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Jan 30, 2014

Get Fact: is Tony Abbott right about the ABC?

Tony Abbott claims "a lot of people" think the ABC is biased and anti-Australian. Is there any evidence to support the claim? We fact-check the Prime Minister.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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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58 thoughts on “Get Fact: is Tony Abbott right about the ABC?

  1. mikeb

    The people who read the Tele won’t change their minds one way or the other. Everyone else doesn’t care what is on the front page.

  2. LWW305

    Theres no doubt that most ABC journalists have strong ties with the Labour Party and a lot of the programs are favourable to Labour issues like climate change , gay marriage and equality, and aboriginal rights and welfare as well as boat arrivals and immigration but I feel that it is equally balanced iff not overwhelmed by the amount of right wing press available to the masses. It does need some more right wing rhetoric or argument to satisfy those of other persuasion. There is a definite attitude that they don’t like the present Government or their leader hence more balance is required.

  3. Deeceem

    Well, no, not time to think again. A very simplistic analysis.

    According to the first chart, belief that the ABC is doing a good job at being fair and even handed is at an all time low (78%) , and the proportion who believe it is doing a poor job similarly high.

    These are not good trends.

    I will always support a strong, independent ABC but these charts confirm a gut feeling that it has gone off the rails lately with gratuitous editorialising, obsession with irrelevancies like US gun control, and a decline in straightforward presentation of news that that allows viewers to make their own judgements.

  4. MJPC

    If the proletariat need more right wing input than virtually all commercial TV and radio outlets (on AM at least) between listening to the cricket and football and visiting the pub or bottle shop I’ll eat my hat.
    This is a Murdoch inspired rant.
    Whilst the DT has ranting front pages, every letter in the SMH today supported the ABC independance and was critical of the excuse we have for a PM. This is a no win for Abbott if he thinks this is going to ingratiate himself with the body politic but, where’s Shorten!!!!

  5. Mr starling

    That is the most poorly executed graph I have ever seen, and I major in stats.Come on guys–do you actually expect the layman to be able to interpret that thing? Even a frequency distribution represented as a scattergraph would have been better than this abomination, at least people would have been able to read it.

    As for Abbott on the ABC, it is probably just the thin edge of the wedge towards privatization. If he can sell it, he will.

  6. Cathy Alexander

    Mr starling, the graphs are lifted straight from the Newspoll report to the ABC. I don’t think they’re very clear graphs in the original, there’s too much data on them, and the red and grey lines are confusing. But should we be using Newspoll data to draw up our own graphs? That could open us to claims of misinterpreting or appropriating data.

    I’m interested in what you think.

    Thanks Cathy

  7. Mark from Melbourne

    So what are we going to do about such a partisan, self-interested push to nobble the ABC?

    The problem with comments like mike’s is that I am getting the sense that the vast bulk of us who care are being silent and will be rolled without a whimper.

  8. Venise Alstergren

    CATHY: For heaven’s sake, all new governments give a serve to the ABC-especially the Liberal Party hacks.

    What is extraordinary was the wretched Rabbott’s Gung Ho attitude. Un-Australian for Pete’s sake. How pathetic! I think Rupert Murdoch is behind Tony tiny buns Rabbott’s latest endeavours. I explain my reasoning in the comments under today’s article by Bernard Keane.

    Your article was, however, very interesting.

  9. zut alors

    And with headlines of pure piffle such as the ‘treachery’ one today people will trust The Daily Telegraph even less.

    Stand by for Mark Scott in a [email protected] uniform on page 1 in the mode of their attack on Rudd.

  10. Venise Alstergren

    MR STARLING: For Tony Abbott to privatise the ABC would mean having to find a buyer. And the one man on the planet with the money and with news creds is Rupert Murdoch. Such a sale would increase Murdoch’s share of the Oz media from seventy-five percent to around eighty-five to ninety percent.

    Tony Abbott may be brain dead, I agree, but not even Alan Jones’ market would tolerate this.

    BTW: In another publication today I accused all the people wanting privatisation of the ABC as being hired by Rupert Murdoch. I hope you are not one of them.

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