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

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May 29, 2003

Oh well, it was to be expected. The ABC and the Coalition are two differently painted square cultural pegs in a round hole. Their relationship has pretty much been a history of ongoing cultural warfare. This charge of the ABC being blatantly biased and anti-American in its Iraq war coverage does raise the stakes and temperature in the cultural wars.

Richard Alston's specific charges of bias on the ABC's AM programme on Radio National can be found here.The Bunyip approves and reckons that Alston could have gone in even harder in calling the ABC to account.

It is pretty clear that the Coalition Government does not see the role of the ABC as a national broadcaster in terms of being a watchdog for democracy. Factual reporting is what is required. No comment. We the listening public make up our minds based on the facts presented to us.

Its a bit like the way that Gareth Parker presents the issue. Here's Alston's dossier. Read it and make up your minds.

This deep-seated empiricism (only the facts ma, only the facts) ignores the way that journalism is commentary, prejudice and myth. Journalism operates within a global media flow of interpretations and it responds to those interpretations. Hence we have conflicting interpretations trying to make sense of particular events. What Gareth is implying is that that journalism should be about reporting facts and it should not engage with interpretation.

The issue raised by Alston's political intervention is not just faulty journalism--getting the facts wrong---by the AM crowd because of their political bias. There is a genuine issue here. What the Coalition cannot countenance is the ABC use of a critical public reason to expose the media spin around government policy. On the other hand the ABC does see itself acting a watchdog for democracy. Remember how the Hawke-Keating Government went off the planet about the ABC's use of Robert Springborg as a commentator in 1991 during the first Gulf War? They too reacted angrily to the ABC acting as a watchdog for democracy. Many politicians do not like the media acting in a watchdog role. They want lapdogs on a drip feed.

Hence it is an issue about the role of the public journalism of the national broadcaster in a liberal democracy. Should the ABC play a critical role? Should it present commentary from perspectives excluded by the corporate media---eg., the Murdock Press in Australia? Should it present critical commentary that questions competing interpretations of political events?


There is a discussion on the politics of the Alston criticism of the ABC by by Tim Dunlop over at Road to Surfdom. I forgot to link to it yesterday.

And Geoff Honnor has a post here It says that righties have to learn to deconstruct ABC Radio National interpretations just like Lefties have to deconstruct those in The Australian. They need some education to help them do so.

Yep. Its what citizens do. Think for themselves. That political freedom means questioning the habitual thinking of right and left and the centre.

And Scott over at The Eye of the Beholder has a good post that accepts both bias in journalism as a fact of life and the diversity of the media.

Prejudice as bias is a part of everyday life and the media. The different forms of media in rbiing against one another can challenge these taken-for-granted prejudices, and so we get a form of debate or dialogue or conversation going through an exercise in political freedom. That exchange of ideas in the public sphere by citizens is a core tenet of liberal democracy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:06 PM | | Comments (19)


No, the ABC shouldn't present any commentary as national broadcaster at all. It should be privatised.

Political freedom means being able to say what you want. It certainly doesn't mean forcing me to pay for a television station to broadcast views with which I disagree. That is fascism.

It is only because we are used to it that we can't understand how dangerous is the concept of the government running a televison station.

That sounds fine in theory, Alan, but the fact is the privately owned broadcasters here in the US act as mouthpieces for the Administration, especially during the war just finished. Both the ABC and the BBC have shown mcuh more fidelity to decent reporting than any major US network and of course, we are 'forced' to pay for them too, either by direct subscription (they generally come bundled as packages and you can't necessarily choose not to receive one or the other) or through advertising. It's not as simple as you make it sound. There is certainly nothing inheritantly fascistic about a national broadcaster.

Tim, that's ridiculous. You aren't forced to pay for Fox news at all. Would you be arrested if you didn't have cable? No. Would you be if you refused to pay tax?

There's just as much bloody advertising on the ABC as there is on cable TV. The difference is that if I really hate Fox news, and don't feel like giving them my money, I don't have to.

Unlike Alan, I don't think the government owning a television station is "dangerous". There are plenty of alternative viewpoints available. It is, however, immoral and unnecessary.

the market argument----privatise the ABC--- means no public broadcaster acting as a watchdog for liberal democracy. That has always been one of the reasons for the freedom of the press to express its opinions ---it is the fourth estate.

And so it acts in terms of the public good and not just a commercial enterprise furthering the wealth of shareholders. Political and economic freedom are different things.

Immoral? Uhuh. Beats me.

Unnecessary? Without the ABC there would be such a homogeneity of right wing views and bland programming on the commercial stations that we'd be in a cultural desert. Crappy news analysis and reporting and even crappier music playlists.

The fact that the ABC routinely upsets governments of both political persuasion proves to me that they're doing something right and we need them.

