Dec 16, 2013

Bias and the ABC: a never-ending story with some concessions

The News Corporation attacks on the ABC are as frequent as they are predictable. But there are some concessions Aunty could make to reduce perceptions of bias.

David Salter

Journalist and former Media Watch executive producer.

We should all count ourselves fortunate that we have News Corp to explain for us the ABC's manifold deficiencies. Even better, Rupert Murdoch's minions have the remedies instantly to hand. Friday's lead editorial in The Australian solved the whole problem at a stroke: "What the ABC needs is leadership." Presumably this is the type of leadership that turns a blind eye to phone hacking and bribing the police, and to trading in your citizenship for profit. Or maybe it's leadership that comes in the form of overnight tweets from the proprietor to his senior executives laying out the preferred editorial line on the issues of the day. (Mind you, ABC boss Mark Scott does Aunty no favours with his own brand of compulsive Twitter twaddle. It can only be a matter of time before he thumbs something careless that compromises both himself and the corporation.) Meanwhile, there can be no doubt that Ultimo HQ is already feeling the heat from the daily barrage of anti-ABC commentary and editorials in News Corp outlets. On December 5, Andrew Bolt's column was headed "Time we blew the whistle on ABC bias". Exactly a week later -- hey presto! -- ABC chairman Jim Spigelman announces in Canberra that Aunty will conduct a series of external "editorial audits" into the ABC's news and current affairs output to assess allegations of bias and/or lack of balance by journalists. What a remarkable coincidence. Spigelman may have been a distinguished lawyer but, so far, he’s showing himself as a poor strategist when it comes to defending the independence of the nation's public broadcaster. He and Scott most probably think their announcement of an external review process will draw the teeth of the anti-ABC forces in the Coalition before they have a chance to do the broadcaster any real harm. Not likely. In truth, it's a doomed pre-emptive buckle. Why? Because implicit in the notion of editorial "audits" is the unspoken concession that bias already exists. From that point the argument simply descends into competing evaluations of how much bias -- and the battle is already lost. On the day the "audit" announcement was reported, Greg Sheridan was quick to pounce on that weakness, writing:
"... Spigelman did concede that episodes of bias occur in ABC news and current affairs. Surely no one seriously contests that the culture across almost all ABC radio and TV programs remotely concerned with politics is centre-left and beyond."
He may even have a point, but allegations of political bias in broadcasting are much easier to make than to prove. The difficulties spring principally from issues of definition and perception. We can all understand the "bias is in the eye of the beholder" problem. Subjectivity will always colour our views of political reporting and analysis. But who can say with any certainty where the precise fulcrum-point of the Left/Right political divide now lies? What, today, constitutes real balance?
"This from the same people who want to lecture us about bias and journalistic ethics at the ABC."
The political "centre" has drifted a very long way to the Right of the soup spoon over the past 15 years. The long John Howard incumbency made what had previously been thought of as highly conservative positions gradually seem more like the middle ground. And that shift has stuck. Quite moderate social/democratic views are now branded "leftist", a term that carries with it dog whistle hints of Bolshevik totalitarianism. Don't believe me? Here’s Andrew Bolt last week:
"The ABC is not just biased. It is a massive organ of state media, strangling private voices and imposing a Leftist orthodoxy that thinks it fine to publish security secrets and sinful to report the secrets of global warmists."
Yesterday, in The Sunday Telegraph, Miranda Devine showed she had this Murdoch mantra down pat, urging a break-up of the ABC to "disempower Left-Green inner-city elites who control the culture". There's little point dignifying such Tea Party tripe with a reasoned response, but there are some practical things the ABC could do to spike the guns now aimed at its news and current affairs programming. The first -- and this mainly concerns Aunty’s news bulletins -- is to impose much firmer editorial control over the writing of "links", the newsreader’s introductions to reported stories. Lamely aping their commercial rivals, the ABC has succumbed to the false attraction of chatty, conversational opening paragraphs. Stuff that begins "It was another bad day for the government …" or "The Minister struggled to answer questions today …". Inevitably, intros in this style contain value judgements, and judgements will always invite allegations of bias. Much safer to cut those unnecessary opening lines and just start with the facts. The second initiative relates to current affairs. For some reason the flagship programs -- 7.30, Four Corners, AM and PM -- long ago abandoned the useful format of studio debates. Instead, we now have a succession of one-on-one interviews during which the ABC reporters usually try to make themselves a reputation by hectoring their guests. That aggression is easily equated by critics with bias. Why not return to the simple practice of inviting both sides to debate an issue, with the ABC journalist in the role of moderator, rather than combative interlocutor? Genuine balance may not always result, but at least it will be seen to be done. It is difficult to sustain an allegation of bias when both sides of a political issue have had an equal opportunity to present their arguments. None of this, of course, interests the News Corp brigade of anti-ABC commentators. They don't want constructive suggestions, they want blood. Day after day (and often twice a day) they trundle out the same charges: the ABC is a worker's collective; the ABC is funded by taxpayers who don't want it; the ABC is a sheltered workshop captive to inner-city greenies; the ABC is dominated by former Labor staffers; the ABC sneers at ordinary Australians; the ABC is a bloated, lazy bureaucracy; ABC journalists ignore facts and skew their reporting to suit a political agenda. Well, on that last charge you'd have to admit the Holt Street commentariat know of which they speak. Here's the key line from a November 9 editorial in The Australian on the proposed changes to section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which, with solipsistic vanity, they like to call the "Bolt Laws" even though that legislation was enacted 16 years earlier):
"Bolt's columns did contain some errors of fact and they might well have caused offence. But so what?"
This from the same people who want to lecture us about bias and journalistic ethics at the ABC.

