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

shuffling away from the Reithian past « Previous | |Next »
June 9, 2003

The traditional ethos of the ABC has been a paternalistic Reithian one. It was paternalistic, culturally conservative and suspicious of popular culture. The ABC, as a public broadcaster, was envisioned by the liberal state as an instrument to govern the unruly working class and achieve the social cohesion of the nation.

The paternal ethos was undermined from within by the current affairs ethos that criticised conservative politicians, a conservative political culture and its public policies of This Day Tonight. Commentary in an ironic mode, not objectivity, was the top priority of This Day Tonight and it was clearly linked to public education in a liberal democracy. This Day Tonight informed, educated and entertained citizens (the Reithian ethos) and it framed its media activities within the context of the public interest of liberal democracy. The ABC's AM program of today has its roots in the political journalism of the old ABC This Day Tonight (1967-78) program. The story selection of AM, like that of the ABC's 7.30 Report and Lateline, is closely connected to the daily news agenda and it involves both a fleshing out and an influencing of the news the next day.
This critical public service broadcasting ethos is quite different from that of commercial current affairs program, which selects stories on their intrinsic audience appeal and then constructs a story around them. These stories are infotainment dressed up in the form of public interest journalism (eg., the props of reporter, the two sides to every story, challenging interviews etc.) within the format of a current affairs program.

What we have buried within the accusations of bias of AM (ie., taking a point of view) is that public figures (primarily politicians) use the ABC's formal commitment to objectivity to hamstring commentary designed to make the politicians publicly accountable. The history of current affairs journalism from This Day Tonight to AM today has been one of ABC management needing to placate their political masters, who more often than not engage in direct political attack (eg., that of Senator Alston is just the latest episode). And a whole public relations industry (spin) has now been constructed to help governments negate the public influence of critical public affairs journalism. But the ABC has become more and more defensive and embattled with respect to its criticism of public figures and policies, rather than taking the full-frontal attack on by defending its capacity for critical commentary.

Given the audience success of infotainment and political analysis being limited to a 30 second grab on national news, substantive political debate is now seen as minority taste. But it is also the case that a genuinely critical form of current affairs is not in the interests of the ABC nor the corporate commercials; and so we have a retreat from away from the combative ethos of This Day Tonight and its democratic function. That democratic function is no longer seen as primary consideration in an increasingly deregulated media market. The discussion of ideas by the fourth estate in relation to democracy is now dismissed as the chattering of the left liberal elites.

The general point of view is now one of consumers, product, choice and user pays ----not the informed political discussions of the conservative politics that currently shape our lives. This reflects the push for a new level of commercial penetration, with a minimum of restriction on the free play of market forces based on the assumption that commercial competition is the surest guide to quality. The free market case is currently packaged as widening the consumer's choice, promoting diversity and initiative, and taking power from stuffy government bureaucrats and transferring it to the consumer.

Do we have a post-Reithian public broadcasting in Australia? Is public broadcasting worth defending? If so how can it be defended? It is being made by government ministers in Britain in terms of public broadcasting being a public good that cannot be supplied by market institutions alone.


Some interesting remarks on media bias can be found Oxblog. David Adesnik, in addressing the impact on the audience of media bias, says:

"Until recently, scholars presumed that the average citizens was simply so prejudiced and closed-minded that he or she reached his opinions in the absence of information. With the aid of the online paradigm, however, one can understand how the average citizens forms opinions without devoting a tremendous amount of memory to political information storage."

We can add to this. Citizens start from their prejudices, form opinions from listening to the national conversation in the media then form their judgements about the players and the issues. The media, therefore, have a crucial role in keeping the public conversation going in a federal democracy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:06 PM | | Comments (12)


You mention the 4th estate idea below, Gary. In a time of revitalised corporatism (incorporating huge multinational public relations firms) it is more necessary than ever to have a medium which addresses itself to the citizen rather than the consumer. Micromedia like the web can't do everything a mass medium can do, and something must remain outside the corporatist nexus if the right questions are to be asked and dissenting analyses brought to the public ear. We are obliged to pay more for our commercial media than for the the public service broadcasters and the latter are attended to by 90% of us during the course of an average week (according to the Dix Report), so I reckon it's annoying in the extreme that the commercials never cop the scrutiny Auntie has to wear.

Remarkably, in the defense you link to, by Donald MacDonald, there exists this passage-

With very limited resources the ABC has been able to set up a 24 hour NewsRadio service, which sources from both within the ABC, and from all over the world - including many of your news services. What they do differently is strip the language of the bulletins down to bare facts. Rhetorical devices, emotive language, those imprecisions that so often colour perception, are not wanted by the audience.

So do listeners want AM's rhetoric, or not?

my guess is that the "progressive" half of Australia do want them, so the ABC gives the market what they want.


The AM audience is comfortable with the rhetoric. They want that point of view or bias. I thought that was taken for granted. It is part of the public broadcaster informing and educating and so working within the Reithian tradition.

This is no different to the audience of the Daily Telegraph being comfortable with the rhetoric of a Piers Ackerman.

So how does that tie in with your 'democratic function' if it's merely pandering to the prejudices of it's listeners like a commercial media outlet?

I'm not sure the micro media (webloggers) do see themselves as the watchdogs of democracy. In Australia the webloggers seem to be more concerned with fighting the culture wars.

I have seen very little in the way of a defence of public broadcasting or a rethinking of what that role might be in a deregulated media environment.

The different perspectives of the different media are bought to bear on issues and so form differnt positions in an ongoing public conversation and debate.

The biases or prejudices or pre-judgements are the starting point, and they are modified through the public debate.

The debate is the key.


I don't believe that AM panders to prejudices. It may have a 'slant' from time to time, but frankly it would be impossible not to. It is not possible to be robotically impartial when it comes to analysis.

All of the news reports on all of our main media outlets have a pro-Western, pro-Australian attitude. It would be absurd to think that they wouldn't. Thus they all pander to our prejudices, and we would expect nothing less.

I see the ABC's role in a democratic sense as being that of providing a different perspectiven from a commercially driven slant, and without perspective, and people who challenge the conventional wisdom this nation would be the poorer.

I think the commercial outlets also need the ABC. At a superficial level they need the ABC so that they can poach well trained comedians and journalists. Martin, Negus, Carleton, Stone etc. (Carleton being the comedian). But at a deeper level I suspect (I have no proof) that the commercial outlets use the ABC as their yardstick for professionalism. The Nine style of gravitas I believe was very much copied from the ABC.

The ABC is the Research and Development department for the commercials. As such I propose that they start tipping something into the hat.


Rex- they do- they pay tax on their profits.

Scott - Yes, I know. They also pay licence fees for access to the frequency spectrum.

I'm saying there needs to be an acknowledgement of the value that the ABC as a public broadcaster provides in spin-offs to the commercials.




'I'm not sure the micro media (webloggers) do see themselves as the watchdogs of democracy. In Australia the webloggers seem to be more concerned with fighting the culture wars.'

One and the same battle for me.


Because if you agree with the discussions in an earlier comments thread that there is value in having the ABC because it informs from a non commercial perspective and this enhances our democracy, and you give some credence to those wingers who don't like to pay for it with their taxes, then an alternative source of some of the funding could be the commercials who gain from its existence.