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Audits clear ABC of bias, but don’t expect critics to listen

The ABC has started conducting regular audits of bias in its news coverage. The first two, released today, posed nothing to worry about.

Two ABC audits have found no widespread bias in the national broadcaster’s news coverage. But a clean bill of health for the ABC is unlikely to soothe its detractors.

Last December, ABC chairman James Spigelman said the public broadcaster would begin conducting four audits a year looking for bias in its news coverage. Spigelman told the National Press Club:

Since my appointment I have naturally been concerned with the frequency of allegations of a lack of impartiality. I do not accept that it is systematic, but I do accept that it sometimes occurs. Every news and current affairs program endeavours to ensure balance, whilst avoiding the pitfall of irrelevant dullness.”

This morning, the first two reviews were released, and they pose little to worry about for the public broadcaster. One of this morning’s audits, by the BBC’s former chief editorial policy adviser Andrea Wills, dealt with ABC radio’s coverage of the 2013 election. While it made some suggestions, it concluded that the ABC had done no wrong:

On the whole interviewers asked well-informed and relevant questions that their audience would reasonably expect to hear, and they were robust and consistent in their dealings with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. I have to say that it was impossible to detect any actual ‘pre-judgement’ or personal positions of interviewers in this sample.

Finally, I concluded that the 23 items analysed for this editorial audit were duly impartial within themselves and complied with Section 4 of the ABC’s Editorial Policies.”

Another audit, by former SBS director (and Coalition appointee) Gerald Stone, dealt with the ABC’s coverage of asylum seekers on Lateline and 7.30. This review was more critical — finding four reports (out of a total 97 examined) where editorial standards appeared to have lapsed — but it also cleared the ABC of biased reporting on the issue in its conclusion:

In the course of this audit I have routinely checked for indicators of bias as typical TV viewers might believe they have detected it. Were interviewers tougher on some and notably softer on others? Did there appear to be an uneven distribution of time given to one topic or another? One political side or another? To academics and other expert commentators espousing humanitarian views as opposed to those more concerned with the practical need to protect Australia’s borders and deter people from resorting to people smugglers?

As an independent observer, I found no grounds for concern in any of those measurements.

The overall coverage of both programs included as wide a range of opinions as practical. Meanwhile, the air time given to any particular topic was in keeping with the newsworthiness of the asylum seeker debate as it progressed through the weeks nominated for this audit.”

Most concerning to Stone was a 2012 Lateline report in which Helen Brown visited an impoverished Indonesian fishing village, home to people smugglers held in Australian jails. “The segment appeared to have only one purpose — to exploit the bias of imagery to evoke sympathy for crew members of people-smuggling vessels,” Stone wrote.

He also criticised the interview with the people smugglers’ lawyer, who he said made dubious claims without being questioned on them. “It portrayed them — without any semblance of proof — as frequently misled as to their real mission and too naive to understand why they are offered more money for one voyage than the average Indonesian fisherman makes in a year,” he wrote. ABC news director Kate Torney accepted the criticism that more scrutiny should have been applied.

Another Lateline story came in for criticism from for supporting the claim that Australia’s treatment of Tamil refugees is so inhumane that it should not sit on the UN Security Council (Stone said many countries with far worse human rights records sat on the council).

Another segment, aired on 7.30, was deemed not to have made it clear that a Tamil asylum seeker’s claims about being tortured by Sri Lankan intelligence officers had not been proven, with the asylum seeker himself saying he couldn’t be sure who tortured him. Stone said the story should have used the word “alleged” in relation to the claim — the program responded that it wouldn’t have fit its conversational style.

Another segment, also with Tamil asylum seekers, did not probe their responses enough, Stone wrote.

Stone’s review only considered reports aired from August 2012 and December 2013. This means the most controversial ABC story on the issue — George Roberts’ piece reporting claims that the Australian navy had burnt the hands of asylum seekers en route to Indonesia — was not examined in the audit. It aired on January 22 this year.

Spigelman has welcomed both audits, saying they showed “95% of the content examined attracted no criticism or concern”:

Consistent with other processes, these reviews have once again demonstrated that against the background of thousands of stories produced … The error rate is quite small.”

The next review, the chairman revealed, will be into how well the ABC’s daily radio programs cover the issues that matter to their audiences.

Michael Gawenda, a research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, says it’s no wonder the ABC is happy with the result. “And why wouldn’t they be? The radio review basically said everything was hunky dory. The other one found four programs had some problems. But even with those, once the reviewer went back and spoke to the executive producers, there were explanations for a lot of the problems,” he said.

