ABC Radio chastised for what James Valentine didn’t do or say

Valentine hits back at critics.

First a Comment from Peter Saxon

I’ve often pondered in these pages how it is that the most likely source of complaint about your station is from non-listeners who only heard about what was aired on another station – the one they normally listen to – or in other media be it television or online.

In fact, I must confess, that I hadn’t actually heard the offending segment myself about racism in chess, on James Valentine’s ABC Sydney afternoon show. I only heard about it on Ray Hadley’s 2GB morning show the next day.

I also read about it on that afternoon. That story generated 383 reader comments, almost all of them hostile towards the ABC. 

Here are a few examples…  


I think it’s time the ABC lost it’s Govt. funding. Everything I’ve seen so far from the ABC is divisive at best, only showing either one side to a story, or worse, not the entire story which gives it context. If they can’t, or wont produce unbiased reporting, then why should we, the people of Australia, fund the organisation and support extremists?


I think it’s high time the ABC was de-funded and became a subscription service only. The government could make the subscriptions tax deductible if it thinks it should support a national broadcaster.

These inner city wokes working in the ABC with their Marxist leaning arts degrees are making a mockery of the service at every bodies (sic) expense and probably rolling on their studio floors in fits of laughter that they are getting away with it. Enough!


Maybe if the media didn’t give these crazies a platform we wouldn’t have so much division in society?  

There were also calls for the ABC to not be so frivolous when there were more important topics to talk about such as COVID-19 and our deteriorating trade relationship with China.

It’s this kind of audience reaction that has made ABC bashing a go-to topic on a slow or less than brisk news day among some sections of commercial media. And as bash-worthy topics go, this was a beaut! Except it wasn’t. It was genuinely fake news. 

In a facebook post, reprinted below, James Valentine explains what actually did happen as well as provide us with an eloquent reminder of what radio is all about and why amusing your audience is a serious pursuit. Peter Saxon.


The ABC claims that chess is racist. Actually, it didn’t. I did. Only I didn’t. 

Someone else said I was going to. But I hadn’t. And I was never going to. 

This is likely to stay torturous. 

We’ll start here. 

On a Tuesday evening, Economist and Chess player John Adams put out this tweet. “I just received a phone call from an ABC Sydney based producer seeking a comment about the game of chess. The ABC have taken the view that chess is RACIST given that white always go first! They are seeking comment from a chess official as to whether the rules of chess need to be altered.”

He continued, “Trust the taxpayer funded national broadcaster to apply ideological Marxist frameworks to anything and everything in Australia! With all the drama resulting from COVID-19, I am amazed that the ABC is broadcasting on irrelevant topics.”

By the next morning Mr Adams is in the Daily Telegraph, and then on all the commercial talk shows airing his views. 

By the end of the day no less a chess grandee than Garry Kasparov has joined in, thundering about how nonsensical it was that at tax payer funded broadcaster would do such a thing, and by the end of the week it’s a story on Breitbart News.

So my program and my producers are pilloried around the world based on a statement made by someone else about a segment that hadn’t been broadcast. 

We hadn’t done it yet.

Now this does all get a bit he said/I said and there’s no reason to particularly believe my chronology but I will put at least two things up in my defence. 

It is very easy to find exactly what my radio show is all about. I direct you to some 60 episodes of Head Room, the podcast distilled from my weekday program. Here you will find me looking for Sydney Traffic Light Number One; determining why those who pronounce the eighth letter of the alphabet as ‘Aitch’ are so disturbed when someone pronounces it ‘Haitch’ – just two highlights from a long catalogue of quirky and hopefully amusing conversations with experts and callers. 

These conversations have a serious purpose. For over twenty years I’ve been broadcasting between the hours of 12.30 and 3.30 on ABC Radio Sydney. It’s a News/Talk station and I decided long ago that there were plenty of people doing the News and maybe I should do the Talk. 

In this I’m following exactly the brief, purpose and I would say, the sacred mission of Talk Radio.

At many points through the day, Talk Radio is about providing direct and accurate information. But at many others it is about providing company, solace and the sound of a friendly human voice for those who may be alone and would like to be amused, uplifted, stimulated, amazed and taken out of themselves.

This is not a trivial purpose. There are many who seek it and if they need it, they really need it. Talk radio at this point is not a distraction or background noise. It’s a relationship. 

When the nation was on fire, I broadcast news about the fire. That’s how I spent Black Summer. When the floods followed only weeks after the smoke had cleared, I broadcast news about the floods. When the sickness came and all was closed down, I didn’t talk about anything else. 

