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

cultural & media politics « Previous | |Next »
June 2, 2003

Judging by all the kerfuffle of late, the ABC as a public broadcaster is a big political concern for the Howard Government. It has been subject to a number of attacks over the years ranging from it being run by left wing staff, to political bias, to suggestions about the need to get rid of (privatising) the public broadcaster.

You get the distinct impression that the notion of government ownership of media (public broadcasting) went out with the passing of Pravda and the fall of the Soviet Union. A national broadcaster is no longer needed says Ross Cameron, a Liberal MP for Parramatta in Sydney's west.

Robert Manne gives a postcard history of the recent conservative attacks on the ABC as a public broadcaster here. An interpretation of this history would suggest that it is part of a broad-based political attack on public ownership, government control and public broadcasting. The new market discourse can be construed as liberating journalists from the shackles of government funding, government control and the trade unions. The aim of fighting the cultural war is to undermine the idea of the public in the realm of public policy.

Tim Blair disappoints on this. Its just a question of plagarism he quips. More is involved than this. And Tim knows it.

In his latest intervention Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, defends this political campaign here by saying that "the right of any individual to publicly criticise a taxpayer-funded institution is surely a fundamental tenet of a democracy."

That is not the issue at all. Of course Senator Alston has a right to criticize. Just like any citizen in liberal democracy. The current core issue is the left-of-centre bias of the current affairs programs, such as AM. The Minister misleads here. He says:

"But under the ABC Act and its own statutory editorial charter, the ABC is required to report accurately and impartially. This surely requires any analysis to be based on the evidence, and should not be a licence to inject personal opinions unsupported by evidence."

"Inject personal opinions unsupported by evidence" is not the issue here. It is the left-liberal cultural bias through which particular political events are intepreted that is the core of the Howard Government's complaint. Michelle Grattan has a good contextual criticism of the Senator Alston's own example of bias.

Now Senator Alston knows that the core issue is one of political bias all too well. He actually quotes the following account of the mechanisms of the deployment of bias in the ABC from a former senior ABC insider. This says:

"....the constant and ongoing use of value-laden language and loaded questions to shape perceptions. Bias also appears in those stories that are chosen for broadcast and those that are not; the people who are chosen for interview and those who are not; the facts that are highlighted and those that are downplayed or ignored, and the analysis that crosses over into commentary."

It has nothing to do with injecting personal opinions unsupported by evidence at all. Its a red herring. Its cultural politics not personal opinions that is at issue here.

And so far the Minister is only saying that the Howard Government does not like the ABC's cultural politics. So what? That has been known for a long time. Its been a fact of political life in Australia for decades. The question at issue is: what is wrong with the ABC having this left-liberal bias in current affairs?

It cannot be the stories that are chosen for broadcast and those that are not; nor the people who are chosen for interview and those who are not; or even the the facts that are highlighted and those that are downplayed or ignored. Thats how the modern media works. It selects what it considers makes for a good story. Politicians have no control over that even when it works against them.

Nope. It has to do with 'the analysis that crosses over into commentary'. The Howard Government can accept analysis but it does not like the commentary. Judging by the Alston dossier it sees the commentary in the choice of words and the tone of the voice of the journalist.

Why the dislike of commentary on AM when the commercial media has oodles of commentary? Why cannot the ABC give commentary when the commercials can?

To his credit Senator Alston addresses this:

"News and current affairs has rightly always been a high priority for the ABC. But as a great national cultural institution, it should aspire to be the quality alternative to the commercials an electronic journal of record, not a fierce tabloid-style competitor and unafraid of scrutiny by the public, politicians and parliament."

Record is the key word. It denies commentary. So the ABC should not engage in commentary. Alston has a particular model of journalism the quality record model which is then counterposed to the tabloid style. It is a model that denies interpretation, political bias (anti-Americanism) and a questioning of the spin of the Howard government and the US military machine. This he says is the model the ABC should be following and be made accountable for.

What does it mean? Here's a stab. The ABC should state that events xyz happened and not interpret them. It should not engage with the intepretation of xyz in the texts (media releases, interviews etc) of the Howard government or the US military in order to help Australian citizens understand the significance of xyz.

Let's repeat that. The ABC should not engage with the Howard Government's commentary on xyz. It should simply record what the commentary is. No comment on the comment.

Why not? Because, the Minister says, "under the ABC Act and its own statutory editorial charter, the ABC is required to report accurately and impartially." Reporting accurately and impartially means no interpetration of the facts; no commentary on events; and no comment on the commentary (interpretation) of the Howard Government of the US military. What is out of bounds is a critique of public reason of the Howard Government outlining its reasons for going to war with Iraq. AM, in short, is an in-depth analysis of the news (reporting the facts) and not a commentary on the news.