This raises another question. The audits were released by the ABC, and while the people writing them weren’t ABC employees, how much can we trust reviews commissioned by the organisation being reviewed? Matthew Ricketson, professor of journalism at the University of Canberra, says that self-scrutiny doesn’t come easily to many people, and that’s especially true for media organisations. Nonetheless, he told Crikey: “The ABC does it better than any other mainstream media organisation in this country.”

Will this be enough for the ABC’s critics? Gawenda reckons: not a chance.

But Ricketson thinks we shouldn’t be so cynical. “The ABC’s critics are not a monolithic group. A large news organisation will always have critics because of the sheer volume of material created, because of the difficulties of creating journalism against tight deadlines and because of the contentious subject matter that serious journalism necessarily delves into,” he said.

Open-minded critics will, I believe, welcome the ABC’s commitment to reviewing and improving its practices. Close-minded critics of the ABC will find material that is grist to their mill.  As Daniel Okrent, former public editor of The New York Times, once put it: such people are able to identify all biases except their own.”

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  • 1
    BlueBox
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Interesting.. now conduct the same audit on News Corp.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Who audits the auditors?

  • 3
    Ian
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Who picks the auditors and what exactly is balance?

    IMO the ABC is far from unbiased as its reporting and commentary by and large takes place within a very narrow framework where Labor is considered “The Left” and anything beyond that is not even worth mentioning. It hardly ever reports on rallies and protests. On foreign news such as the events in Ukraine and Venezuela it just parrots the Western line - no context, very little “other side”.

    Its coverage of economic/business news is equally mainstream and narrow.

    I’ve given up on it and on SBS.

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    And why would anyone expect facts to soothe ideologues’ rants?
    I have plenty of criticism of ABC news, its mindless repeating of mudorc headlines, views & paying its reptiles to appear on Inciters or LL but most of all for the kindi-winki naivete & general ignorance of it cub reporters.
    Nonetheless, I pay for it and I intend to go on using it.
    Despite its manifest failings, it is orders of magnitude better than the rest of the swill available.

  • 5
    Myriam Robin
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ian. The ABC picks the auditors, though they can’t be employees, and as for what exactly is ‘balance’, well, it’s pretty tricky. Have a read of the audits if you’re interested in their definitions of ‘balance’ - I linked to them in the piece. Each auditor seemed to pick his or her own similar but slightly different definition.

  • 6
    Daveo11
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    A simple question: What percentage of readers or commentators would have already made up their minds on the question of bias on the ABC before reading the article?

  • 7
    Northy
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Myriam - I really enjoyed this well written article. No surprise to see the ABC given the all-clear on bias. The vast majority of Australians knew that would be the case. It’s only the noisy and self-interested News Corp (and the News Corp Coalition government of course) that has such an issue with the broadcaster. Survey after survey after survey finds the ABC is viewed as balanced, and is more trusted than any other news outlet. No matter how hard News Corp tries, it is a fact they cannot change.

  • 8
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem with these audits is that they are auditing broadcasting that we listen to every day. So we actually witness the bias ourselves in the broadcasts. We don’t need an auditor to use some arcane definitions to assess broadcasts we have witnessed.

    Now I accept that bias is a subjective thing and that people hearing the same broadcast can have quite different views about bias in it. But I challenge anyone to disagree that editorially, the ABC is pro boat people, pro Palestine, anti live animal exports, pro the carbon tax, pro the mining tax and pro gay marriage. Hey I share some of those positions myself but it’s hard to see the ABC as unbiased when they lead with any story where a left wing punter uses the word Workchoices.

    Having said that, I believe both these well meaning auditors would see no bias in Cassidy’s shameless soft-focus pre-recorded interview with Peter Slipper in the height of last year’s election campaign when he allowed Slipper to blame Tony Abbott for his wife’s miscarriage.

  • 9
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Oh and I agree with AR that the ABC is far superior to the rest of the swill available, except maybe The Australian.

  • 10
    Ian
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Indeed Myriam, achieving “balance” is pretty tricky to say the least and the lack of all bias, if that were possible, would leave us with a sterile and intellectually bereft medium.

    Perhaps it is too much to expect any public broadcaster, be they the ABC, the BBC or the PBS to give more than cursory coverage of events or debate that falls outside the “mainstream”. The answer to a really informed society perhaps is, as authors McChesney and Nichols suggest, to encourage a vibrant, independent array of media outlets that express a wide variety of viewpoint. The internet already provides this but you have to go searching for it and not many do that. One thing is for sure though allowing increased media consolidation will narrow the already restricted framework for debate.

