How will the ABC know whether its new editorial policies have been successful in combating bias? What will success look like?

Will it be when the ABC critics are quiet? Hell will freeze over first. Such people need enemies against which to define themselves, and they will continue to construct them whether they exist or not. The ABC, as Australia’s most important cultural institution, will never escape. Managing Director Mark Scott acknowledged as much in his speech at the Sydney Institute last night.

So why on earth does he say that the mere fact that criticism exists is sufficient reason to hand the critics “a massive rod for our own backs. A weapon our critics can beat us with. More grounds for more questions in Senate Estimates. A very high bar.”

Reading Scott’s speech, I am overcome with weariness. It’s not that I have much of a problem with the initiatives themselves, but my, the fuss! The self-righteous masochism of it all! And for what?

While it is impossible to say what success might look like for the ABC’s new editorial policies, it’s easy to imagine how they might fail.

Beatings are done by bullies. They cause timidity and resentment. Scott is not planning to do the beatings himself, of course, but he and the Board are, he tells us proudly, handing out the weapons to be used by others.

Courage, rigor and fairness flourish in strong, responsible and self-confident organisations where management works with its people. Scott’s language does not encourage confidence that the ABC is such a place.

Scott is continuing, and deepening, the ABC tactic of choice for the last five years, begun under Russell Balding. Under attack, the ABC not only jumps willingly through the many, many accountability hoops already there, but adds a few new ones just to show what a good dog it can be, even if it does occasionally bite the hand that feeds it.

What does Scott expect? A pat on the head? Apparently so. He says “I trust our critics will recognise the integrity of the standards we seek to attain and the rigour with which we will attempt to implement them.” I’d advise him not to hold his breath. Only a few of the ABC’s critics are intellectually honest.

One of the basics of good management is to be clear about how to measure the success of innovations, and Scott is said to be primarily a managerialist. So it is fair to ask him how he will know if his initiatives are working. The detailed proposals have not yet been released, so I am working only on his speech. From that, the thinking seems muddy at best.

ABC institutional bias (as opposed to individual errors of fact or judgement) is the colourless, odourless gas apparent only to a few. Despite numerous past attempts to find it, nobody has ever managed to prove that it is there. So how can its reduction be measured? Does anyone have a clear idea of what Scott and the Board are trying to do here?

The Australian people certainly don’t think the ABC is biased. Quite apart from the high public opinion ratings in the surveys conducted on behalf of the ABC, there is also this independent and rigorous study which showed the ABC has a higher level of public confidence than unions, the courts, the public service, churches, the federal parliament, charities and universities. Only the defence and state police forces have more public confidence. Other big media organisations, such as News Limited, don’t even rate. Nor do their columnists.

But Mark Scott says public regard is not enough. There is criticism, therefore new hoops must be jumped through. “Beat me, beat me,” he seems to be saying. So are the Australian people fools, unable to detect bullshit? The ABC’s critics normally laud the public’s good sense, as opposed to the political correctness of the supposed “elites”.

But in this area it seems the people don’t know what’s good for them, and so the bias busters must be brought in to protect them. There is a shift in attitude between Scott and his predecessor. Whereas Balding always denied there was institutional bias at the ABC, Scott says he is not sure. “I suspect the truth is that we are by no means as bad as our critics might suggest and not as blameless as our defenders might wish.”

Scott dismisses as “postmodern antics” attempts to define what is meant by objectivity and bias, but you don’t have to be even a little bit postmodern to see that trying to measure such things is an horrendously complex thing to do and that it helps to try and define the terms.

The only account of journalistic objectivity that has ever made sense to me is that proposed by the American media educators Kovach and Rosenstiel. They suggest that true objectivity is a characteristic not of the individual journalist, nor necessarily of the final result of journalism, but rather of the method and process of journalism. This should be “a disinterested pursuit of truth” akin to the scientific method, with its slavishness to evidence.

This has nothing to do with “balance” in the sense of giving equal airplay to all sides. One side might get a caning because they deserve it. Sometimes objectivity demands the eschewing of balance in order to tell it like it is. A program on smoking might well conclude it is bad for your health, despite the existence of a well funded tobacco lobby that argues otherwise. Impartiality does not mean balance. It means respect for evidence and the willingness to challenge one’s own world view.

Journalism involves judgment, and judgments are subjective. This is not the same as saying they will be prejudiced, unthinking, or partisan. Does the ABC always achieve the ideal journalistic method? Of course not. It’s a hard ask. Opening oneself to evidence and argument is hard, challenging intellectual and emotional work. But as a whole the ABC comes closer more often than any other media organisation I can think of.

There is nothing wrong with, and a lot to be said for, rigorous accountability of the media. There is much to be said for mechanisms to encourage diversity of views and fairness. Has the need for more of this been demonstrated at the ABC? It has not. The ABC is already, rightly, the most accountable media organisation in the country.

Why is this new process so logically up shit creek? We should not blame Scott, who is living up to his reputation for always trying to find a middle position, which in this case has left him astride a barbed wire fence.

The originators of this process are on the Board, and it’s not hard to guess what’s driving them. They are not after the kind of success good managers measure. They are after political success – a victory in the culture wars. The Board needs to be able to point to something it has achieved. This is it. How pathetic. Meanwhile the real challenges faced by the ABC are a million miles away from this fuss. But that’s material for another day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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