Bullying the ABC

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My research into the ABC’s news and current affairs programs has been particularly focused on how the institution’s performance has been treated in the press and I found that there were two primary themes running over a long period of time.

The first theme refers to disputes involving management, staff, and sometimes government over the political embarrassments caused or likely to be caused by ABC news and current affairs reporting. Political censorship has been regularly attempted, sometimes resisted by management and sometimes not; but history tells us that it is a fact of life for those who have worked at the ABC for any length of time.

The second theme is related in that it constitutes a specific means through which political pressure is applied, even though it disavows any intention of censoring the ABC’s output by invoking instead the principles of objectivity which underpin professional journalism. This theme informs a far more insidious strategy: accusations of a systemic bias in the ABC’s news and current affairs reporting, which regard this bias as a reflection of the political preferences of the production culture in the institution.

Thanks to Pussain images

Thanks to Pussain images

Readers will recall the period in office of former Minister of Communications, Senator Richard Alston, during which he regularly attacked the ABC’s treatment of political issues while also maintaining regular pressure on management over the content of a range of other programming that he regarded as offending community standards.

Pilita Clark reported in 1998 that during his first two years in office, Alston had written a total of 180 letters to the ABC, 83 per cent of which dealt with public complaints about ‘offensive, lewd or unsatisfactory programming’.

Interestingly, despite Alston’s obsession with political bias around the time of the second Gulf War, during this period less than 8 per cent related to the political bias ‘that he and other ministers [said]afflicts the ABC’.

No matter how strenuously the ABC investigates such complaints, nor how rigorous the internal monitoring process it puts in place, it has always been subject to some degree of government pressure.

Ken Inglis, the distinguished historian of the ABC, sees it as a straightforward practice of intimidation that is fundamental to the relation between government and the ABC, employed by Labor as well as conservative governments of the day. Inglis notes that Dr H.V. Evatt once rang the ABC’s chief executive demanding that a news reader be sacked for having an ‘anti-Labor voice’, and that both Dr Evatt and Arthur Calwell were ‘keen to make the ABC a direct instrument of government, empowering a minister to make sure that no uncongenial, biased voices or other sounds were transmitted’.

This Day Tonight and Four Corners, as the initial current affairs flagships, were often accused of bias. As far back as 1969, the ABC’s chairman, Sir Robert Madgwick, was forced to defend the accuracy and impartiality of their news and current affairs programming.

Some observers have taken a longstanding interest in developing the ABC-bias case. Researcher George Shipp set out to prove bias at TDT in the early 70s, and was still at it during the Gulf War two decades later. Anthony McAdam was particularly active in the mid-1980s, attempting to root out what Max Harris called the ‘nasty malignancy’ of the ABC’s left-wing bias, or what McAdam called ‘The ABC’s Marxists’ whom he regarded as intent upon radicalising the ABC’s news and current affairs agenda.

Ending the Affair by Graeme Turner

Ending the Affair by Graeme Turner

The Gulf War generated a raft of commentary on bias and balance, culminating in Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s extraordinary personal attack on an academic expert used in the ABC’s analysis, Professor Robert Springborg. This had been fuelled by an article written by Gerard Henderson, himself a frequent contributor to debates about balance and the ABC, which questioned Springborg’s credentials as an independent analyst.

There is a reasonable body of evidence to suggest that governments of both persuasions have regularly attempted to exert pressure on the ABC to secure positive treatment of its members and its policies. Nonetheless, my research would also indicate that the issue of ABC bias has been taken up more frequently and more vehemently by organs from the more conservative side of political debate, such as Quadrant magazine, the IPA Review, and by conservative newspaper columnists such as Frank Devine and Gerard Henderson.

This is not surprising.

There is a general view, and certainly some evidence to support it, that journalists tend towards a more critical, left-leaning view of the world and therefore that they would naturally support such a point of view in their reporting of public affairs.
John Henningham’s 1982 study of television journalists’ attitudes has been particularly influential in providing evidence that the vast majority (74 per cent) would locate themselves in the middle or ‘a little to the left’ of the political spectrum.

This broke down to 31 per cent of commercial television journalists and 44 per cent of ABC TV journalists (so we can see where that leads). While 44 per cent of the journalists surveyed voted Labor in the 1980 federal election, he reported, 61 per cent of ABC journalists but only 34 per cent of commercial television journalists voted Labor.
Henningham himself was careful to disavow any direct connection between these patterns and political bias in the news, pointing to a number of other, more important, influences on the character of news reporting, such as news values, company policy, commercial pressures and so on. Henningham concluded by noting that viewer surveys established that ‘most people consider television coverage of political news is balanced — with the ABC earning the highest ‘fairness ratings’.

Such results are consistent with the kinds of figures we see now, so little has changed in terms of the average viewer’s perceptions of the ABC’s practice  despite twenty years of allegedly biased and unbalanced reporting.
The fact that Henningham’s diagnosis of the journalists’ political preferences has stuck around, but his defence of the ABC’s fairness has not, is due to the political nature of the continued attack on the ABC’s news and current affairs.

This is not, despite its appeal to issues of principle, an unmotivated or disinterested attack. The pressure the ABC has faced in recent years is remarkable in showing the government’s naked determination to directly influence the content of specific kinds of programming, and to use its control of funding as leverage to that end.

Inglis suggests that Alston went beyond the practice of any of his predecessors in his breach of the convention that the minister must only communicate with the ABC through its chairman and the board — that is, an ‘arm’s length’ separation between the government and the broadcaster must be maintained to ensure that undue political influence is neither exerted nor sought. According to Inglis, Alston was the ‘first minister to behave as if the ABC is a government department, not a statutory authority. Instead of staying at arm’s length, he ha[d]his fist under the ABC’s nose’.

This happened on numerous occasions: including the ABC’s reporting of the 1998 election, of the 1998 waterfront dispute, of the second Gulf War, and the ABC’s decision to continue to televise Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Inglis notes that even Frank Devine, The Australian‘s columnist who tends to lead the pack in ferreting out political bias at the ABC, regarded Alston’s direct approach as ‘deplorable’, questioning the motivation behind the government’s attack on the ABC’s funding; that is, he suggested it was intended to ensure the political subservience of the public broadcaster.

This is an extract from Ending the Affair: The Decline of Television Current Affairs by Graeme Turner, published by UNSW Press
Click here to see another extract from Graeme’s book in last week’s issue.

‘Crudities and condoms: Alston’s racy ABC letters’, P. Clark, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1998.

‘Whose ABC?’, K. Inglis, Walkley Magazine, July 1998.

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