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

Cracks in the mirror « Previous | |Next »
June 5, 2003

The debate on the bias of the ABC's AM program continues to splutter along. Yesterday Gerald Stone, an SBS board member, a former executive producer of 60 Minutes and former editor of The Bulletin, weighed in. He understands how the media enframes an issue and the bias of the media, and he knows the specific techniques that the media deploys to persuade its audience.

So it is worth while having a closer look at the case he is arguing. Stone says:

"I noted at least 20 instances where, as an ABC news executive, I would have called AM staff members to task for making smug and gratuitous comments blatant enough to bring the program's impartiality into question.That's apart from the issue of what tone of voice they may have used in delivering some of the suspect lines. Inflection or facial expression can be crucial in determining the degree of bias within the electronic media."

Well, we all know that happens. It happens on all the media. Its called rhetoric and it is aimed to appeal to the emotions of the audience to make a case. Lets grant that some of Linda Mottram's rhetoric was badly done in that the quality of her rhetoric was missing on some occcasions. The rhetoric was not as polished as that we see on 60 Minutes.

We move on because the quality of the rhetoric is not what all the fuss is about. Its media bias or the politics of media texts.

Stone does address the core issue. Stone calls it media bias by which he means "reporters using subtle journalistic techniques to push their viewpoints, regardless of the facts." He then usefully lists these techniques:

'What are some of these techniques? Ironically, though biased reporting is notoriously hard to prove, many of its warning signs are easy for the listener or viewer to spot. Here are just a few.  Beware of any report that begins with a value judgement before the fact: "The Government suffered a major setback today when the Prime Minister announced ..."  Beware of inference-packed words like "admitted", "conceded", "claimed" when "said" is sufficient.  Beware of the use of "but" to link a seemingly positive development with a less favourable one that invariably seems to put it in doubt. For example, an announcement of a drop in unemployment followed by the spoiler: "But unions warn of unrest, etc."

Most of all, beware of coverage that continually takes a given fact and immediately overshadows it by raising grave doubts about where it might possibly lead in the future. That was the most frequent "offence" to feature in Alston's litany of complaints."Now that the US has conquered the Iraqi regime, who and where next?" Mottram gloomily asked her listeners.'

This is interesting and informed commentary. What it indicates is the model of journalism that Stone thinks should be done in political commentary programs such as AM. AM is not the news. It is commentary on the news. Note Stone's rejection of using words such as "admitted", "conceded", "claimed" in favour of "said". Linda Mottram is being highly reflexive here as she is drawing the audience's attention to the arguments of those whose position she disagrees with. This is an acknowledgement of the arguments of opponents that is rarely, if ever, made by the Miranda Devines, the shock jocks on talk back radio or the Tim Blairs They mock, scorn and ridicule their opponents rather than engage with their arguments.

Stone is saying that Mottram should report that Downer said X about weapons of mass destruction ie., she is reporting a fact. She should not draw attention to Downer making an argument, responding to arguments made by others, or the plausibility of the argument. Stone then reduces Mottram's work within a rhetorical model of journalism to perpetual sneers and dripping sarcasm.

Yet arguments are being made all the time in the public sphere in which the ABC is located, and the ABC deploys the techniques of rhetoric just like all the other media and political players. The public conversation in the public policy, media and parliamentary is rhetorically based. You have to have these skills to be able to be heard---as Stone well knows.

Stone is saying that AM should not engage in rhetoric and its presenters should not make judgements about the persuasiveness of the arguments of others. It should work with a model of recording the facts. Why? Because he is working with a naive model of realism in which words mirror facts. Stone assumes that the world is as it appears to be, and that it is possible to make bias-free value-free descriptions of the world that are accurate and realistic. If the world is objectively describable, then the journalist's ethical and professional responsibility is to become as transparent as possible so as to allow the reality of the situation to predominate.

What is most suprising is that Stone does not acknowledge the cracks in the mirror given his extensive of how media orgnizations work. The naive realist model was discarded by media organizations long ago, as Stone well knows. He would never have survived as executive producer of 60 Minutes if he had operated that program within the confines of the mirror model.

