The News Corporation attacks on the ABC are as frequent as they are predictable. But there are some concessions Aunty could make to reduce perceptions of bias.
We should all count ourselves fortunate that we have News Corp to explain for us the ABC’s manifold deficiencies. Even better, Rupert Murdoch’s minions have the remedies instantly to hand. Friday’s lead editorial in The Australiansolved the whole problem at a stroke: “What the ABC needs is leadership.”
Presumably this is the type of leadership that turns a blind eye to phone hacking and bribing the police, and to trading in your citizenship for profit. Or maybe it’s leadership that comes in the form of overnight tweets from the proprietor to his senior executives laying out the preferred editorial line on the issues of the day. (Mind you, ABC boss Mark Scott does Aunty no favours with his own brand of compulsive Twitter twaddle. It can only be a matter of time before he thumbs something careless that compromises both himself and the corporation.)
Meanwhile, there can be no doubt that Ultimo HQ is already feeling the heat from the daily barrage of anti-ABC commentary and editorials in News Corp outlets. On December 5, Andrew Bolt’s column was headed “Time we blew the whistle on ABC bias”. Exactly a week later — hey presto! — ABC chairman Jim Spigelman announces in Canberra that Aunty will conduct a series of external “editorial audits” into the ABC’s news and current affairs output to assess allegations of bias and/or lack of balance by journalists. What a remarkable coincidence.
Spigelman may have been a distinguished lawyer but, so far, he’s showing himself as a poor strategist when it comes to defending the independence of the nation’s public broadcaster. He and Scott most probably think their announcement of an external review process will draw the teeth of the anti-ABC forces in the Coalition before they have a chance to do the broadcaster any real harm. Not likely.
In truth, it’s a doomed pre-emptive buckle. Why? Because implicit in the notion of editorial “audits” is the unspoken concession that bias already exists. From that point the argument simply descends into competing evaluations of how much bias — and the battle is already lost. On the day the “audit” announcement was reported, Greg Sheridan was quick to pounce on that weakness, writing:
“… Spigelman did concede that episodes of bias occur in ABC news and current affairs. Surely no one seriously contests that the culture across almost all ABC radio and TV programs remotely concerned with politics is centre-left and beyond.”
He may even have a point, but allegations of political bias in broadcasting are much easier to make than to prove. The difficulties spring principally from issues of definition and perception. We can all understand the “bias is in the eye of the beholder” problem. Subjectivity will always colour our views of political reporting and analysis.
But who can say with any certainty where the precise fulcrum-point of the Left/Right political divide now lies? What, today, constitutes real balance?
“This from the same people who want to lecture us about bias and journalistic ethics at the ABC.”
The political “centre” has drifted a very long way to the Right of the soup spoon over the past 15 years. The long John Howard incumbency made what had previously been thought of as highly conservative positions gradually seem more like the middle ground. And that shift has stuck. Quite moderate social/democratic views are now branded “leftist”, a term that carries with it dog whistle hints of Bolshevik totalitarianism. Don’t believe me? Here’s Andrew Bolt last week:
“The ABC is not just biased. It is a massive organ of state media, strangling private voices and imposing a Leftist orthodoxy that thinks it fine to publish security secrets and sinful to report the secrets of global warmists.”
Yesterday, in The Sunday Telegraph, Miranda Devine showed she had this Murdoch mantra down pat, urging a break-up of the ABC to “disempower Left-Green inner-city elites who control the culture”. There’s little point dignifying such Tea Party tripe with a reasoned response, but there are some practical things the ABC could do to spike the guns now aimed at its news and current affairs programming.
The first — and this mainly concerns Aunty’s news bulletins — is to impose much firmer editorial control over the writing of “links”, the newsreader’s introductions to reported stories. Lamely aping their commercial rivals, the ABC has succumbed to the false attraction of chatty, conversational opening paragraphs. Stuff that begins “It was another bad day for the government …” or “The Minister struggled to answer questions today …”. Inevitably, intros in this style contain value judgements, and judgements will always invite allegations of bias. Much safer to cut those unnecessary opening lines and just start with the facts.
The second initiative relates to current affairs. For some reason the flagship programs — 7.30, Four Corners, AM and PM — long ago abandoned the useful format of studio debates. Instead, we now have a succession of one-on-one interviews during which the ABC reporters usually try to make themselves a reputation by hectoring their guests. That aggression is easily equated by critics with bias.
Why not return to the simple practice of inviting both sides to debate an issue, with the ABC journalist in the role of moderator, rather than combative interlocutor? Genuine balance may not always result, but at least it will be seen to be done. It is difficult to sustain an allegation of bias when both sides of a political issue have had an equal opportunity to present their arguments.
None of this, of course, interests the News Corp brigade of anti-ABC commentators. They don’t want constructive suggestions, they want blood. Day after day (and often twice a day) they trundle out the same charges: the ABC is a worker’s collective; the ABC is funded by taxpayers who don’t want it; the ABC is a sheltered workshop captive to inner-city greenies; the ABC is dominated by former Labor staffers; the ABC sneers at ordinary Australians; the ABC is a bloated, lazy bureaucracy; ABC journalists ignore facts and skew their reporting to suit a political agenda.
Well, on that last charge you’d have to admit the Holt Street commentariat know of which they speak. Here’s the key line from a November 9 editorial in The Australian on the proposed changes to section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which, with solipsistic vanity, they like to call the “Bolt Laws” even though that legislation was enacted 16 years earlier):
“Bolt’s columns did contain some errors of fact and they might well have caused offence. But so what?”
This from the same people who want to lecture us about bias and journalistic ethics at the ABC.