  • 11
    Ian
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    @David Hand #8

    Tony Abbott is probably responsible for lots of miscarriages.

  • 12
    Ken Goodwin
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    why is it the ToTaL Bias from TV Channels 7,9,10 & sky not leaving out the radio stations owned by our filthy rich to look after the rich are left alone !!! No ABC have to explain themselves .. Talk about free/fair press submissive behaviour from Abbott Henchmen… Let’s hope the people who matters hear of these injustices afraid our only hope is word of mouth and Social Media before Abbott culls them!!! This is my first post

  • 13
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    ABC chairman James Spigelman’s approach has in fact been standard ABC practice at every election and periodically between them for at least a decade.

    Nothing should demonstrate the entrenched Right-wing control of the mainstream media than this recurring pressure on Their ABC to prove its integrity, when the commercial media (primarily the duplicity of ideologues at The Australian) can almost literally get away with murder. Even worse, this fawning on the Rabid Right is being driven as much by the most senior ABC decisionmakers as by outside pressures. Spigelman et al are showing utter and contemptible moral cowardice.

    To quote Murdoch’s biographer, ‘… in the media, he destroys standards.’ Reiner Luyken wrote ‘The most striking effect of Murdoch is self-censorship. Self-censorship is now so commonplace in the British media that journalists admit to it without blushing.’ Certainly the ABC Board seems quite able to do so.

  • 14
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    No-one has questioned when The Australian will be subject to any such audit. No doubt the ABC is afraid to ask.

  • 15
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    But Ambrose, what would you audit with the Australian? It has a right of centre bias. It wears that as a badge of honour. Hey let me do it for you. I’ve read the Australian every day this week and can confirm it has a right of centre bias. There. Audit done.

    The ABC did its audits to try and escape accusations of bias that it denies but the rest of us know is there. All they need to do is fess up and say “Ok, you’ve got us. We are mostly lefties”.

    The reason they won’t do this is because being seen to be unbiased is an asset to it and lifts its reputation as trustworthy. So the ABC is in a pickle that the Murdoch press is not because of these conflicting objectives- publishing news and views from a left wing ideological position while denying bias.

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Onehand - “..except the Australian”?!?! FFS it is the worst of the gutter garbage precisely because its journos, AND readership should know better. Except that you prove how delusional people can be. How’s the RSI?

  • 17
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Well, David, your brazen endorsement of bias does at least demonstrate how contemptuous the haters are of the rest of us.

    Big Tobacco has been murdering masses of people for half a century with the enthusiastic assistance of the mainstream media bias endorsed by such as you. A top Phillip Morris executive wrote in 1985 that it had arranged that Murdoch’s papers “rarely publish anti-smoking articles these days”.

    All 175 Murdoch newspapers editorialised in favour of the Iraq war; rejoice at Iraq’s million dead, David.

    KPMG estimates that annual output losses from climate change range between 1% per year if strong and early action is taken, to at least 5% a year if governments fail to act. Warming of 10°C is typically reckoned to cost 10–30% of world GDP, roughly equivalent to economic Depression. But the failure to consider the much more severe boundaries imposed by heat stress (near-halving of habitable land) suggests that such even such unpleasant assessments are far too optimistic.

    Denialists’ climate change denialism is and long has been entirely destructive, blocking action until the gathering problems are too far gone to ignore, and, probably, to remedy. In contrast, many scientists are now regretting that they’ve remained silent so long on the increasingly pressing need for action.

    People like you, David, will ensure we don’t act. As we increasingly suffer, it should be people like you, David, that we blame. You do believe in accepting responsibility for your decisions, don’t you?

  • 18
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Myriam,

    The “audit” was framed and chaired, so the result would be know before it started.

    It did NOT look at what segments the ABC ran or did not run.

    Look at the Craig Thomson, case, got virtually no airplay until he was convicted and then it was half way through the 30 mins news.

    There a 1000’s of examples of bias, and the majority of Australian agree.

    Of course their Kangaroo Audit, came back with that

  • 19
    Ken U See
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    One problem I face is that right wing Journo’s can say what they feel ,knowing if it is abhorrent it will not be dwelled on by right wing media.Fair Press is what we need to see in this country and we need to push everywhere on all forms of media we can find to hopefully get ordinary people to stop and think.