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17 thoughts on “Bias and the ABC: a never-ending story with some concessions

  1. mikeb

    Some really useful suggestions in this article which on reflection are very accurate. Hope ABC management note them. The best thing the ABC can do is to differentiate itself as much as possible from the commercial pap. Given time more & more people will see the Bolts and Devines and Ackermans of this world for what they are – mindless and conflicted drones.

  2. Michael Jones

    The ‘face off’ debate style may look moderate, but all it does is entrench the idea that it’s partisan spin that matters, as opposed to the facts. It’s a classic example of what many more outspoken journalists and commentators recognize as a major failure of journalism.

    For instance. Jay Rosen makes note of the ‘he said she said’ approach, which keeps the established partisans happy, at the expense of real insight.

    ‘Grilling’ and ‘hectoring’ is what journalists should do, must do, to drag things closer to reality, instead of keeping them within the bounds of the false field of party approved viewpoints and responses.

    There are plenty of panel shows on the ABC perfect for the reigning parties to lay out their talking points and studiously ignore the issues. We don’t need more of that from the more serous formats.

    What kind of insight can be gained over an issue like asylum seekers, or climate change, if the focus of a segment is on the two, mostly interchangable non-answers which the parties have to offer on the matters?

  3. klewso

    Too true on trends, we expect certain standards from the ABC but in this race for ratings/relevance we seem to be getting more tabloidisation. Lowest common denominator stuff.
    If they’re going to look seriously at these allegations I hope they line up a series of interviews by employees and compare and contrast demeanour, attitude, and apparent preformed conclusions, as reflected in questions asked and the degree of scepticism on show – between members of the various parties.

    Of course the one thing Murdoch and his employees can’t stand is criticism – against themselves or the party they tout to the electorate a “Most Fit to Govern”, from their lion’s share of the image market – especially the sort they think it their Right to use on their preferred targets.

  4. drmick

    Wouldn’t worry too much. The toilet beckons for the paper and its contents. Its “churnalists” and their pathetic bias will wallow in amongst the blind mullet where they belong. Just a matter of pulling the chain really and the irony is it will be their chief who will do the job, so to speak.

  5. Electric Lardyland

    It is always interesting to analyse the bogeymen constructed by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine. I suspect that there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, if you have a quick perusal of the comments section of Bolt’s website, possibly the first thing that you’d notice, is that many of the readers of that type of journalism, are sad, bitter and angry individuals. Unfortunately, this mental state, tends to make them eager consumers of the tabloid and talkback tripe. That is, instead of looking to their own personality flaws as the basis of their problems, they are more keen to find somebody else to blame for those problems. It is here that Bolt, Devine, Jones, Ackerman, Price, Albrechtsen, etc, etc, ply their wares, by giving their audience an ever expanding list of people to blame. In fact, the overwhelming majority of that type of production, is identifying a minority and then claiming that these people are to blame for whatever ails the nation. Secondly, much of the talkback and tabloid dialogue, is shameless conformity to the opinions of their corporate masters, such as Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. But of course, where much of the advertising industry sells us a picture of Australians as rugged, egalitarian individualists, a reality of non-thinking conformists to a strictly hierarchical model, doesn’t have much commercial appeal. So instead, what Bolt, Devine, etc, etc, do, is inflate the power of the groups that they rant against. So in this twisted world, slavishly and unthinkingly regurgitating the opinions of genuine elites, is rebranded as something akin to freedom fighting. That is, your not abjectly supporting the commercial and political interests of Rupert Murdoch, but hey presto, what you’re really doing, is boldly taking on those, “green, left, inner city elites that control the culture.”

  6. Merve

    Just a WAG here, but I think that pollies tend to avoid debates. They can’t control the situation as much.

  7. leon knight

    Insiders is a classic case of how impossible it is to satisfy the blood-lust of the rabid right…they have ample opportunity to put their best and brightest forward for the panel, but when the muppets they do offer make fools of themselves (with very little goading from Barry)the howls of indignation go on for weeks.
    Now they don’t even bother to put anyone forward most weeks – hard to see it is anything other than gutless and childish.

  8. zut alors

    Agree with Michael Jones’s comments.

    The world’s ventriloquists must be in awe of Murdoch: without so much as sticking a hand up News Corp journos’ jackets the dummies clearly utter his words. Look, Ma, no hands!

  9. Keith Thomas

    There was a shot at an objective methodology for assessing BBC bias published August this year.

    The implementation of the methodology was flawed in this British case, but we can learn from the mistakes made there to develop something better.

  10. The Pav

    The biggest mistake the ABC could make is to assume that Bolt?Divine et al are fair & reasonable and that you can have a meaningful debate founded in reason & fairness.

    This isn’t the case.

    They have abandoned any values

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