Nor does Stone argue why AM should adopt the naive mirror model of journalism when he clearly knows that it no longer fits the actual on-the-ground media practices. So why impose it on AM and not 60 Minutes?

Answering that question leads us to the politics of the media, which is what the current debate is really about.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:32 AM | | Comments (19) | TrackBacks (1)

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» bias=prejudgement from
There has been a lot made of media bias in the political world of late--particularly the bias of the liberal media. By bias the conservative politicians mean the liberal journalists imposing their pinko prejudices on the facts. Bias is bad because it i... [Read More]



I can live with the ABC's clear bias in a number of areas. I'd like to see a lot more analysis of material than is the case, but it is [as you suggest] part of the standard way "information" is presented in most of the media these days.
What does irritate me, however, is the manner in which the intellectually blinkered chattering classes refuse to analyse any programme which happens to provide "evidence" for their particular feel good beliefs. What a blessing post modern "thinking" has proved, both for them and their ever increasing band of allies who are sufficiently intellectually challenged to not even be need of the blinkers.

fair enough.
But yours is a beef about the audience of the ABC and not one about the media practices of the ABC.

I too would like to see more analysis and evaluation----but I suspect that it is a minority taste.

As to the audience of the ABC you have have good grounds for your beef.

Gary - you seem in this post to be in danger of falling into the trap of sayting that because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to identify and eliminate ALL biases that affect the way we describe the world, therefore there is no merit in trying to eliminate ANY bias.

Isn't LESS bias better than MORE bias, in these circumstances?

I also wonder whether Stone is arguing that commentary should be free of ANY of those tricks that journalists use to imply conclusions about the facts they are reporting. Could it not be that he is merely making the point that they are EQUIVALENT to making the same points explicitly, and it's therefore proper to assess whether they are used in a manner that biases the commentary: the same way as it would be if, for example, Linda Mottram came right out and said "I think the war is wrong, the U.S. military are liars and I hope the Iraqi regime wins"?


Stone does raise some good examples of poor journalism by Mottram. I recall cringing at a few of the lines when they were made. But these points are all disctractions from the main issue which is neatly summarised in your last paragraph.

Why should AM be required to modify its behaviour when commercial media is not also held to account?

This is the ultimate failing of Alston's argument. He has failed to demonstrate why a publicly funded institution should be forced to undergo externally imposed censorship, when commercially funded media does not.

What is inherently different about the two that requires this?

Let us have that debate and then we will get to the heart of the issue.


Sorry, Rex, but that's the dumbest thing I've heard.

Alston doesn't have to explain why the ABC should be accountable to the taxpayers, because it's fricken obvious to everyone (except, evidently, you).

As for where the "inherent difference" lies, here's a clue: do you understand why you don't get a vote in elections for the board of BHP unless you buy shares?

Rex, spot on. But many cons would argue that the ABC is publicly funded and is therefore accountable to its political masters, whereas commercial media is accountable to its private owners.

Ultimately I think the whole argument put up by Alston and his attack dogs is a load of old bollocks. Bias is most obvious when you don't agree with it. As I think I posted here before, I doubt whether we'd be hearing the cons argue loud (if at all) if Crean were in power and the ABC were being critical of Labor policies. In any event, I recall Keating complaining about the same sort of things on the ABC when he was PM.

Ultimately, you don't have to listen. If you can't handle the opinion being expressed in a commentary program, turn off or tune into one of the commercials. Or read the Sun Herald, the AFR orr The Australian.

I have two questions I really feel the need to ask --

1) Is bias _really_ endemic in the ABC? (I'm a leftie and obviously have my blinkers on)

2) Do they have these problems in the UK with the BBC?

good points.
No I'm not giving a afree for all to bias. Ther is bias across the media and the politicians. What I was suggesting is that Mottram acknowledges this but frames it in terms of an argument then evaluates the argument.

What about her bias? Well it should be picked up and criticised by others involved in the debate (politicians, webloggers, other media etc) with due recognition of what she is doing as a professional. It is the public conversation that picks up the bias.

It is happening a bit late in Australia----the US is much quicker on the uptake and process of self-correction.

