, it probably should never profile politicians or people around whom controversy swirls.”

      That is ridiculous. It is “Australian Story” and you want to exclude those Australians who most influence our lives? It’s not as if many of their programs include politicians but I happen to believe Dastyari’s story deserved an airing. Those who object are just identifying themselves as like One Nation, wanting to cripple the ABC (and SBS) by restricting them to anodyne pap.

      1. I couldn’t agree with you more Michael. I do sense a certain level of disdain for Dastyari, I wonder whether there is certain level of racism behind it. I hope I’m wrong. I do wonder if there is a resistance towards someone like Sam who has done well in his adopted country, even though this particular AS programme was aired at a time that could be seen as particularly convenient.
        I do think that in this day and age with product placement & commercial gains at every level, things happen & people if they want to know more, they can go & buy his book . I honestly can’t see what the kerfuffle’s about.

  24. It’s interesting how few people engage with the thrust of your argument in their comments.
    I think Sam Dastyari should have been given the arse from this parliament and maybe this will happen at the next election.

    1. Agreed. The thrust of the argument is the most important. Being a part of Dastyari/Labor’s whitewash process is just plain anti true journalism.

      If it is not meant to be factual, label it as light fiction or put an election style disclaimer in there.

  25. It is rewarding to discover the background, pursuits, ideals and life of Australians we know of rather than so much overseas material
    (frequently angled for proprietors) on the commercials. If a feature has been going for so long, surely its because its watched?

    1. I agree with you Louise. I want to know about who they are, what motivates them.
      What experiences have shaped the people they have become. We are all human and especially in this day & age where commercial & business interests seem to be overwhelmingly driving much of the discussion. The real sense of who an individual is, and what drives them as a person is not only refreshing, but allows people to connect to people that we often only see in short 15 second sound bites, which often doesn’t really give any indication of who the person really is.
      Yes the commercial channels have a real hold on the media, but the ABC still has a place in our modern Australian landscape.

      1. People with ‘commercial and business interests’ are the only people who roll up their own sleeves and make people’s lives better. Sorry.

  26. I think it should not be dropped, it should tell Australian stories that about people who overcome adversity people from diverse areas of the country. It is a valuable tool that can bring a better understanding of the diversity of Australian people and the areas the come from. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  27. We like Australian Story, be it old or not and there are always different opinions about it but in general it’s OK ,Dastyari is a weird guy but is a person with a story, the ABC gives us alternatives the commercials do not, they are all biased one way ,to get a dollar in the bank , I do not think Hitler would be looked at in a favourable manner by the show ,so I think, Luke is showing his bias and ideology here !

    1. The money was not the worst of it. Not so long ago he would hve been executed for treason for publicly supporting the Chinese government’s annexing of the South China Sea in violation of the interests of Australia, not to mention actively supporting breaches of international maritime law.

      1. Brett do you understand what being caught & accused of treason actually means? Your ignorance is astounding. Go and look up what treason actually means. To be accused of treason Australia needs to be at war with China, and last time I checked there has been no declaration of war between our 2 countries you need to actually ensure you know what you’re saying before you say it.Execution!!! really!!! Oh! also keep in mind there are varying levels of corruption that are endemic in many Asian/ Russian levels of government. Their rules regulations, & changes around corruption are problematic, for foreign investors the changes around this can & do occur at a blindingly swift rate. Having had a relative that was negotiating legal contracts with Russian business people many years ago & because he wasn’t aware of the changing governmental legislation regulation toward foreign investment he nearly ended up in Jail for a long, long time, he didn’realise he’d made such a major error. This is what can happen when doing business with overseas companies & indirectly governments this also applies to the Chinese government’s situation the game can & does change so very suddenly.

