The Paranoid Case For ABC Bias

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A few years back, when I was co-editing Overland with Nathan Hollier, we hosted a lecture by former ABC Media Watch presenter David Marr. Of course, Marr was more than a TV presenter, and many such journo-author-types — Richard Flanagan, Margo Kingston, Linda Jaivin, Mungo MacCallum, Barry Hill, Ramona Koval, Margaret Simons — gave Overland lectures. Most felt entirely at ease expounding on matters literary and political in the chambers of Trades Hall. But a few felt uneasy. There was explaining to do, and they let it be known that they weren't really part of our camp. By which I mean that undifferentiated feral mass described as The Left.

Being associated with Overland carried the risk of being branded partisan, and at the time — the height of Howard's culture wars — this risk could have real consequences. As Marr's lecture described, editors and journalists were spooked. Meg Simons felt the need to point out later on Crikey that she'd also spoken at the conservative Sydney Institute, making her, one guesses, ideologically neutral. Marr said in his lecture: "I'd led a quiet life until I went to Media Watch. Then I discovered I was a notorious Lefty. This amused my friends and surprised me." The tribal finger-pointing at journalists persists today, as last week's Media Watch documented. But then, according to the finger-pointers, Media Watch itself has a Lefty bias that twists the truth.

I returned to Marr's wonderful lecture last Thursday, prompted by an unease when reading The Age. That morning, Fairfax's opinion section introduced Nicolle Flint, "a Flinders University PhD student [who]will write regularly for The Age."

A Google search reveals a Nicolle Flint who has also worked in strategic roles for the Liberal Party, the South Australian Farmers Federation and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Her honours thesis focuses on agriculture, lobbyists and commerce. Her opinions are conservative and hard-hitting. A few months before securing the regular Age opinion gig, Flint wrote a glowing newspaper review of opinion editor Sushi Das's book. A confession: my conspiratorial reflex wondered about a link. But a causal link is unlikely. Das's writings reveal her to be a deep thinker about ethics, and she is known as a mindful and judicious editor (disclosure: Das has published my own rants). It would be unfair and pure speculation to suggest something sinister. But presented like this, it doesn't look right, does it? (More on this later.)

Nor does Flint's argument. In her piece, “ABC loses its balance over animal welfare”, Flint states a case against banning live animal exports, and she value-adds this by throwing in lashings of ABC-bias accusations.

Her case begins with a couple of ABC broadcasts of footage showing shocking abuse of animals in Indonesian and Egyptian abattoirs. To Flint, the ABC's coverage is "sensational" and lacks "balance". She asks the ABC to be suspicious of the people who have provided such video footage. The ABC should interrogate the motives of what Flint calls "the animal activist industry", a rhetoric that attempts to invoke a vast cohort conspiring to profiteer by caring about animal welfare. This is reiterated when Flint disapproves of "Animal Australia's multimillionaire patron" and "the multimillionaire founder of Voiceless".

By contrast, Flint does not use the word "industry" to describe the vast sector of meat processors, wholesalers, distributors, supermarkets, exporters and farmers. These are more emotively cast as "individual farmers"; "businesses and jobs";  and people "employed in feedlots and abattoirs, wet markets, street stalls and restaurants" — all dealing in meat, the substance without which third world "survival is a struggle; human existence is so precious and hard won."

And so the ABC, Flint argues, should cast an "impartial" and interrogative gaze towards the sorts of people — Jan Cameron, Brian Sherman — who campaign for the rights of animals and provide such footage of abattoir abuses. The ABC, she says, should be asking these questions: "Is their motivation to end the consumption of meat? Is their motivation to elevate animals to the status of humans?"

Of course, this is — among other things — baseless, irrational speculation. I recognise it as such because I have it too, only my paranoid imaginings sit on the flip-side to Flint's.

My own paranoia asks of Flint: are you related to the arch-conservative culture warrior David Flint, the Howard-appointed former ABC board member who had equally facile demands of the ABC? The one who tried to whiplash the ABC into his version of "impartiality"? Certainly, when I sought evidence to back my paranoid speculation, I found it: to support her ABC-bias argument, Flint cites David Flint's favoured mouthpiece Quadrant, a magazine that has pushed a sustained campaign against the ABC since the Howard era. Quadrant is not renowned for the journalistic “impartiality” Flint demands, and her cited Quadrant contributor, Tom Switzer, has spoken of the merits of partisan journalism. In Quadrant in 2007 he applauded his Murdoch newspaper colleagues for having “fought the good fight” for “a more conservative Australia” in support of the Howard government.

Citing new books by Quadrant stalwarts (should I, Flint-style, brand them "the anti-ABC activist industry"?), Flint complains that Australian Story has featured those multimillionaire animal welfare activists (she neglects to tally these against the many graziers the program has featured) and that ABC’s Delicious magazine promotes Meat-Free Mondays. To many of us who read Delicious, the point of Meat-Free Mondays is that meaty weeks are the dietary norm, and so some small editorial gesture towards "balance" has been attempted. But in Flint's mind, the editors have revealed a sinister bias rampant in the ABC. Will the magazine, she asks, “in the interests of impartiality, promote “Meaty Monday”?” Every individual ABC forum, she continues, “should ensure balance".

