It would be ridiculous to expect the media not to be biased.

In fact, a robust, diversely opinionated media is a sign of a vibrant democracy, subject to two provisos. First, government should not control the media. Second, the media should not be the subject of a monopoly. As media moguls become a threatened species, any danger of monopoly by owners is a thing of the past (The liberalisation of the cross-media rules has not resulted in the feared Packer/Murdoch duopoly; James Packer has even vacated the field.)

What has been and is far more threatening is an ideological monopoly, which seemed to be on the cards in the ’90s. When the service of those robust columnists, former Labor minister Peter Walsh and former Nationals senator John Stone were removed from the Financial Review, the result was that almost no conservative commentators regularly appeared in any of our leading newspapers. Then, in 1999, almost all of the mainline media, with a handful of exceptions, campaigned for a Yes vote, even in their news columns and broadcasts.

CP Scott’s formulation of the fundamental ethical rule applies equally to radio: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Of course, commercial radio talk back will be biased. But it may be biased in comment only, and neither in the news nor in the presentation of facts.

This serves the listener well. Issues that arise first on talkback can be of crucial importance, aided by John Howard’s decision not to leave communication with the electorate to press gallery interpretation. For example, one presenter has long been campaigning about the national retail duopoly which it claims is killing small business through predatory pricing. Another campaign is about water, a campaign which was being pushed well before it became fashionable.

And radio offers a wide diversity of views. True, presenters from the left (eg Mike Carlton) tend to rate poorly compared with their direct competition, but that is listener choice. (That is not the only factor — there is listener loyalty which is earned through thorough preparation, the ability to be tough even with allies, and to be punctilious in answering listeners. Listeners soon spot the passive unprepared talkback presenter who responds with the first thing that comes into his head, and can’t be bothered to answer his mail.)

The ABC is in a somewhat different position to commercial broadcasters. As a public broadcaster, the ABC is not, of course, entitled to have an editorial line. And in an ideal world, the ABC would complement rather than compete with the commercial media. In any event, if the ABC must have talkback, then it must ensure that presenters either have no views, which would be dull or that a range of presenters’ views are offered.

This is still not being achieved on ABC TV, where only once a week, if that, is a conservative voice heard from the ABC side. (This is The Insiders program, on which one of the four voices is usually conservative.) In Sydney, the only conservative radio commentator on ABC radio seems to be Michael Duffy. If he is indeed the only one, it would be just as wrong if there were only one left commentator.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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