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

Govt v Public Broadcaster « Previous | |Next »
July 25, 2003

In the UK the Blair Government and the BBC continue to go hammer and tongs at one another over the way the Iraqi war was reported and commented upon. In Australia the Howard Government and the ABC are also in conflict. Both conflicts have the hallmarks of a war that involves the nature of public broadcasting.

Bargarz links to this article by Denis Boyles at National Review Online. It is worth a read for the detail and the links, but it is rather light on the big picture.

Bargarz's own take can be found here It is informed by Andrew Sullivan's claim that "the BBC decided to launch a propaganda campaign against the war against Saddam and to tarnish, if not bring down, the premiership of Tony Blair." More Sullivan here.

It's a while since I've read Sullivan. Re-reading him I can see that he defines the framework/perspective on current events for the Tim Blair's to work in. Other Australian accounts of ABC bias are Andrew Bolt and Piers Ackerman.

For the big picture on the Blair Government versus the BBC, try Jackie Ashley's article in the Media Guardian. The conflict is about power. The Blair Government wants to bring the BBC to heel. So does the Howard Government with the ABC. The public broadcaster's need to be kneecapped.

My sympathies lie with Jackie Ashley's account. Two points are made by her:

"The BBC's prime crime has not been sloppy reporting or an anti-war agenda. Its crime is to have pointed the finger at gaping holes in the government's case for going to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction."


"The BBC has done what good journalism ought to do: probing and questioning insistently - things that the government would rather not discuss. During the war it reported and commented about what was happening in the sand and cities of Iraq. It did not do what some US broadcasters - notably Fox - did, and act as a patriotic national cheerleader."

For a diferent tack see Jesse Walker's 'Beyond David and Goliath' over at Reasononline. She talks in terms of "a series of past conflicts that lend form to these dueling narratives."

From my perspective both the ABC and BBC have engaged in critical journalism in the form of commentary. These public broadcasters were acting as watchdogs for democracy and furthering the formation of public opinion. That watchdog role is why public broadcasting needs to de defended from those, such as Tim Blair, who want to privatise the ABC.

In Australia, it is Senator Alston who has launched the attack on the ABC.He has done so in terms of bias, by which he means that the ABC has failed to meet its charter of being balanced and impartial. What does balance and impartial mean here?

Some, including ABC Watch still understand it in terms of the old distinction between journalism as news and comment as editorials.(Nostalgia, July 13). However, the distinction between news and analysis on AM is generally agreed upon between the central antagonists in this debate.

Consider this exchange on the ABC's Media Report.Thus:

Catherine MCGrath: "News is the straight presentation of facts, without analysis, Current Affairs, typified by the ‘AM’ program, and indeed the ‘PM’ program, is there to analyse, to give listeners the broad view of information, to explain, to provide a context."

Senator Alston: "I don’t think I’d quarrel with anything of what you’ve said, Catherine, but what I would say is that none of that exempts the ABC from an obligation to be balanced and impartial in that coverage."

Alston is right. The ABC has that obligation as a public broadcaster. So what does balance and impartial mean? It is spelt out in this exchange on the ABC's Media Report. The topic under discussion is the possibility of Senator Alston laying a complaint about the ABC's bais in its commentary with the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

Mick O’Regan:... "So what we’re looking at here, and correct me if I’m wrong, obviously, is the degree to which in the opinion of the ABA, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had met the conditions of its Charter, its obligations for the nature of comprehensive, balanced, unbiased reporting."

David Flint: "Yes, and I would assume that the core part of the code is this:

‘Every reasonable effort must be made to ensure that programs are balanced and impartial. The commitment to balance and impartiality requires that editorial staff present a wide range of perspectives, and not unduly favour one over the others, but it does not require them to be unquestioning, nor to give all sides of an issue the same amount of time.’

So there is a need to present a wide range of perspectives and not unduly favour one side of the other. Alston's charge is that the commentary worked from a particular perspective, one he calls anti-Americanism. Unlike many pro-many righter wingers he does not want pro-American bias. He wants balance and impartiality, which he assumes means having no perspective. The ABC should be above perspective.

How do you have no perspective? How do you stand outside being situated in a a particular way of looking at things without pretendign to be God? David Flint gives us a clue by mentioning what the Act says:

David Flint then goes on:

"And further on they say, and I think this is important to bear in mind:

‘Balance will be sought through the presentation as far as possible, of principal relevant viewpoints on matters of importance. This requirement may not always be reached within a single program or news bulletin, but will be achieved as soon as possible.’"

It is all about an interpretation of what is involved in the presentation of "principle relevant viewpoints" over a number of programs. The ABC is presenting the different relevant viewpoints but it is not doing so in a neutral way. It is making interpretations and judgments about the debate. Hence it situates itself as a participant in the public debate. The objection is that public broadcasters should not be a participant. That is what they mean by not having a perspective.

My own view is that the ABC"s perspective comes from its role as the watchdog of democracy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:59 AM | | Comments (3)



Two points of housekeeping before I comment: When are you going to repair the dreadful links error on your site?; Why don't you have an e-mail address where you can be contacted?

Now on with the Show:

An interesting Opinions piece by Anne Applebaum (Washington Post) today in the Age highlights the problem. There are so many sources of information these days, so many groups peddling their agenda, that it becomes harder and harder to find a coherent and consistent view on anything.

It is clear, as Schroedinger pointed out, that no observation can be without bias. In the case of the ABC the bias is inherently of a white, secular Western, Australian kind. Additionally Alson, Howard and Flint, cannot be without bias in their critisism, and any board constituted to review it cannot be without bias.

Alston and Howard are being disingenuous. They know this is a circular argument. Why don't they come out and say what they really want. They want to be able to run Government without being scrutinised. Why doesn't Howard simply come out and ask the Australian people if they'd rather have a model like Mahatir has in Malaysia, where the government gets on with running the country, the media is subservient, and everyone is relaxed and comfortable?


re the housekeeping. Fixing the links error is beyond my skill. It is quite complex given the change to the server. All I can do is wait for the site designer to fix it.

I will see if I can fiddle with template and put in an email address.

The site was mean to be minimalist when it was initially designed. No ornamentation.

I will respomnd to the content of your comment latter.

Alston and Howard do not have to openly push for a compliant subservient media by kneecapping the ABC.

The attack dog journalists in their favourite media are doing it for them by arguing for the privatisation of the ABC.

How long before this is placed on the policy agenda by the Young Liberals?