The War on Bias

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I don’t know whether this is actually a new phenomenon, or if I’ve just started to notice, but often on the ABC radio news whenever a policy statement is made by someone on one side of politics, their counterpart is also asked to comment. The statement they then make is utterly predictable something like ‘the other Party’s policy is a load of old bollocks’ though they usually put it less colourfully than that.

I have to ask what precisely this ritualistic rebuttal adds to the news? I can only see one reason for it — protecting the national broadcaster from accusations of bias.

I haven’t watched many episodes of the ABC’s new program Difference of Opinion and I have to declare my own bias here. I was asked to participate in one of their pilot programs, but I didn’t make the cut for the real thing.

The episodes I have watched have been reasonable enough, though the only one that seemed to really come to life was when Ross Gittins got stuck into Peter Hendy from the Sydney Chamber of Commerce whilst discussing work/life balance. Both these worthy gentlemen were unashamed about their particular biases and that’s what made the polite biffo so much fun to watch.

That’s the thing about bias, it may not be politically correct, but it’s very entertaining.

In Adele Horin’s most recent column she revealed that ex-Liberal Senator Santo Santoro had been particularly gung ho in his crusade to stamp out bias at the ABC. Her recitation of the literally hundreds of questions he asked of the broadcaster and the extraordinary amount of time and effort that had to go into answering them was very revealing.

If only Santoro had put as much care and attention into his own share dealings as he had into minutely examining the language used by ABC journalists he might still have his job. Mind you, I am prepared to accept that the ABC is biased. Unlike Santo Santoro, however, I sincerely hope they stay that way.

Let me explain. It’s not just because their bias, soft Left at worst, often accords with my own that I applaud it. It is also because, without bias, the ABC runs the risk of becoming like so much in modern life: sanitised, safe and dull.

Allow me to confess a guilty secret. Two of the columnists I read regularly are Miranda Devine in the SMH and Christopher Pearson in The Australian. Because I rarely agree with either of them, their columns almost always make me boil with rage and stomp around the house fulminating to whomever in my family is unfortunate enough to be within earshot.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

However, I enjoy reading them. They write well — particularly Pearson and they are lively, direct, funny, provocative and terribly, wonderfully biased. On my side of politics, Mike Carlton often has me chortling with laughter, and I’d crawl over broken glass to read anything by Pamela Bone, Ken Davidson and Ross Gittins. Regardless of the very different styles of each of these commentators, it is their biases that make them interesting.

Every piece of communication that is going to engage a reader or a viewer must have a point of view. Without one, without an argument or an angle, the communication becomes dull and inhuman.

We’ve all had to sit through turgid presentations at conferences; the drone of the after-dinner speech; the convoluted prose of just about any legal document. No matter how vital, important or even intrinsically interesting the subject matter of these speeches or documents, they are hard to absorb. And they are hard to absorb because they are trying to be objective, in essence, unbiased.

Worse, the fear of being accused of bias is silencing people. A couple of years ago I was asked by a producer of the ABC’s 7.30 Report to send her a list of names of parents who could afford to send their children to private schools but had chosen public ones. I sent an email out to my network and received a long list of possible participants in reply. I sent the names to the ABC producer without comment, and one of the families duly appeared on the program.

It was election time and I received a panicked phone call from the same producer the day after the program went to air because someone had recognised the father of the family as an ex-member of the ALP and had rung the program accusing them of bias. She wanted to see if I’d known. I didn’t. I had known nothing about the people on the list, simply that they fitted her criteria.

As I had also appeared on the program, I attempted to reassure her by saying both my parents had been members of the Liberal Party and had actually stood for pre-selection. To no avail. She ended the phone call by saying she was now going to have to ask what political party anyone had belonged to before they could be interviewed.

What immediately shocked me about this experience was not her response, but my own. My first thought was how glad I was that I’d never belonged to a political party! When did that become a bad thing in a democracy?

I remember music producer Les Goch telling me that we no longer needed to use professional musicians to play instruments anymore. He said computers had long ago developed to the point where they could play any piece of music absolutely perfectly. The trouble was, he said, the music sounded cold and inhuman and failed to engage. If producers were going to use computers to generate music — usually because it was cheaper than using real musicians — they had to make deliberate errors so that the music sounded warmer, more real, less icily perfect.

And so it is with bias. A person’s bias is the pulse of their heart, the life blood of their human personality. I would rather see people with all kinds of biases from all sides of politics banging on fearlessly than the creeping timidity we have now where so many people are softening what they say for fear of being labelled ‘biased’.

Of course, the kind of bias the Santo Santoros of this world object to is not so much the bias of the commentator, but the surreptitious bias in programs that are meant to present the facts. They act as if this bias is some sort of conspiracy, rather than simply the inevitable result of real, living humans being involved in the process.

By stamping out bias we run the risk of losing much more than we gain. The news will start to sound like that computer generated music — cold, inhuman and ‘perfect’.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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