Ask yourself this -- if Crean were PM and the ABC did a number on him/embarrased him severely, would you be equally vociferous in your criticism of the broadcaster and call for its privatisation? Honestly now.

The conservatives would welcome the ABC exposing the Crean Government's spin.

If you visit Ken Parish's weblog you will find Geoff Honnor arguing that there should be a form of education in the universities that enables conservatives to be able to deconstruct the spin of the ABC.

So they want critical thinking in the public sphere; but they want to dampen down that political freedom when it challenges their own beliefs.

well, i thought the ABC board was supposed to be stacked* with Liberals these maybe Alston is crying 'bias' as a pre-emptive strike against possible claims of a Liberal management bias...very cunning Dick!

*see for example Lindsay Tanner's piece from April 25:

How can a publicly owned politically independant media be immoral and unnecessary?

Gianna--does this mean that Howard and McDonald have fallen out?

Or is it just the upcoming full moon that's brought out the dark side of Alston? I know I've been real crapulent and quite irascible the last few days and my wife blames it on the lunar cycle.

Unnecessary - because the function of the ABC is now duplicated by commercial media outlets Australia-wide. In it's early years the ABC was the only station available to a large percentage of citizens. This is no longer the case with the advent of satellite television and regional commercial stations.

Immoral - A man much more intelligent than me said it best when he said:

The "private sector" of the economy is, in fact, the voluntary sector; and...the "public sector" is, in fact, the coercive sector.

- Henry Hazlitt

we do have diversity of information media.The more the merrier I say.

Yet there is a key difference. The ABC's Charter talks in terms of national identity and cultural diversity. There is nothing about Channel Nine or The Australian that says anything about the nation. The "charter" of these corporations is about making a profit and increasing shareholder wealth. They are not obliged to foster a sense of national identity and cultural diversity.

I do not see how you can imply or suggest that the ABC's interpretations of political events are coercive whilst the advertising on commercial broadcasting is not coercive. Both the ABC and the commercial media have political agendas.

Gary - good to see someone at last refuse to defend the indefensible (that the ABC has no political agenda) and make a bold stab at a case for why that's not a bad thing.

But it's a big leap you're taking, and "watchdog for liberal democracy" doesn't really cut the mustard without a hell of a lot of explaining. How on earth do you assess its performance, judged by that standard? Are we sure that we all mean the same thing by "liberal democracy"? Do you write it a charter of "shared political values" that it's obliged to represent? If not, how else do you justify public funds being used to advance one political view over all others? If part of its role is to promote minority political views, how do you choose which? Just as an example, libertarian or pure free market views are almost NEVER represented in mainstream media . . . is this a job for the ABC?

yes the ABC has a political agenda. It is required by its charter.

Nope 'watchdog of democracy' does not get us very far. It was not meant to. It was meant to connect the ABC to politics rather than just economics and financing.

You ask very good questions. In the first instance we would have to go back to the ABC charter and assess it in tersm of contributing to a sense of national identity, to inform and entertain, and to reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.

We--the diverse voices in the Australian community ie., citizens--do not mean the same thing by liberal democracy--its a contested concept. But the act does refer to citizens so I would interpret 'inform' in terms of enabling citizens to think and speak for themselves----ie., a deliberative democracy whilst paying heed to the liberal values embodied in our political institutions.

And cultural diverity should be taken seriously---it does not just mean left liberal or multiculturalism.

This is where the ABC has a problem- because it runs a left agenda, it can't connect with the right half of Australia who are still obliged to pay their share for it, but have no sense of 'ownership'. This is why the ABC's slogan "It's your ABC" is so inappropriate- it's certainly not MY ABC and I suspect it's not for many other people like me who don't identify with the ABC's 'left' outlook both politically and culturally.

As you say, the ABC should reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community. But I don't even know if that is possible.

There is, by the way, a lot more to the ABC then news/current affairs, and they usually get ignored.

"I do not see how you can imply or suggest that the ABC's interpretations of political events are coercive whilst the advertising on commercial broadcasting is not coercive."

It's not the ABC's politics that is coercive. It's the practice of making the public pay for it.

I have no problem with a station that runs a left-wing angle on almost every news story. I don't have to watch it, after all.

The problem is when I am *forced* to pay for it.

that means no public broadcasting.
Is that the implication of your financing case? Privatsation adn deregulation of the media market?


In the 60s rational elements in the left acknowledged the support of the ABC and were glad to have it. Nowadays, many on the left are so carried away with the 'self evident nobility' of one hobby horse or another, that they're unable to see it.
It hasn't happened overnight. The beginnings were there even in the 60s. It's just that the Tooth Fairy Brigade's numbers and 'certainty' have increased.

Hey Norman,
I'm acknowledging the political bias. Can't we start the debate from that?