Friday, April 07, 2006

Bias in the ABC?

Bias is a cultural affliction and political bias is historically of two flavours, right and left. In Australia the national broadcast, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is at the forefront of the battle of cultural and political bias in Australia. On one side stands its accusers, generally of the political right, arguing that the ABC is guilty of news filtering, poor journalism and hostage to left-wing agendas. On the other side are its defenders on the left arguing for the independence, idealism and bias-free role of the ABC.

The discussion concludes with a brief look at what bias is in terms of television, how the government acts and how the ABC reacts.

The ABC was set up in 1932 as a cultural body but found its political feet through the creation of a news service on the young medium of radio. They presented the first independent challenge to the conservative press ‘as the most powerful shaper of public consciousness and consent in Australia’ (Petersen, 1993, p 259). Ever since then, the ABC has been a major political player, one which attracts passionate supporters and critics alike. The battle lines today are drawn between those on the right who see the ABC in thrall to the left and those on the left who believe the real issue is the right’s desire to seize control of the medium.

The 18th century author and politician Edmund Burke said ‘man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest'.Most Australian right-wing individuals and organizations are convinced that the ABC is not acting relative to their interests and need some sort of ‘correction’. This is despite the official stance of the Howard Government which commissioned the Mansfield Report. That report said  an independent ABC news should remain enshrined in its charter (1997, p9). Nonetheless Howard himself, quoted in an interview with Peter Cole-Adams in July 1996, bemoaned the fact that the ABC “doesn’t have a right-wing Phillip Adams” (Henderson 2005, online).

Greg Sheridan (foreign editor for The Australian) is typical of those who accuse the ABC of systemic bias towards the interests of the left. To him, it is nothing less than a full scale assault on Western-Capitalistic values:
“The ABC’s political culture has a pervasive left-liberal bias. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, the baby-boomer staff in thrall to the tired pseudo-radicalism they acquired as undergraduates decades ago. The central contention of this radicalism is that Western societies are corrupt and oppressive and Western power is to be opposed at every turn” (Sheridan 2005).

The pro-government neo-liberalist think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is another vigorous critic of the ABC and its ‘pseudo radical’ news policy. The IPA's Michael Warby claims that ABC sets its own ‘virtuous’ agenda. He argues that the ‘marks of this virtue are its standpoints on republicanism, multiculturalism, pro-immigration, reconciliation, anti global warming and anti-economic rationalism” (Warby 2005)

Gerald Stone (ex-producer of 60 Minutes and SBS board member) argues from a slightly more subtle perspective. He said journalistic practices such as sarcasm in tone of voice or facial inflection are among the techniques that  impose a judgement at the ABC that is ‘large cocooned from the community’s values' (Stone 2005, online).

Defenders of ABC independence and impartiality are found within its supporter base as well as members of the Labor movement and Fairfax print media. Their argument revolves around the need for a strong, independent ABC in an age of concentrated media ownership and commercial dictates. They also state that there is no empirical proof of bias emerging from either the complaints tribunal or from viewer input.

Media academic Stuart Cunningham refutes the Warby ‘virtuous agenda’ argument by noting  “to even discuss some of the great international issues is to be unacceptably radical according to the Institute for Public Affairs” (Cunningham et al, 1994 p53).

Pru Goward (federal sex discrimination commissioner) pushes the idealistic line when she argues that ‘the ABC is a crucial vehicle for the dissemination of ideas and information that ultimately does affect the lives of all Australians (Goward online).

Errol Simper (The Australian and ex ABC journalist) attacks the motives of the right in their search for bias. He argues that their definition of “fair is an item they want to hear or see. If it’s something they don’t want aired then, by definition, it’s unfair (Simper online, 2005).

David Marr (Sydney Morning Herald journalist and ex-ABC Media Watch presenter) likens the search for bias within ABC to the ‘hunt for the Tassie Tiger’ (Marr 2005, online). Quentin Dempster, the ABC journalist are argues that looking for bias is fruitless: “The ABC Board says there is no systemic bias” (Dempster, 2005, online).

The Age columnist Ross Warneke argues that the right wants to eliminate bias against their side of politics, “the sort of bias that former communications minister Richard Alston railed against after the Iraq war but, generally, failed to prove” (Warneke 2005, online)

Walter Lippman once wrote that stereotypes were "the fortress of our traditions and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the positions we occupy." (Lippman, 1922, p64). Lippman was
writing about the press in 1922 but his argument holds well for television values.

On the on hand TV is a dumbed-down medium, the “drug of a nation” where humans amuse themselves to death (Postman 1985). Yet as Herman and Chomsky note, TV is also an immensely powerful communications tool in which a propaganda model of systematic lying snd deceptioncan be fed to mass populations (1988, p31-35).

Though the government cannot influence the make-up of journalists in the organisation, it influences power in other ways – primarily through the make-up of the board. Right-wing commentator, Janet Albrechtsen is the latest poacher turned gamekeeper appointed by the Howard Government in 2005 on a five year assignment. She will have a fight on her hands if she wants to effect real culture change – ABC staff have their own elected member of the board of directors so their power is strong for now (although Communications minister Helen Coonan is acting to abolish the position).

Ramona Koval commenced serving her second two-year term in January 2004 and she is a strong voice for continued independence despite having powerful enemies. The Murdoch Sydney Daily Telegraph accused her of working to have Stock Exchange chair Maurice Newman removed from the ABC board. Officially he quit the boarding due to leaks about Newspoll monitoring ABC coverage of pre-election bias. He accused Koval of undermining his position by authorizing the leaks and said that he could no longer work with her. (Daily Telegraph 17 June 2004).

The battle for control may just be commencing in earnest. In the meantime, the Charter sets the official course. Paul Chadwick makes no apology for using an idealistic stance to state that ABC has a role independent of “propaganda, entertainment and advertising” (1996 pp 39-40).

The only certainty ahead is that the ABC news direction will continue to oscillate in the middle of the tug-of-war of political stereotypes that define our traditions.


ABC web site, 2005, ABC Board as at February 2005

Chadwick, Paul, 1996, Why the ABC matters to journalism in Australia, no 66 23-35

Cunningham, Stuart, Rowe, David and Miller Toby, 1994 Contemporary Australian Television, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney

Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2004, “Koval implicated in ABC board resignation”

Franti, Michael, 1991, Television, Drug of the Free by “Disposable Heroes of Hipocrisy”

Goward, Pru 2001, IPA web site

Henderson, Gerald, 2004, Sydney Morning Herald in

Herman, Edward S and Chomsky, Noam, 1988 Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York

Lippman, Walter, 1922, Public Opinion, Collier & MacMillan, Toronto

Long, Malcolm & Jane Smith, 1996, ‘ABC: Towards 2000’ Media Information Australia, extract in course readings.

Mansfield, Bob, 1997, Challenge of a better ABC: Vol 1. A review of the role and functions of the ABC, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra

Marr, David, 2004, Media Watch 14/05/04 quoted in

Petersen, Neville 1993 News Not Views: The ABC, the press & Politics 1932 – 1947 Hale & Iremonger Sydney

Postman, Neil, 1985, “Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business”. Penguin, London.

Sheridan, Greg, 2005 “Its idiotic to mock the laws that could save us” The Australian 19/09/2005

Simper, Errol, 2005, Political prism on bias, The Australian online

Warby, Michael, 2001, Why bother with balance and accuracy when you have virtue?

Warneke, Ross, 2005, Rewind, The Age online

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