The undermining of the ABC is as old as the Iraq War, literally. But commercial television is riddled with institutional bias. Why aren’t they held to the same standard as the ABC, asks Dean Frenkel?
How do Australia’s commercial television executives regard their customers?
Let’s look through their gold-rimmed glasses and find out (admittedly not in their own words).
Through the eyes of executives, the average viewer of commercial television is primarily in search of escapist entertainment. She/he is easily pleased, predictable, conformist, patriotic, attracted to convenience and glamour, impressed by cars, prone to xenophobia, lazy of intellect – and they don’t mind advertisements.
It is easy to identify how these executives think by the programs they cook-up, through associated products advertised with each program and the integrity of the news they broadcast. This evidence is exposed when we switch-on commercial TV.
Commercial programming is stacked with tired formulaic cooking shows, singing, dancing and singles competitions, duplicitous reality television, American soap operas, crime dramas and B-grade Australian television. How they get away with sub-standard programming and disrespect for their viewers is not considered an issue worthy of public debate in Parliament.
But when business interests (owners, shareholders and sponsors) interfere with the integrity of the service, viewers are seriously disrespected. It is a contemporary form of corruption and bastardry ignored by politicians.
Commercial news invariably includes a daily recipe of mostly heavy, nasty and scary news including rapes, murders and politics, lots of advertisements and light relief after the heavy tension in the final stanza – the fun of sport, the comfortable tones of weather and a light colour story to end. It is riddled with conscious bias, and unconscious bias manicured to appear unbiased, without a fraction of accountability.
Why don’t we hear any complaints about conservative socio-political bias embedded into the news coverage of commercial networks? Apparently because they are privately owned.
Right wing critics of the ABC loudly and righteously argue that public funding provides justification for all this noise; that privately funded media should remain relatively unregulated and free to express bias – trigger conservatives righteously talking about freedom of the press. Yet those same warriors for free speech want to enforce censorship: they work hard to deny the same freedoms to the publicly funded ABC.
Their argument is intellectually insulting. Indeed, the same critics are happy to squander $50 million on a ridiculous memorial for Captain Chook, $30 million to Fox, billions of dollars on submarines and war machinery.
What is the real reason for the ABC being judged by loftier standards than the commercial networks? If you peel away the layers, it’s intrinsically about the boorish game of political football and ensuring that the media is more friendly to conservative politics.
The template to publicly obsess about the ABC’s perceived bias was planted back in 2003 by Coalition politician Richard Alston. He closely monitored the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq War and bleated loudly each time he perceived transgressions of imbalance… time and again. This reportedly triggered strategic meetings within the IPA who cooked-up plans that included stacking the ABC Board with right wing zealots, making huge cuts and more.
Antagonists learned that by continually stamping their feet they could create enough bull-dust to cloud the airways. As this campaign developed, it became evident that Australia’s cultural treasure chest, the ABC, was being trashed.
Since then, our ABC has been battered, bruised and cut by coercive pressure to satisfy what is officially called ‘balanced editorial standards’; funds have been slashed, iconic programs and services cut and over 1,000 jobs lost since 2014. In other words, the Coalition Government went on a mission to rearrange the ABC’s face so that it can never look the same again.
To apply a bit of perspective, ABC television stations command just 14.2% of the television audience, according to OzTAM (2016). If the conservatives were so concerned about editorial balance, they would push to legislate for all the networks to be forced to abide by the same standards that apply to the ABC. Instead, the majority audience (85.8%) are exposed to institutionalised bias without effective standards of balance – one form of fake news.
But the ABC has made one monumental error in its competition with the commercials. It has preferred to copy their formats and obsess about ratings. Instead it should be aspiring to distinguish itself from the junk television of the commercials and create quality product that is consciously different. Viewers deserve better than wall to wall homogeny.
In fact, ABC executives are not so different from their commercial counterparts. They failed to realise that the traditional ABC viewer, listener and reader is not the same as the dumbed-down majority who love commercial TV. To be sharply frank, the ABC audience is usually more educated, culturally broad-minded, drawn to science and attracted to quality. They should be nurtured by stimulus, not alienated by numb blandness.
This brings up the importance of independent media and why publications like New Matilda are increasingly important. One casualty of the ABC cuts has been the demise of its widely read and respected electronic publication, The Drum, which published excellent standard writing on a diverse range of subjects. Its loss has significantly narrowed the media environment and set the scene for a landscape that will only cater to a one-party-state-of-mind.
Now that the ABC has been gored, independent publications like New Matilda stand alone as bastions of diversity. It commands all of our support.
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