It is probably reasonably safe to say that one of the last things on the mind of the various potential governments at the moment is the future of the ABC.
In any case, the virulent campaign against the ABC, and in particular allegations of bias from politicians, is mostly over. Gillard and Abbott, various media editors tell me, approached the last campaign like pros.
There were no shouting matches over the telephone about unfair coverage. Gillard and Abbott rolled with the punches. Which may, of course, say more about the meekness of the hits than about those in the boxing ring.
And yet while the political heat has departed, the constant rumbling of bias allegations against the ABC continues, ready to rear up wherever it gets a favourable hearing. The ABC is the only news organisation in the country that is forced to respond, rigorously and in triplicate (well, OK, I am making that bit up) to complaints of bias. Perhaps that is one reason why it gets so many.
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You can get some sense of the travails this involves from this recent Independent Complaints Review Panel report on a complaint from climate-change sceptic Marc Hendrickx about content on the ABC Environment web portal. Remember as you read that this complaint had already been dealt with, by Auntie’s internal Audience and Consumer Affairs division. Seven corrections were made to content, but Hendrickx was not satisfied. Thus, in what would be rich fodder for a Monty Pythonesque treatment, the ICRP and the ABC comes out with statements such as:
“The ABC does not believe that the omission of the Ordovician ice age, the Roman Warm Period, and the release of ‘Climate Change Reconsidered‘ from the timeline constitutes a failure to demonstrate a diversity of principal relevant perspectives on a matter of contention or public debate across ABC Online in an appropriate time frame.”
What can one say?
More seriously, the ABC has put in considerable work to working out how to measure impartiality, accuracy and bias in recent years, as can be seen from the reports listed under Quality Assurance here. And yet the allegations go on.
Apropos of all this, earlier this week the ABC Drum site ran this piece by conservative blogger Gavin Atkins about a monitor he has run on the ABC websites Unleashed and The Drum, on the basis of which he asserts that there was consistent left-wing bias during the election on these sites.
Atkins admits that his method is not infallible, but nevertheless asserts, most stridently on his own blog that many online stories by ABC staff demonstrate consistent bias. The ABC’s chief online reporter, Annabel Crabb, comes in for a particular caning.
The editor of The Drum (and former editor of Crikey) Jonathan Green responded in feisty fashion this morning to the Atkins allegations. “I suppose I should be flattered that Gavin Atkins reads every word we run. I thought only my mum did that,” he said.
Green regards Atkins’ methodology as close to worthless. He asserts that every mention of, for example, of Julia Gillard is counted, so that even a statement that she was leading in the polls would be regarded as a positive mention, and counted in the Atkins bias-o-meter.
Nevertheless Green thought it important that The Drum ran the Atkins piece. “I would like to be one of the few media outlets in Australia that is open to discussion of its performance,” he said. And he is confident that, over the election campaign, The Drum and Unleashed did their job of representing a range of views fairly.
Atkins’ work, of course, is picked up with delight by other conservative commentators, such as Andrew Bolt, and married with mentions of ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s notorious speech about the importance of not developing a particular culture or mindset that might lead to bias. Thus we can be reasonably sure that it makes its way and is noticed by the highest levels of the ABC.
Despite this, one of the near certainties about the rural independents holding the balance of power is that the Auntie will be safe from threats of funding cuts. Ask Tony Windsor or Bob Katter about how important the national broadcaster is in the bush.
What I find sad is that all this energy is spent on what are largely wild goose chases. The larger and more important question of what journalists, including those at the ABC, can do to lift the game of the profession when it comes to reporting politics is left largely unexamined.
That is where the energy of the critics should be focused.
And that will have to be one of the preoccupations of all of those prating about a new kind of politics. We know the independents regarded the media’s performance as abysmal. What might they want the ABC to do about it?