Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims many people think — and are “dismayed” — that the ABC is biased, as he paves the way for likely budget cuts at Aunty. This is what he told 2GB radio host Ray Hadley yesterday:

“A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s … I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but its own, and I think it is a problem.”

The claim led to this front page screamer in The Daily Telegraph today …

So is Abbott right? Do people think the ABC is biased and anti-Australian, and are we “dismayed” about it?

The evidence indicates that an overwhelming majority of people think the ABC is balanced and even-handed, and it’s been recently rated the most trusted media organisation in Australia.

Newspoll conducts an annual survey for the ABC and asks what people think about the national broadcaster. The most recent survey, a phone poll of 1900 people in June 2013, found 78% of respondents thought the ABC did a good job at being balanced and even-handed. The number of those who think it does a “very good job” is steadily rising and stands at 42%. Just 11% agree with Abbott that it is doing a poor job.

Question: Based on your own experience, or what you may have seen or heard, do you personally think the ABC is doing a good job or a poor job on being balanced and even-handed? 

Each column represents a year from 2005-13 (with 2013 on the right), and the results are shown by percentage. The graph doesn’t show those who said “neither/don’t know”, which was 11% in 2013.

And in case Abbott has concerns about bias in the taking of this poll, he can rest assured that Newspoll is half-owned by News Corp Australia and its findings regularly appear exclusively in The Australian. 

Newspoll asked the “balanced and even-handed” question for specific ABC programs, finding the 7pm news got the highest rating — 91% said it did a good job at being balanced (the question was only asked of people who said they had watched it). This image shows the ratings for the 7pm news (on the left) and flagship current affairs program 7.30 (on the right).

The question was also asked about daily ABC radio programs AMPM and The World Today, where the proportion of those who thought the programs did a good job at being balanced was slightly lower (see page 33 of Newspoll’s report).

Newspoll also cast some light on whether people think the ABC has an anti-Australian and unpatriotic bent, as Abbott claims they do. Some 82% said the ABC did a good job at being distinctively Australian, while 5% agreed with Abbott and said it didn’t.

Question: Based on your own experience, or what you may have seen or heard, do you personally think the ABC is doing a good job or a poor job on being distinctively Australian?

As can be seen across all these graphs, positive sentiments about the ABC have been slowly declining (an effect more evident in the last two years), but remain very high.

In terms of overall sentiment, Newspoll asked whether people thought the ABC (including television, radio and online properties) was valuable to the Australian community. Eighty five per cent said it was valuable (47% said “very valuable”); only 9% said it was not valuable. The proportion who said the ABC was valuable has come down from a peak of 90-91%, seven to 11 years ago; Newspoll describes this as a “very subtle decline”. The proportion who think the ABC is valuable is fairly consistent across age groups, although the proportion who rate it as “very valuable” increases with age.

In terms of what people think about the ABC as compared with the commercial media, Newspoll didn’t ask that in relation to the questions above. Where it did ask people to compare — on quality of TV programming, “number of [TV] shows you like to watch”, quality of radio programming, etc — the ABC was in front of commercial operators, sometimes well in front.

Newspoll’s findings are broadly borne out by another set of data from Essential Research, which regularly polls on trust in media. Here are the results from an Essential online poll of just over 1000 people from December 2013. Essential found the ABC was the most trusted media organisation in Australia (the same finding as when it asked the question in January 2013).

Question: How much trust do you have in what you read or hear in the following media?

Essential also asked about trust in individual newspapers. Among those who have read The Age, 68% had some (or a lot of) trust in it, while 64% of those who had read The Australian had some trust in it. Among the News Corp tabloids, 48% of those who had read the Herald Sun had some trust in it. The lowest level of trust was for The Daily Telegraph; only 41% of those who had read it had some trust in it (and that number declined 7 percentage points over 2013). A quarter of people said they had “no trust at all” in the Telegraph.

So Tony Abbott may have the Tele on his side when he claims that people don’t trust the ABC to be even-handed — but it’s actually the Tele that people don’t trust. Time to think again?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey