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TV & Radio

Aug 26, 2010

Bias allegation rumblings still a constant at your ABC

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.

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.

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?

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16 thoughts on “Bias allegation rumblings still a constant at your ABC

  1. David Reid

    These complaints of bias largely come from conservatives. It seems they will never be satisfied until everything the ABC reports conforms with their world view. Anything that goes against it is classified as “bias”.

    I think the ABC is constantly aware of issues of bias and works hard to make sure that it presents balanced coverage. However, on many issues seeking balance is often misleading. Climate change is the classic example. By giving the opinions of climate sceptics equal weight with those of scientists and experts the debate is severely distorted and no longer presents a realistic picture of the issue. Truth and accuracy should always come before balance.

  2. Mr Squid

    when you have a very serious lack of professionalism, ethics and integrity, honesty and objectivity, then you are going to get allegations of bias. The simple fact of the matter is that the ABC has trashed itself. If it is true that ABC24 is trying to hide Abbott’s performance, then the simple solution is to demand an explanation from Mark Scott. He’s the one ultimately responsible.

  3. Liz Johnston


    I would love to see a report on bias in election reporting in media outlets that stand to have their businesses seriously hurt by the NBN. For example, Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) will be available under the NBN and that should mean we are no longer stuck with rubbish free to airs or overpriced Foxtel. Could that have something to do with The Australian’s consistent bagging of the NBN pre-election?

  4. David

    Margaret you obviously did not listen to or watch the ABC coverage of the election leadup, closely. The bias and lack of balance from some of the ABC’s so called senior presenters was a disgrace. I sent no less than half a dozen complaints, all awaiting a response. You say Gillard and Abbott rolled with the punches. Goodness there was hardly a blow landed on Abbott while Ms Gillard took a pounding. Where were you the last 6 weeks?

  5. C J

    Having actually worked for the ABC, I find this hysterical rant about “right-wing bias” to be a hoot.

    May I suggest, David, that you walk up to any ABC journalist and accuse them of having this “right-wing bias”. They will either laugh themselves silly or thump you on the nose!

  6. David

    @CJ…I imagine it depends how long ago you were employed at the ABC. As you will observe I was talking about the leadup to Aug 21st, some 5 or 6 weeks. I actually am laughing myself but not to the extent of being silly, at your suggestion a) the ABC has not had a right wing bias and
    b) your contention of a thump on the nose…please!!! you reveal yourself as a member of Mr Biffo Abbotts camp surely with your he man hairy chested thumping.

  7. C J

    Me, “.. a member of Mr Biffo Abbotts camp ..” – now that’s REALLY funny.

    Memo to Tony Jones – please curb your right-wing tendencies immediately!!! signed David.

  8. Jackol

    I have to say I have been unhappy with the ABC’s journalism for about the last 2 years. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong – I do think the ABC has been effectively harder on the ALP than on the Coalition, although I’m sure you can tally up ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ mentions and come out even. Perhaps in my mind it is that the Coalition has deserved a lot more criticism and scrutiny, but the ABC is not actually applying as much criticism or scrutiny as it should because it has reached its quota, and is worried about looking biased based on the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ tallies.

    After Richard Alston’s attacks, the ABC has become obsessed with being able to point to a tally to prove it is unbiased. This is the antithesis of journalism – truth doesn’t keep count of which side gets the most hits. Providing accurate context doesn’t take sides. The Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t deserve equal time with the theory of Evolution.

    Margaret, you suggest that we should our shift our criticism towards how to improve the quality of what the ABC and the rest of the mainstream media does. If the ABC is stuck in a mindset of rigid equal time, equal respect, equal positivity/negativity regardless of facts or context, how can it even get off first base as far as quality journalism?

    I realise the situation is not of the ABC’s creation, but I don’t see any solution here. As someone who despairs of the media’s coverage of politics, the ABC gets a serve largely because it is the only organisation that is obliged to at least consider my point of view.

  9. Mr Squid

    why is it that a member of the public making a legitimate complaint to an abc journalist is likely to get punched? that’s the problem with the media: it’s a law unto itself, as its pathetic coverage of this election campaign shows. one of the biggest problems in this election campaign was the trivia, the stereotyping, the hysteria and the spin of the media.

  10. clangus

    It seems to me that the continual attacks on the ABC are aimed at neutralising any effective reporting it can do in the future. By being so focused on appearing unbiased, there is a risk that ABC management will censor good journalism and instead put in bland, vanilla stories in order to appease its critics.

    This won’t stop the complaints of course – organisations like News Ltd will simply use this trend to claim that the ABC is unable to do any hard-hitting reporting and therefore commercial outlets should wrest outright control of the media from this public organisation.

    That being said, providing forums like The Drum and Unleashed is important, and all sides should be given time to state their opinions and evidence in support of these views. But in the end, nothing can ever be completely balanced and if the ABC ends up with a slightly left-of-centre bias, then so be it. Same goes if it ends up sliding the opposite way too, so long as the reporting is of high calibre and not unfounded rubbish (like many articles written by climate sceptics in recent times).