“The biggest cultural shake-up for 20 years” is how Marian Wilkinson describes the new editorial guidelines about to be imposed on the ABC, which will force documentaries, chat shows and children’s television to follow the same kind of anti-bias guidelines as news and current affairs programs.

The biggest impact is likely to be on ABC local radio, which has driven up ratings in recent times by presenting personality driven talk, with presenters such as Virginia Trioli in Sydney and Jon Faine in Melbourne. Both can be tough and provocative interviewers, and hold up their ends in debate with listeners who call in.

How do notions of impartiality apply when the views and personality of the presenter is part of the point of the show? Will “devil’s advocate” style discussions become more difficult? What about talk back? What if the audience is not impartial? And what will the changes mean for people such as Phillip Adams and Michael Duffy?

It will, to say the least, be interesting to see the detail – not yet released – and how it works out. At the very least, it will mean more scrutiny and pressure for ABC program makers. Some will argue this is a good thing, but there is surely also a risk that all it will achieve is blandness and timidity.

As Crikey goes to press Managing Director Mark Scott is briefing staff on the changes by video link-up, before announcing them at the Sydney Institute tonight.

The choice of venue – presided over by one of the ABC’s most constant critics, Gerard Henderson – is seen either as provocation or appeasement, depending on which side of the culture wars you pitch your tent.

I understand Scott himself has not driven the changes, although he has been engaged in the process since his appointment. The initiative comes from the politically stacked ABC Board, and the detail has been under negotiation for the last 18 months.

As Wilkinson reports, program makers have gained concessions including that diverse views do not have to be presented in a single program but can be achieved across different programs and over time.

Peter Fray

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