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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

ABC as democracy's watchdog. « Previous | |Next »
May 30, 2003

Max Uechtritz, the director of news and current affairs at the ABC, puts his money on the table in his response to the criticism of bias and prejudice made by Senator Alston, the Minister of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Uechtritz puts his money on the table by linking the critical watchdog role of the media to democracy. But that's not enough these days.

First the ABC case. Uechtritz says:

"In wartime, distortion - for good reasons and bad - is a given. And that's why the most essential tenet of journalism, healthy scepticism, needs to be applied with full vigour. The media have to explore all points of view, have to try to get to the truth or some way towards it."

Hence we have the classic appeal to truth. Why do we need the truth? Uechtritz says:

"It is the duty of independent journalists in a robust democracy to question everything. The senator seems to think the media's duty in time of war is to fall meekly into line with the government of the day."

Truth is linked to democracy. But why question what happens in democracy? Uechtritz says that during a war:

".. it is not always in the interests of the military and those who govern them to deliver the whole truth....It is the media's role to question what the military and their political masters say, to look at both sides, to seek the truth. At times that will inevitably make people from both sides a little uncomfortable.
It's called democracy."

So in a democracy (what sort does Uechtritzh have in mind?) journalists have to adopt a questioning mode to uncover the truth that has been covered up or hidden by Canberra spin. Uechtritz implies that journalists uncover the government's spin and, when it is uncovered, there lies the truth revealed for the audience to see. That is the watchdog role and it is what the ABC did during the war. Its a key argument and it needs to be made. It is developed to good effect here over at Crikey.com

There rests the ABC's case. It is a classic defence of journalism; one which the commerical stations have largely discarded in favour of cheque book journalism and infotainment. It is a rational for public broadcasting that counters the ratings, revenue salary focus of the commercial media. Such a defence does raise lots of questions about truth. Nor does it go far enough in addressing the lefty politics of the ABC.

First a quibble about the appeal to truth. Is there are a truth to the matter as is implied by Uechtritz? What, for instance, is the truth about the reasons for going to war with Iraq? Do we not have layers and layer sof interpretation all the way down here , rather than some bedrock indisputable fact? Secondly, is not the truth of the matter about the reasons for Australia going to war more akin to some form of public agreement or consensus that that bedrock indisputable fact. For example, a consensus is forming within the formation of public opinion that the WMD reason was not a real reason?

If so, should we not focus on the deliberative process? If we do, then Uechtritz's
defence of the ABC implies a large and heterogeneous public sphere. It implies fairness or reasonable between different points of view in the current ABC media. But this is not right. It ignores the detail about the audience of current affairs programs and says nothing about group polarization in liberal democracy.The communications market the public is deeply divided one with different groups preferring their own communications package.

This consumer fragmentation means that the different groups hear more and more louder versions of their pre-existing commitments and prejudices. Its what Geoff Honnor noted about the ABC, but the same can be said for the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph. So we get a flowing of controversial and substantive programmingin which the audience hears the same viewpoint stated over and over again. The trend is for public deliberation to become more and more an enclave deliberation. This is a problem because, for liberal democracy to work, we need shared understandings of some minimal sort between the enclaves. What are these?

More substantively, Uechtritz fails to state that the ABC has a political agenda. Clearly it has---a left liberal one as ABC Watch well knows. The ABC's market segement is a left liberal audience; it reflects this enclave groups values and is the springboard for this groups deliberations. Yet Uechtritz pretends otherwise with his appeal to truth. He implies that the ABC speaks the truth. It has no political bias. That is what is implied. What is also implied is that the commerical stations have a political agenda but not the ABC.

Its political spin and it deserves to be deconstructed by conservatives. And it is politically indefensible in the face of Alston's criticisms. What needs to be done is to link the left-liberal politics to the ABC's role as a national broadcaster. What is the role of the ABC, apart from a critical questioning of political spin in the name of truth? What is it that makes it different from commerical media?

The answer has to be along the lines of the value of truth being linked to the requirements placed on the ABC through its Charter under the Broadcasting Act. This Charter places an emphasis on the ABC contributing to a sense of national identity, informing and entertaining, and reflecting the cultural diversity of the Australian community. Consequently, the ABC needs to show how its left liberal politics fosters a sense of national identity and reflects the cultural diversity of the Australian community.

Uechtritz failed to give such a defence. And that is the flaw in the way the ABC currently conducts itself in the public sphere. The defence needs to be made, otherwise the difference of the ABC as a public broadcaster in relation the commerical media will be continue to seen in subjective terms. The difference is all in the eye of the beholder.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:20 PM | | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (4)
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Comments

Comments

Well said Gary!
Alan

Interesting argument . . . you seem to be heading towards a variant on the classic liberal justification for government intervention: market failure (more specifically, failure of the market to supply essential goods or services at a reasonable price).

I think I'd buy your argument on the necessity of the "goods and services" IF the ABC were genuinely a forum for airing a diverse range of views (as opposed to the remarkably narrow and predictable range of views that I see it as disseminating at the moment).

But if that's your argument, there's another aspect you need to address: why do you assume that these views would not be aired without a government-funded broadcaster? I mean, at the moment, you just wouldn't start (or reposition yourself as) a commercial left-liberal leaning electronic media outlet, because you'd be competing for an audience with the ABC. If there were no government-funded competition, might it not be an attractive commercial proposition to pitch for these consumers?

There doesn't seem to be a shrotage of left-liberal leaning print media, either here or in the UK.

Mark,
the assumption is made because there is no policy move to defund the ABC and privatise it. Some Liberal MPs want to sweep away the whole institutional framwork of a national, publicly funded broadcaster---but that is a minority position.

Alston continues to talk all the time about the ABC working within its charter and the Broadcasting Act. I'm just working within the parameters of government policy.

Hence the ABC has to reflect greater cultural diversity that it is currently doing.