Of course it’s a good thing for the ABC – or any other media outlet – to try to be unbiased. But the new policy unveiled yesterday by ABC managing director Mark Scott (widely believed to have been imposed upon him by the board) risks creating more problems than it solves.

The first obligation of a news organisation is to truth. If the facts of a story reflect badly on certain people, that doesn’t entitle them to complain of bias. Fairness requires that they be given an opportunity to respond, but no broadcaster should have to pretend that the facts are other than they are.

In other words, the trouble with elevating “fairness” to prime position is that it can mean giving equal time to truth and lies. For example, should a science program on biology have to give equal time to creationism – even if polls show it to be well supported in the community?

Creationism still has relatively few friends in Canberra, but what about the greenhouse sceptics? Some scientists have suggested that our response to global warming has already been retarded by the fact that the media, in their search for balance, give grossly disproportionate airtime to the sceptics.

If the experts in a field are almost unanimously of one view, there’s nothing “fair” about trying to hide that fact – or about giving equal time to propagandists for the other side.

The ABC’s critics think that their political views are under-represented on its programs. But who decides what views are worthy of presentation? Equal time for different parties is fine when it comes to political comment, but on issues of fact do we really think the truth can be determined by taking opinion polls? Certainly someone from the left who claimed that would quickly be accused of postmodernist relativism.

In an ideal world, the free marketplace of ideas would eventually sort these things out. But since the Howard government has adamantly preserved the commercial broadcasting cartel, whose proprietors seem to care about neither truth nor fairness, it’s not the best time to be clamping down on the ABC.

Peter Fray

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