Its a strange model of journalism isn't it. The ABC cannot comment on a federal election election campaign that was centred around a fiction about asylum seeker's children being thrown overboard. And the ABC cannot comment on the reason why the Howard Government took Australia to war--- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It cannot comment even though none of these weapons have been found up to now, and one of its senior Minsters, Defence Minister Robert Hill, concedes that the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability may have been flawed.

If the ABC current affairs presenters cannot comment, then what should the ABC do about the commentary provided by the Howard Government? Answer. The AM report should take the coalition's commentary at face value. That is what Senator Alston means by the ABC reporting accurately and impartially. The ABC's AM program should trust the Government and not be sceptical that its comments and interpretation re the reasons for going to war are not based on evidence. Those supicions that the Howard Government engaged in disinformation campaign to designed to encourage support for a war through the national security state playing up the fear angle to keep the population supporting the Coalition should be forgotten.

Nowhere does the Minister link this model of journalism to democracy, even though he talks about the right to criticize the media in a democracy. There is a marked silence in the Minister's text about the connection between public broadcasting, deliberative democracy and educating citizens about current events. Odd isn't it. I wonder what sort of liberal democracy the Minister has in mind?

The oddness is understandable. Mentioning terms such as deliberative democracy and educating citizens would give weight to the 'public' in public broadcasting. And we cannot have that can we? It would lead to the ABC scrutinizing the Howard Government's claims about Iraq's WMDs, the links to al-Qaeda, and the fact these claims by politicians were probably contrary to the advice from the Government's own intelligence community.That would undermine the legitimacy of the Howard Government's attempts to achieve political unity.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:57 AM | | Comments (12) | TrackBacks (2)
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In the face of the Howard Government's political attack on the ABC for showing left-wing and anti-American bias during the Iraq war Public opinion has defended public broadcasting (the ABC in Australia). The grounds of the defence are that a public bro... [Read More]

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Comments

Comments

There is no pint lumping all "right of centre" criticism of the ABC as being similar or homogeneous. The real problem as I see it is the link between providing news as record and providing commentary on the news.

The major issue with the ABC is that it provides commentary as news or as record. That is where the accusations of bias stick most.

If it attempted to provide inbiased news coverage as "record" and then clearly identified the commentary as being simply that - a commentator's opinion - then the accusations of bias in its news coverage would be capable of being shot down.

The issue this sort of division would then give rise to is the more vexed question of what commentary should the ABC carry. Curently such commentary by any objective standard is heavily weighted to the left of the political spectrum. As a public broadcaster it is funded by all Australians and the argument stands that it should reflect the plurality of views across Australia - possibly including obnoxious views of the extremes on all sides of the fence.

Your question as to what is wrong with the ABC being left-biased is then clearly answered - if it is funded by all it should reflect the broadest range of views, not an urban-left agenda.

We can leave the question of private versus public ownership to another day because as you point out this is not on the government's radar screen.

But on your key points: there is nothing wrong with the ABC providing commentary as long as it clearly distinguishes commentary from objective news (and before I am shot down I am not suggesting the commercial media have any better handle on this); objective news should, by its nature, stand up to scrutiny at any time; and, as for the nature of commentary unless it reflects the broad views of its funding source, the Australian people, it should be something that stops being a drain on the public purse and becomes reliant on the subscription, advertising or other patronage of those who welcome it. Let the commentary stand on its own two feet!

Fire away!

"commentary in news coverage".

Lets look at the ABC Radio National Program. Its what I am familar with.

We have news at 7am; followed by AM for around 20 minutes; then back to Peter Thompson for quality chit chat,issues of the day, interviews and analysis of topics; then more news at 8am.

AM is clearly demarcated from the news here. No fuzziness about boundaries all. AM picks up what it sees as the key news items and then comments on them plus analysis. AM is seen to be comment on the news by its political audience judging by the responses to by other commentors and politicians.

So I cannot agree that Radio National provides comments with news as a record.

(ABC National Television is different since there is commentary within the news.But it is AM that the Seantor Alston's argument is over)

On the other hand, I do agree with your comments about diverity. There ought to be quality conservative and libertarian perspectives or commentary on the news.

I wrote "commentary as news" quite deliberately because I have no problem at all with "commentary in news" if it is clearly distinguished as such. As you point out, ABC TV News in an example.

What I object to are stories that sound like this: "Dicky Alston today launched another scathing attack on the independence of the ABC" which are presented as news! The news story is "Dick Alston today released a dossier claiming the ABC was baised in ...." and the commentary may well be "this is a scathing attack on the independence of the ABC".

