Put it down to the onset of the media silly season. Perhaps. The fact is that, for whatever reason, ABC commentators missed the opportunity to opine about an apparent division within the Coalition between the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and his communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull. Now that is news.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian Financial Review shortly before Christmas, Abbott said that ”there is still this left-of-centre ethos in the ABC” and expressed hope that the managing director of the ABC, Mark Scott, ”continues to address it”. Abbott commented that there is much about the public broadcaster that he likes and admires.
But, while praising ABC presenters Chris Uhlmann and Mark Simkin as ”highly professional, even-handed commentators/reporters”, Abbott commented that ”there is the ongoing issue of bias in the ABC news and current affairs section”.
Then, just before the new year, Turnbull addressed the left-leaning audience at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. He delivered his familiar call for higher standards in politics. Interviewed by PM’s Alexandra Kirk after the talk, Turnbull called for the establishment of ”an independent and objective fact-checking website or service that can hold all of us to account – whether it is columnists writing about big issues and misleading people in their columns or whether it’s politicians doing the same”.
The immediate problem with Turnbull’s suggestion is that the ABC airs many a howler and then goes into denial mode when attention is drawn to its errors. In recent times, such influential documentaries as Menzies and Churchill at War and All the Way (on the Vietnam War) contained significant errors that ABC management refused to correct or even acknowledge.
An organisation that puts errors to air could not legitimately set itself up as an independent fact checker. The public broadcaster’s online publication The Drum also declines to address errors on its website – as I have documented in my Media Watch Dog blog. It’s unlikely that Turnbull’s proposal will happen. Also, the ABC is now too dominant in Australian journalism to oversee the professionalism of lesser media mortals.
In December, the letters and opinion pages of The Australian contained substantial criticism of a perceived lack of balance on such ABC 1 programs as Insiders and Q&A. This is unfair. At least Insiders and Q&A give political conservatives a chance to state their case and, as such, provide diversity to the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. In any event, guests on Insiders and Q&A are just that – guests. They are not employed by, or contracted to, the ABC.
The essential criticism of the ABC is that it does not engage even one political conservative as a presenter or producer or editor on any of its prominent television or radio or online outlets. This despite Scott’s pledge, made over six years ago, that, under his management, a ”further diversity of voices” would be carried on the public broadcaster. It has not happened.
The ABC is replete with leftists or left-of-centre presenters/producers/editors. But it remains virtually a conservative-free zone. If ABC management is aware of conservatives to match the likes of Phillip Adams, Jonathan Holmes, Fran Kelly and others – then it should name names. Otherwise, it should cut the pretence.
There is no conspiracy at play here. It is a natural phenomenon that like-minded people tend to mix with, and engage, their own. Arthur S. Brisbane reflected on this reality after he stepped down from his two-year appointment as the public (or reader’s) editor of The New York Times.
Writing in that paper’s Sunday Review on August 25 last year, Brisbane referred to a left-liberal world view, which ”virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times”. As a result, according to Brisbane, ”developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects”.
A similar world view pervades the public broadcaster in Australia. This leads ABC staff to embrace left-liberal causes and to defend one another from criticism about lack of balance, unprofessional behaviour or factual error.
The fact is that there is more real debate on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News than on some ABC programs. The final Fox News Watch program last year consisted of a real political debate between Jim Pinkerton, Juan Williams, Richard Grenell and Judy Miller. Meanwhile, ABC 1’s Media Watch program has only had leftist commentators in over two decades. Turnbull, please note.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.