Notice anything, well, right wing in the latest round of appointments at ABC Radio?
The ABC has embarked on a highly public push for cultural diversity in its staff, including through expanding its indigenous team. But, more quietly, it has also been pushing other types of diversity. Several new ABC radio presenters have come from commercial — and conservative — media. ABC watchers are pondering if the new appointments are part of a deliberate strategy to counter claims of left-wing bias at the public broadcaster.
For example, Ali Clarke was appointed to the mornings slot in Adelaide last year. Clarke had been as a sports and parenting columnist with News Corp, and as well as hosting a variety of shows on Adelaide’s commercial radio networks. ABC Perth hired Jane Marwick, also from a commercial radio background. From next year, Chris Bath, formerly of Channel Seven, will host statewide Evenings in NSW and the ACT. On Radio National, Patricia Karvelas, previously of The Australian, has headed up the drive slot on Radio National since the start of last year. Joining her on RN next year will be Tom Switzer — whose resume includes long stints at The Australian, Spectator Oz and the Institute of Public Affairs — and Kim Williams, the controversial former head of News Corp.
For the most part, these appointments are not culture warriors in the mould of Andrew Bolt (which is all that would satisfy some critics of the ABC, who go on about the need for a “right-wing Phillip Adams”). But they are high-profile hosts with long experience working in more right-wing parts of the media.
ABC radio boss Michael Mason shies away from pigeonholing presenters as “left” or “right” wing. But he doesn’t disagree that different life experiences can inform how a presenter approaches the job.
“It’s our role to reflect contemporary Australia, so we need to be diverse in every way,” he told Crikey.
“Everyone brings with them their own diversity in terms of background — ethnicity, gender, education, previous work and life experience, and political beliefs — all factors that inform one’s view of the world. We’re looking for diversity in many ways: more women on air, both as presenters and as talent, broader cultural diversity — again, presenters and talent — and in making sure that, particularly on Local Radio, our presenters can relate to and engage with the everyday issues that affect busy, working families, from housing affordability and utility costs through to the availability and cost of education and childcare.”
“Working towards that diversity could on one level be seen as appointing presenters with right-of-centre political leanings.” But he’s quick to add that’s not always a helpful way to find new talent. “Pigeonholing anyone according to their perceived political affiliations can be fraught, and for ABC Radio it’s really no more than just one measure of diversity of thought and experience,” he said.
“What is important, though, is that ABC Radio programs reflect the political and ideological spectrum by airing ‘a diversity of viewpoints’, which our editorial standards demand.”
Critics of the ABC’s alleged ideological homogeneity have not all been far-right culture warriors — at least one comes from very solid ABC pedigree. In April, former Media Watch host and Four Corners alumn Jonathan Holmes drew attention to the ABC Radio hosts in the major capitals, who he said could not realistically do compelling radio without letting their personalities — and their political leanings — influence their programs. These hosts, he wrote, “undeniably” leaned more to the left than right (ABC regional hosts tend to come across as more non-partisan or even conservative, Holmes wrote — an opinion reflected by many others Crikey has spoken to).
ABC managers have largely dismissed Holmes’ concerns. But they dovetailed with thoughts previously expressed by the ABC’s own chairman, James Spigelman, about the public broadcaster as a whole. In 2013, the former judge told the National Press Club “the allegations of bias are, I believe, more often a function of the topics chosen for reporting, than of the content. Journalists — all of you, not just those at the ABC — tend to have a social and educational background, perhaps particularly in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, that may make them more interested in, say, gay marriage than, say, electricity prices.”
Mason says most critics, including Holmes, don’t understand “how radio actually works”. It’s a team affair, Mason says — presenters guide discussion between guests, who offer a far greater variety of viewpoints than any one person could hope to bring forth. “The reality is that if we were the hotbed of leftie sentiment that many of our critics say we are, we’d be breaching our own very rigorous editorial standards, and we’d be found out every single time, not only by our audiences, but by the ABC’s independent Audience & Consumer Affairs unit and the ACMA, which investigate complaints about bias,” he said. “Radio is focusing on real, contemporary Australia where the vast majority of us live, work and play, and while presenters occasionally add their own perspective to any given debate, they do so within the confines of the ABC’s editorial policies. With this approach our presenters bring to the conversation a wealth of real life experience.
“In appointing some of the newer ABC ‘voices’ — Ali Clarke, Jane Marwick, Chris Bath, Kim Williams, Tom Switzer, Patricia Karvelas — we’re looking to add to the depth and breadth of that lived experience, understanding that we are all ultimately greater than the sum of our parts, regardless of, and not just because of, our personal views.”
Maybe this isn’t all so very radical. Peter Wall has held many management positions in ABC Radio, including 14 years managing ABC 702 in Sydney, before going on to start his own media management business. He lauds the current appointments, particularly of Chris Bath. But, he told Crikey, in his experience, the ABC has always aimed for many types of diversity. And he points to more practical reasons behind why the ABC’s presenters have often veered more left than right.
“When I was running 702, I constantly looked for right-wing women. And I approached several. And the problem for me was, they were all successful , often in business or other media. They earned a whole lot more money than I could pay them, and they didn’t want to work five days a week all but six weeks a year, day in day out on the radio.
“There were four or five women I really wanted to get on the air. I got close, but I couldn’t get them. People don’t ever think of this part of the equation.”
Perhaps with the broader media sector in turmoil, some of these people can now look to the ABC as a relative haven of stability.
“I do think the ABC needs to be far more diverse and reflect society more than it has in the last 20 years — and I do think they’re trying to do it,” Wall said.
But he adds a caveat. “People don’t care that much about whether its left or right wing — they want good company, people they want to have over for dinner. If someone’s banging the table, people get annoyed with it.”