Those with an understanding of news values know that "animals are being abused" counts as news; "meat is good" doesn't. Yet such reductionist accusations of ABC imbalance are not Flint's alone: they are common. That they rank at the level of school debate was apparent to Age letter-writers, who pointed out that such ill-considered models of balance would offer equal media space to Holocaust deniers as it did to Jewish survivors.

Emphatically, of course those in the meat industry warrant a voice, and of course those of us who follow news stories should be offered a range of perspectives. But by arguing on the grounds of  balance elides the more pressing media ideals of fairness and truth. As first-year media (or politics, or sociology, or cultural studies) students soon understand, this simplistic model of ‘balance’ favours official truths against marginalised viewpoints. It normalises some positions at the expense of others, and it implies a middle-ground of objectivity.

One role of journalism is to redress an existing imbalance, especially at a time when (depending on which statistics you believe) between 30 and 90 per cent of journalism is PR- or officially-driven rather than public-driven. The meat industry has plenty of PR muscle. Farmers, too, have had a strong voice — many reported on programs such as the ABC's Bush Telegraph are as appalled as animal welfare activists and call for equally proactive measures. Importantly in this argument, the issues have been reported by the ABC in ways that directly contradict Flint's case — very frequently from multiple commercial perspectives. But instead of marshalling evidence, Flint accuses (non-ABC) journalist Anna Krien of being "highly emotive" and extrapolates this to: "it's difficult to view the ABC coverage in an alternative light."

This is the kind of sleight-of-hand speculative extrapolation I've used in the third paragraph of this commentary. Unlike commentary, a well-edited news story would not implicate people without applying the usual journalistic methods and filters (such as calling Das and asking why her pages will regularly feature Flint). The conceit of Flint's argument — and of the editors who publish this style of commentary — is the claim of rational debate that plays some kind of fair-play role in the media commentary “marketplace”. Such arguments are demonstrably irrational, but by publishing them, the opinion editor must have made the call that they carry some value.

What value? Here's where it gets interesting. One reason it's important to deconstruct commentary like Flint's is because in Australia, advocacy and journalism mix like oil and water. Advocacy is seen as the province of the opinion pages, which are given more evidential license than news pages. Few media here report in the French tradition of journalism engagé, or the American tradition of advocacy journalism, which is strictly evidence-based but transparent in its aim to advance a specific viewpoint. Few ABC programs outside Gardening Australia could be described as engaging in advocacy journalism.

This is a shame, because sometimes open advocacy — the stuff we occasionally see in The Sunday Age — is called for in news stories, and balance is uncalled-for. One of my fears (or paranoia) about Fairfax commissioning contributors like Flint has its roots in history. Ludicrous as it seemed only four years ago, it's likely we will experience an Abbott government. This is due in no small part to our newspaper culture warriors. Flint, who has written in support of Abbott, is in her mid-30s (born 1978): and according to my paranoia (or as Flint puts it: "There is a growing body of evidence, anecdotal though some of it may be…"), she's taking up the baton passed on by those crusty Murdoch and Quadrant geezers.

In his Overland lecture, Marr talked about those brutal campaigns that intimidated ABC journalists and editors in the Howard-government era. He described how then-Communications Minister Richard Alston's office cooked-up "public complaints" against the ABC and

"…since Budget night in May, Rehame has been running a stopwatch over the ABC's political coverage and trying to assess whether it's 'favourable, neutral or unfavourable to the political parties and/or candidates being reported'.

"When a new detergent is launched, outfits like Rehame monitor how effectively advertising dollars are spent. It's not a subtle business. Truth and fairness aren't at issue. Pay a small fortune to Rehame and a team of bright kids wearing headphones and pushing buttons can say how often Easy Squeeze is discussed on air and if these mentions are favourable, neutral or unfavourable. The reach and balance of advertising messages can be measured quite objectively. But such analysis cannot – simply cannot – make sense of the media's response to a product as complex as politics."

I fear a return of this scenario under Abbott, championed on by the likes of Flint. In his lecture, Marr pointed out that  journalistic bias can be born of considered fairness. But understanding balance beyond Flint et al's simplistic notions of “equal time” and “he-said-she-said” requires Australian editors to consider balance not as an empirical calculus, but a continuing process towards a broader ideal of truth and justice.

This includes opinion editors.

Though they very often overlap, journalism and advocacy occupy different media spaces. Advocacy belongs to opinion pages — so the question becomes: which advocates should have a voice? What role do industry and political advocates with arguments like Flint's play as regular Age op-ed contributors? Should opinion editors provide 'balance' by publishing their views? And what benchmarks of rigour do we apply to their arguments? If their role is to churn out provocative copy, they've done their job. But arguing for the status quo on unsubstantiated grounds has little utility if we see the media's role as holding truth to power and greasing the wheels of democracy and justice. And some of us old-school newspaper readers hold out hope that opinion editors ask more of their contributors than to give good copy.

Disclosure: Katherine Wilson sometimes eats meat, is an Age contributor, and has hoaxed Quadrant at least once.

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