  • 20
    Dion Giles
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Balance” is between extremes. The position of balance is predetermined by the dishonest through nominating the extremes. 2=2 = 4 and 2+2 = 6 are extremes. The firefighter and the arsonist are extremes. Predators and prey are extremes (Derryn Hinch spoke for the prey and (even worse) the truth - wicked fellow). True and false are extremes and a public broadcaster should not be balanced but be biased 100% for truth and against falsehood. Those continually demanding the chance to steer a witch-hunt for “balance” in the ABC are promoters of falsehood and want the ABC to be made to join them.

  • 21
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey Ambrose,
    I’m struggling to get how you think I am brazenly endorsing bias. All I am saying is that bias is there. The ABC is clearly biased and their efforts to appear unbiased through these unconvincing “audits” won’t convince anyone.

    By the way, that’s what this story and thread is about and your rant is well off-subject. You don’t know my views on many of the issues you raise and your assumption that I am right wing on every issue and believe anything the Murdoch press tells me is incorrect.

    One thing I do absolutely believe however is that the ABC has a left wing bias.

  • 22
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Dion, you conflate “truth” with left wing propaganda. Hey I’m all for the ABC staying at the extreme “100% for truth”. That’s why I was so disappointed when the ABC reported that footage from Indonesia appeared to support asylum seekers’ claims that they had been tortured by the Australian navy.

    Don’t you agree that the ABC should never have run that story?

  • 23
    Dion Giles
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    David, they should have run the story along with a Navy response and also elicited and run Morrison’s routine restatement of his excuse for concealing so-called “operational matters”. Several times recently the ABC has sparked police-state ire at reporting matters whose veracity was not challenged but which disclosed gross wrongdoing behind the public’s back, especially as related to Indonesia and East Timor and to court proceedings at The Hague. Yes, there are noisy elements that would very much like the ABC’s truth-telling to be “balanced” with concealment. Rebadging truth as “left wing propaganda” doesn’t it make it untrue (and no I don’t claims of torture of asylum seekers are true - only that they were made and the authors of the militarised “Operaton Sovereign Borders” and presumably also David Hand by his own admission wanted that fact concealed.)

  • 24
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Friday, 14 March 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Well, David, would you like to read what you’ve written – even if you struggle with it? “[The Australian] has a right of centre bias. It wears that as a badge of honour.“ So you regard Rightist bias as said badge of honour. I suggest you start taking responsibility for your comments – and your own bias.

    And your rant about my supposed assumptions is well off-subject. I note your effort to try and neutralise my point about your position by claiming it to be “off-subject”. Indeed that is Murdoch’s primary approach – only the ABC’s bias is a permissible topic.

    I repeat, “Nothing should demonstrate the entrenched Right-wing control of the mainstream media than this recurring pressure on Their ABC to prove its integrity, when the commercial media (primarily the duplicity of ideologues at The Australian) can almost literally get away with murder.” Not only is bias at the ABC right-wing, dealing with it is and will be impossible without recognising the enormous pressures on it and its staff by The Australian and its duplicity of ideologues to conform to Hard Right views.

  • 25
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 March 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Dion, I concede that left wing propaganda can also, on occasions, be true. I’ve also read your recent post through twice and I think you are conceding that the ABC story about alleged torture of asylum seekers was a lapse from a commitment to 100% truth.

  • 26
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 March 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Ambrose,
    The core of this story is the ABC’s denial that it has a left wing bias. Such denials are not supported by these supposed “audits” and even the author in the headline concedes this point.

    I do not deny that I generally have right of centre views. The Australian doesn’t either. Only the ABC claims the centre when it is patently left of centre.

  • 27
    Dion Giles
    Posted Friday, 14 March 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Ideologues (and I’m afraid David Hand is fitting that image) seek to disguise their special pleading by framing it in terms of a “left wing”, a “right wing” and an implied scale. Pterosaur politics - wings and scales. The terms are dog whistles without meaning, invoked to duck real self-revelatory qualities like truth and falsehood, justice and injustice.

    I must have expressed myself clumsily, but my proposal of what the ABC SHOULD have done was a description of what the ABC DID do.

    Murdoch’s propaganda sheets are rightly labelled as such not because of what “wing” they are but because of what information they systematically conceal in their urgings disguised as news. The ABC, too, can be faulted for what it conceals, but Murdoch/Abbott’s anti-ABC hullabaloo (and Mr Hand’s) is directed at what the ABC DOESN’T conceal and which organised urgers WANT concealed (aka censored). “Balance the ABC” is their code for “Muzzle the ABC”.

  • 28
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    No, David, wrong as usual. Their ABC Claims to try to be unbiased. Incidentally, does any media organisation balance The Australian’s Hard Right views? If none does - none does - we need one to do so.

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