But of late, I have returned to my usual mix; quirky, whimsical, funny, observational ideas drawn from my life, my listener’s life, my producer’s life, anywhere we can find something which might allow us to illuminate a little more of the human condition and amuse someone in a delivery van, or working in a back warehouse, or at home caring for elderly or young charges.

I do three hours a day, five days a week. There is a five minute news bulletin at the top of the hour, some thirty second promos, perhaps a music track. But otherwise we talk, fifty minutes in the hour.

There’s nothing on this earth we are not going to have a crack at.

My second item of evidence is the original tweet which sparked my interest.

I read a tweet from a father teaching his child chess. The child asked, “why does white always go first?” The father paused, aware of current cultural context and wondered exactly how to answer. He wondered if there was any racial background to the rule. 

He posted and there followed an interesting and engaging thread of comments. Some ridiculed any notion of race, some went to the history books, some considered the question in the light of these times and the cultural and linguistic truth that white is always a positive and black always a negative. 

I think: there’s a fifteen minute radio discussion. Why does white go first in chess, what is the history of that and ( here’s the important bit really ) given current cultural trends is there any discussion in chess circles about this?

I haven’t decided that chess is racist. I am not looking for someone to say that chess is racist. I’m not saying chess people should be talking about this. I’m just wondering if they do.

I am looking to create some conversation that will be fresh, that will keep someone interested and that will tell us something more about our world and why it is the way it is. 

My producer did exactly what producers should do. She sought out an expert and asked them for information. Mr Adams said he was no longer very active in chess circles and suggested someone else that we could turn to. 

Before we put anything to air, before we’d decided whether we’d put anything to air, Mr Adams declared that the ABC thought chess was racist and this was again our Marxist ideology at play. 

There is always a tendency to talk of ‘the ABC.’ As though it is one thing. It’s not. It’s dozens of things. We are Triple J, Double J, ABC Classic and ABC Country. We are RN and Local Radio. 

That’s six different radio and digital broadcasts right there. And Local Radio is sixty different radio stations across Australia, from Hobart to Darwin, from Broome to Cairns.

I’m on the Sydney one. Broadcasting to a Sydney audience, in the afternoon. While I’m doing that ABC News is still doing the news, Four Corners is four cornering, Bluey is being Bluey and Costa is doing whatever he does with compost.

To accuse the ABC of ignoring major and important events because of one segment that I’m doing makes as much sense as ripping into us because the ABC has a program that thinks it’s vital to tell Australians what day it is. We do have a program that does that. It’s called Playschool. 

And as for the constant notion that we are still in thrall to Marx and work tirelessly to overthrow our capitalist oppressors? Please. I have a music degree. I barely know what Marxist ideology is. 

So, we did do the segment the next day as we intended. I spoke to Kevin Bonham, Vice President of Australian Chess Federation who outlined the history – white moving first was standardised in the 1880s , the reason – lots of things were standardised to make it easier to communicate about the game; and the suggestion that it had anything to do with race?

“Not really,” he said, “but the topic does come up and is discussed.”

John Adams said the same thing in one of his interviews while blasting us for broaching the topic. If the topic comes up and is discussed, then I conclude it’s ok for us to discuss the topic. 

At the conclusion of the on-air discussion , I made the following quip. 

“Well, I think we can conclude that chess is not racist, it’s tradition and no more than that. But don’t worry we won’t rest there. Tomorrow I want to consider if the Key of C Major is racist. All those white keys on the piano what message does that send? And I think you’d have to say F Major with that one black key is somewhat tokenistic. We will also consider if liking Migaloo the White Whale is racist. All the other humpbacks are black but we single out that white one, don’t we? And finally I think Minties should come in black and white.”

This was delivered I like to think in a fairly heavy handed sarcastic tone and for those familiar with my program, I think they would have got the joke.

The Daily Telegraph the next day – we got two days coverage – wrote a summary of what we’d done on air, concluding with “Valentine also thinks that Minties are wrong because they are white.”

Talk about the killing the punchline. 

At the end of it all, it was Breitbart news wrote a perfectly fair summary of what had occurred, saying “When Valentine went to air, he quickly made clear that they had approached Mr Adams to have a discussion not to brand chess as racist.”

Thank you.

So it’s true, there are more far more important things to consider than the pre-lash I dealt with this week. But it is in a context of constant attack on public broadcasting around the world. It does show that if anyone put an ideological framework over a simple inquiry from a radio producer it wasn’t us. And it illustrates how a story like this can be concocted and become a truth for many. 

If this is what happens to my tiny tale, I despair of what might be done to something that actually matters.


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