If it was so noticeable on AM, then where were the conservative bloggers when it was happening? Infatuated with Margo Kingston and Media Watch

This public sphere stuff is at a different level to the personal opinions of Linda Mottram re the Iraqi war. It is a red herring to argue that it was all subjective opinions imposed on the text.

A red herring because it ignores the institutional mechanisms of the media orgnizations and that Mottram as a professional would be required to work within them.

Re your Stone argument. You may well be right about Stone's intention. I have no way of assessing that. Let us grant it.

What I doing is denying the equivalence claim. One set of technquies is recording the other set of techniques are rhetorical.A recoding model of journalism and a rhetorical one are different beasts.

AM like 60 Minutes is commentary/interpretation not news. Both are rhetorically based but they employ different techniques. AM is radio whilst 60 Minutes is television.

Come on, robv, you can't be serious. It's only "cons" argue that because the ABC is publicly funded, it should also be publicly accountable? I thought the class was a little wider than that . . . something more like "all sentient beings".

So, to whom do you think the ABC should be accountable to: no-one? Hell, fund me! I'm happy to spend public money for my own amusement!

As for "don't have to listen", the obvious difference between the ABC and commercial media is that no-one is forced to pay for them. Imagine if you had to pay for Fox News Channel or an Australian equivalent to be beamed free into every home in Australia.

Finally, to answer your two questions, yes and yes.


I'm not saying the ABC should not be accountable to Taxpayers for its financial behaviour. Of course it should be and it is.

This isssue is all about Bias is it not? What gives commercial media the right to go unhindered. To put as much spin and bias in its content as it wishes, apparently all with Alston's blessing, while the ABC is constrained by some specially created censor?

I presume you would condone a rich Saudi Individual buying a local commercial network and ensuring that all News had an anti Western slant, simply because it wasn't taxpayer funded?

Of course you wouldn't condone it!

So why do you believe that there should be a difference in the treatment of bias depending on where the outlet gets its funding?


On the contrary, Rex, I have no philosphical problem with what you contemplate. I completely support the right of media proprietors to disseminate whatever views they like: it's up to consumers to decide whether or not it is to their taste, and, therefore, whether the proprietor receives a return on their investment or not.

The ABC, of course, is a different story, because it uses public funds. It must serve us all . . . and if it doesn't, then we shouldn't all have to pay for it.

Well Mork, you are entitled to hold that highly idealistic market rationalist position.

I would hazard a guess though that there would would be an uproar from your idealogical bedfellows if such a thing occurred.

I remind you that Alston is not threatening to defund the ABC, and therefore is not publicly advocating your position. He has in fact said that ABC funding is not under threat.

Alston is threatening to censor it, and I say, OK if he wants to try that then he should insist on applying the same standards of censorship across the spectrum.

After all he, Alston, is trying to protect us from the insidious effects of Bias, surely he should be equally concerned about those poor people who are being subtley influenced by the Commercial Media. (or just maybe he's quite happy with the Bias from that side?)


I think it is a fallacy that only the consumers of commercial media pay for it. We all do, when we buy products that have an advertising budget attached to them. Even if we don't watch the ads we help pay for them, no matter what products we buy. The difference with the ABC is that the cost is up-front, we all know, more or less, what it is.

Gee, thanks, Rex, though I have no idea what you mean by a "highly idealistic market rationalist position" other than you don't approve. I just thought it was a simple matter of free speech.

But you're still being obtuse on the difference between commercial and state-funded media. The issue is not bias in the media. The issue is whether the PUBLIC BROADCASTER should promote a single (minority) political viewpoint.

Until you can wrap your head around that, you're not going to have anything sensible to say.

SP - Sure, you pay for a tiny bit of a company's advertising budget every time you buy its products. But what determines where those advertising dollars go? Obviously, they go where the eyeballs are. If folks generally refuse to consume a piece of media, then no advertising dollars will flow that way.

Of course, that's a mass, rather than individual, form of accountability, but if you are upset about indirectly paying for a particular program via your consumer dollar, you can always boycott the products that are advertised on it. In fact, in the U.S., consumer boycotts based on companies advertising on particular shows have resulted in the affected companies pulling advertising.

And anyway, I though lefties always bought No Frills!