I have used the most extreme example but the same can be said for the tabloid style "Victoria's crime wave escalated today with the murder of..." when the news story is "Mr/Ms Bloggs was murdered today" and the commentary is "this represents an unacceptable crime wave".

ABC defenders often like to attack the latter example as tabloid sensationalism masquarading as news - note the recent critiques of Ray Martin's return to ACA. But the shoe fits the feet of both examples I have offered.

Simply because AM is a commentary program does not absolve the preceding newscast from scrutiny for impartiality and fairness and I can submit numerous examples to back up the fact that it does not always survive such scrutiny.

On AM itself, it is the choice of "experts" and the clear differences in the lines of questioning that ocassionally have people concerned about its objectivity. Fact and balanced opinion/commentary should be a staple of any serious current affairs program. Most of the time AM gets it right - unfortunately the examples where it gets it wrong seem to be weighted unevenly on the left/right axis.

As for a regular libertarian voice on the ABC - now you are talking my language! Should I start checking my diary?

Gary,

Well argued post.
I wonder if it shouldn't be summarised as such:

The Howard Government would like to see the ABC neutered because the ABC dares to hold up its actions for scrutiny.

This whole debate does beg the question: What about the commercial media?

If the Government is really concerned about bias why is that concern only restricted to the ABC? Surely consumers of commercial media have an equal right to news and current affairs that is untainted by bias.

The Alston cheer-squad will predictably point to the fact of Taxpayer Funding being the key differentiator. However that is disingenuous. If they feel so strongly about bias then they cannot be selective about its source.

Rex

Driver,
there is a difference between you and Alston. Unlike you Alston does have a problem with commentary in the AM program.

You want to ensure that the AM commentary is fair impartial through scrutiny. Alston wants no commentary.

As to the other point of commentary as news I accept the points you make. However, I would argue that news is an interpretation and involves commentary within it. Its rhetoric not reporting of facts.

Consequently the record model of journalism should be dumped in favour of a rhetorical one. Both the ABC and the commercials should come clean about their news as interpretations instead of pretending that it is a recording of the facts.

The media institutions (including Media Watch) are clinging to a flawed representation of what it is they are doing in their daily practice ---their practice is at odds with their media philosophy.

Everyone can see it cos its so obvious. They should dump the positivism. Its bad philosophy.

Gary mentions Tim Blair as a disappointing example of independant journalism, and I must agree. Tim, to his detriment, carries a huge shoulder-mounted chip with him and it shows in his writing, both blog-wise and in the public media. Indeed, his column in the Bulletin reads just like his blog. His hatred of things 'ABC' seem to sping from his axing from the ABC Radio National program, Late Night Live, which is now hosted by his nemesis, Phillip Adams. Unfortunate. Personal dislikes should not enter into quality writing. If Tim could see his way past his own bias, he'd be a much more effective journalist

Unfortunately Tim Blair's experience on RN is probably as good as it is going to get- moreover, quite a lot of RN's audience, like our Niall here, simply don't want to hear a conservative or libertarian viewpoint.

In theory, this political bent of the ABC is a real problem but in practice it isn't since listeners know to filter it out. That point was made by John Anderson in the Advertiser last weekend (and by me on my blog!). He made the point that rural people were smart enough to 'filter out the urban lefty stuff'. Trying to change the ABC culture to allow a diversity of views is simply not worth the effort. Sorry Driver but youd be made as welcome as a dose of the clap at the ABC. It's not for people like us.

The price that has to be paid for this is that when there's a Liberal government, then the government is going to be hostile and attack it.

I still think it's better, so far as the ABC is concerned, to let sleeping lefties lie.

Scott,
are your referring to news and current affairs? Or the whole of the ABC. Are some of the music programs urban lefty? Why does the ABC have good support in the bush or amongst many
conservatives.

Some of the lefty bias argument is getting carried away: eg. a program plays Cuban music so it is lefty.

Maybe its played because it is good music. And maybe some of the anti-ABC line is an expression of prejudice.

On workplace and 'economic'/production/work issues, i think the ABC is farily conservative. The Employers Union or the various Industry groups are always given a good run. I don't doubt that the ABC is vaguely milque-toast 'left' or 'liberal', but it frequently gives as short shrift to those to the 'left' to it, as to those to the 'right' of it. One presenter was basically moved into the nether regions of the organisation because she ran a regular spot where an anarchist and a parliamentary member of the Coalition locked horns weekly.

'He made the point that rural people were smart enough to 'filter out the urban lefty stuff'.'

Some of those rural types are even smarter Scott. They actually agree with some of the 'urban lefty stuff'.

Fancy that!

And they keep voting National too to express their 'urban lefty stuff'.

Fancy that!!

One of the only independents to get was voted in a regional/rural area and explicitly told voters he was against the govt.s refugee policy.