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Journalism

May 29, 2014

A conservative host for Aunty? Mark Scott faces bias grilling

Questions of bias dominated Senate Estimates yesterday, with ABC managing director Mark Scott facing familiar criticisms. Would a conservative host placate the Liberals?

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It was Senator Zed Seselja asking the questions yesterday, but it could have been The Australian, with the Liberal ACT Senator leaning heavily on the paper’s analysis to grill ABC managing director Mark Scott at Senate estimates.

Coalition senators peppered Scott with claims the ABC leant left-wing, or anti-government. But Seselja did see one ray of light, asking Scott whether the rumours he’d heard that the ABC was considering a new show hosted by a prominent, right-wing commentator were true.

Scott responded: “It’s pretty important not to flag our intentions too early… Wait and let the chefs cook. We’ll see if it passes muster. But as I said here before, audition tapes are always welcome.”

Seselja asked if Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair’s name had been floated. Scott was enigmatic. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Otherwise, the estimates hearing honed in on criticism of perceived bias. Is Paul Barry, a “savage” critic of Rupert Murdoch, too biased to host Media Watch? Is his Twitter feed, famously analysed by the Oz, evidence of a hatred of News Corp? Has the ABC gone after News Corp commentator Chris Kenny in an attempt to silence its critics? Did it release to journalists a letter sent to Kenny’s lawyers in an attempt to “bully him” into a settlement? And why does the ABC have no discernibly conservative hosts? Observers of the Oz’s ongoing feud with the national broadcaster would recognise all as pet topics of the paper.

Asked about criticisms from the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson, of Media Watch Dog fame, that the ABC does not employ a single conservative in a prominent position, Scott said he wasn’t in the business of running Fox News. “I do not agree with the analysis of Henderson and others who seem to want to put a label or badge on everyone. The test is not how people vote, but how they do their job, and how they exercise their responsibility as a journalist. If they can’t, we have independent review mechanisms to check that …”

But Scott’s protestations aside, questions of the ABC’s supposed left-wing, or, indeed, anti-government bias dominated the last few hours of the hearing, with Seselja leading the charge.

Liberal Senator Anne Rushton wanted to know if the ABC thought it appropriate that he go on the Australia Network the day after the budget and give an interview criticising the government for cutting the network. Scott said the Australia Network has always been about allowing public debate, with no one expecting it to be a government mouthpiece; “this is a contentious decision”. Rushton said she got that, but that the Australia Network has a specific purpose: to present Australia in a favourable light to its neighbours. “You went on there and had a whinge about it,” she said, asking again whether Scott thought it was appropriate.

“I didn’t [have a whinge],” he responded. “I explained the background to the decision, explained the reasons for its termination, and said as CEO I was disappointed by that and I didn’t think it was consistent with what was happening around international broadcasting [in other countries].”

Liberal Tasmanian Senator David Bushby wanted to query the ABC’s Fact Checker site, and in particular, a verdict that found Abbott was not correct when he said 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian protected forest should be delisted as it was no longer “pristine” because it had already been logged. Bushby wanted to know how the topics were selected. “So, it’s a subjective choice by editorial,” Bushby said, earning an exasperated sigh from Scott as he said everything was a subjective choice by editorial.

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