The commercial media are not just commercail enterprises making a buck for their shareholders though providing media services to consumers.

They are also hooked into, and a part of, the political world and to liberal democracy. Why Channel Nine claims to be the national broadcaster. And the PM is on various talk back shows on a daily basis sending out his political message to his politcal constituents. The Australian is forever giving advice to the Government.

So thecommercial media (radio, print and televison) are part of the political debate as much as the ABC; and they approach that debate with their political agenda--eg.a law and order one.

So Rex is right. At the 4th estate level the commercial media should be judged/made acountable in a similar fashion as the ABC. Do they facilitate or hinder the processes of liberal democracy?

Democracy is the word that is strangely absent in the current debate about media bias. Yet it should be upfront. It is the market that should be in the background.

Forgive the generalisation, Gary, but it seems to me the paradox of lefties that they hold ordinary people in such low esteem. The assumption is always that media proprietors print whatever they like, and the dumb sheeple just lap up whatever they're given, and therefore are inevitably going to be victims of manipulation unless the strong hand of government steps in to restrain the proprietors.

Isn't it obvious that it's a two-way street: that as media organisations are at least as much prisoners of the public's taste as it masters?

Wouldn't you concede that the dominant preference in the market for news services is for news that convinces consumers that it is reasonably accurate, comprehensive and free from bias?

Once you understand that, you see a massive constraint on the power of media organisations: if they behave in a way that causes consumers to question their honesty or reliability, consumers will choose other products and they'll go out of business.

This only fails to hold true if you really assume that people are so stupid that they can't tell when they're being manipulated. I, for one, hold my fellow-citizens in higher esteem than that.

As for "democracy", well, anyone can go and start up a newspaper and say any damn thing they like. What could be more democratic than that?

Admittedly, the position is a little different in electronic media, because of the licensing requirements. But that seems to me to be a case of too much government regulation protecting the existing players, and I'd be happy to see those barriers reduced.


I think you misunderstand. No-one here is advocating censorship except Alston. What is being said is that if he feels he can justify censorship then in order to be impartial himself he must apply it across the board, which of course he won't.

Why won't he? because as Gary points out the Commercial Media are intimately tied up in the whole nature of politics in this country, and people like Packer and Murdoch etc. will not tolerate any watering down of their powerful position of influence over the lives of everyday Australians. And Alston wouldn't want to anyway because he agrees with the line that they push!

Refer to Gary's last sentence in the original post. This is all about politics and power in the media. Alston is trying to reduce the Power of an entity that he sees as a threat to his political viewpoint. That's where the Democracy argument comes in. Alston is trying to gag the ABC. If he's successful then we will be left with fewer viewpoints, and a lesser democracy because of it.

What do I misunderstand? What does Gary's sentence about "making commercial media accountable" mean if not restricting the right of commercial media to print/broadcast what they like. "Censorship" is not the word I used, but that's exactly what it is.

As for the ABC, maybe Alston's reason is what you say, but it doesn't matter much to me because there's a much better reason to either reduce the bias of the ABC to the greatest degree possible, or, as Gary suggests to significantly broaden the range of viewpoints that it presents. That reason is the one I have outlined: a publicly-funded broadcaster has no business exclusively promoting a single, minority viewpoint.

If you want the ABC to keep on doing what it's doing, then YOU should pay for it (through watching ads, at least), but I should not be forced to.

As for the "declining number of viewpoints", isn't it obvious that if a significant sector of public opinion is not being catered for, there is a market opportunity?

At that point, we get to see whether it is correct that left-thinking really does sap intiative, creativity and risk-taking. It clearly doesn't sap complaining!

The differing arguments noted above have already addressed both sides relatively well. Suffice to say, Gerald Stone should know better than to come out swinging quasi-accusations that he himself has so obviously used in the past. Interesting comments on " Miranda Devines, the shock jocks on talk back radio or the Tim Blairs They mock, scorn and ridicule their opponents rather than engage with their arguments.". If such commentators would concentrate on the arguments within a debate instead of the debaters as seperate personalities, they might just be taken seriously.

Verily, Niall, a thought you might like to consider next time you get the urge to call people 'cancer'