        1. Lesley you are sooo consdescending….and so wrong. Are you his sister or something.
          When you believe in things you don’t understand, superstition rules the land (with apologies to Stevie Wonder)

        2. Just for you information:

          * levies war, or does an act preparatory to levying war against the Commonwealth;
          -Chapter 4.4, Treason, Section 80.1

  28. Spot on, Luke. That this quisling was given any airtime by the national broadcaster says it all. Not the slightest bit interested in any attempt to airbrush his shameful behaviour. Taking 20 pieces of silver to sell his country down the drain should damn him to a long spell in the Tower where hopefully he’s never heard from again. AS producers should be ashamed …
    Uncle Chuck

    1. You need to get a grip on reality, Chuck, if you think that Sam Dastyari is anything like in the top ten or twenty of political culprits. There are far more politicians and ex-politicians worthy of your spite, and who have done actual damage to Australian interests (such as Andrew Robb, Martin Ferguson, Ian McFarlane, John Anderson etc all of whom have worked for either directly-controlled Chinese companies or big miners or their proxies. Not to mention the dozen of NSW Liberal MPs who have been sacked because of the ICAC.) Dastyari is not even in government. Yet I suppose Matt Canavan’s blatant and tireless work for Adani is in the Australian interest? And who do you think Canavan will go to work for if/when he leaves parliament?

      1. Exactly Michael these people are worrying far too much over something is at lowest level of pecking order. This is why big business needs to be kept at a distance from government there is to much muddying of the waters, in either parties, to many hands in back pockets making promises & deals that are often not in Australia’s interests, especially Adani.

  29. Your equivalence of Robert Farquharson (3 dead) and Hitler (millions dead) to support a conditional argument (“IF Australian Story were to profile Adolf Hitler” – my emphasis) is ridiculous.

    Singling out Australian Story as a programme to be scrapped because of it’s lack of “…meaningful perspective or ideology…” suggests that you don’t actually watch much TV.

    1. The equivalence is entirely justified in this case. Murder violates the sanctity of human life.
      It is the most evil of all crimes. It means the end of hope for any and all humans murdered and their families and friends.
      The difference between Farquarson and Hitler is in scale but not in the nature of the evil. Neither is remotely close to status as a human being.

      Also the ABC has form elsewhere. Elle McFeast had a very loving interview with murderer, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. She is the same ABC apparatchik who called a female (liberal of course) politician a bitch; this interview was gleefully put to air a few years back.

      1. Buckmaster’s comment was that “If Australian Story were to profile Adolf Hitler …” then “… the treatment would be like the sympathetic portrait of Robert Farquharson…” His comparison of AS’s treatment of Hitler and Farquarson was based on that conditional statement.

        The “then” part is only true if the “if” condition is met. As far as I know, no AS programme about Hitler has been made or is being proposed. So the condition on which he bases his equivalence is not true.

        I’m not standing up for AS (or Hitler for that matter), but I know a logical fallacy when I see one.

      2. So comparing Elle McFeast, which was satire, with Australian Story, you think this makes an argument Brett. There needs to be all sorts of observations around people & situations so as to see how they view the world from very different aspects. You also miss the difference between Hitler’s ideology & Farquarson, I know that Hitler ended up with his own agenda & political & ethnic cleansing approach toward certain groups of people. So really the comparison between the two leaves a lot to be desired.
        How you view things are obviously very different to how others experience them. Here’s a concept Brett if you don’t like the ABC don’t watch it, there are still plenty of people that do.

        1. The Elle Mc Feast interview was not satire. It was actually under her real name. I used to it to show disrespect.

          Your selective memory has delivered the inevitable; it was very controversial at the time for the reasons I alluded to.

          Seriously. Are you DustyAiry’s sister or spousal equivalent unit?

  30. Don’t axe it, just take it away from the News department and have it produced by real television people so it doesn’t have to have an “agenda”.

    1. You can’t get more ‘real television people’ than the Aus Story crew. Take it away from the News Dept and it will indulge in confusing ‘production flare’ at the expense of ‘clear story line’.

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