When minding grandchildren at the beach in shallow water, there is not much to do except listen to the radio. And so it came to pass that on Christmas Day, with earpiece attached, I switched on the ABC Radio National Artworks program.
There was a discussion about the latest inner-city fashion of yarnbombing, whereby a certain sect of radical feminists engage in adorning public places with graffiti of the knitted genre. Artworks’ sympathetic coverage concluded with a certain Casey Jenkins telling the program how she recently travelled to Vatican City and attached her home-knitted “lesbian fling-up” to the Basilica. The ABC reporter and presenter appeared to approve of such action.
Apparently Jenkins is on a campaign to advocate the use of what she terms “the C word” and to proclaim the “loveliness of non-reproductive sex”. Which is all well and good, provided that she was more catholic (in the universal sense of the word) in her targeting. Artworks’ favourite yarnbomber took her campaign to the Vatican and the Pope. She did not protest at the Haj in Saudi Arabia or outside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office in Tehran. Catholicism is an easy target. Islam is not. The program was so terribly twee. And so predictably Radio National.
When reviewing The Iron Lady on ABC 1’s At the Movies earlier in December, Margaret Pomeranz also felt the need to declare that “most of us” thought that Thatcher’s decision, when prime minister, to change Britain “wasn’t a good idea at the time”. David Stratton, the co-presenter of At the Movies, concurred. It was another example of an ABC program in which everyone agreed with everyone else, in a fashionable leftist sort of way.
The likes of Jenkins and Pomeranz and Stratton have a right to be heard. It’s just the overwhelming voice of the public broadcaster is left-of-centre, or leftist, and so few right-of-centre, or conservative, voices are heard.
Maurice Newman, who was the best ABC chairman in recent memory, stepped down at the end of 2011 after the Gillard government declined to extend his term. When ABC chairman, Newman drew attention to what he described as a “group-think” within the public broadcaster. Not surprisingly, Newman’s critique was criticised by ABC types, led by ABC’s Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes. However, any sample of ABC programs will reveal an over-representation of left-of-centre views and a gross under-representation of conservative positions.
The ABC managing director, Mark Scott, is a distinct improvement on his predecessor. However, as one of Australia’s highest paid public sector employees, who earns significantly more than the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, his performance should be critically assessed.
In October 2006, shortly after he took up his position, Scott addressed the Sydney Institute. While defending the public broadcaster, he did concede that there was “a sense that the organisation has issues with balance and fairness”. Most importantly, Scott acknowledged that “there needs to be a plurality of opinion” on the ABC. In 2006, the ABC did not have one conservative presenter or executive producer on any of its key TV or radio programs – although many on the left held such positions. Five years later, nothing has changed.
In 2006 Scott called for “further diversity of voices” on the ABC. Recently the public broadcaster announced a range of new talent as presenters for its TV and radio programs in 2012. The list includes academic Waleed Aly, The Chaser‘s Julian Morrow, journalist Andrew West and comedian Josh Thomas. All are talented. Not one is a conservative.
There is no conspiracy here. It’s just that in the ABC, as in universities, politically like appoints like. Mike Carlton, who is not a critic of the public broadcaster, last August depicted ABC functions as events ”where almost everyone seems to be married to, living with or divorced from somebody else in the room”.
Nor is it a case of the ABC being pro-Labor. In fact, as K.S. Inglis documents in his 2006 book Whose ABC?, the prime minister who was most critical of the ABC’s lack of political balance was Labor’s Bob Hawke – not the Coalition’s John Howard. At issue was the public broadcaster’s coverage of the first Gulf War.
Scott’s view that the ABC should engage in “soft power”, and represent Australia’s international interests through broadcasting, has been sanctioned by the Gillard government. It awarded the Australia Network contract to the ABC in perpetuity without competitive tendering. The problem with the existing service is not merely that it is boring. It also reflects the ABC house culture of criticising both Labor and the Coalition from the left.
Regular ABC viewers/listeners know that the predominant position heard on the public broadcaster is to criticise Labor or the Coalition on human rights matters (asylum seekers, same sex marriage, anti-terrorism legislation), on foreign policy (the Australian-American alliance, Israel) and on economic reform (labour market deregulation).
The appointment of even one prominent conservative as a presenter of even one significant ABC program would not resolve this long-standing imbalance. But it might indicate that Scott’s promise was about to be implemented, albeit half a decade after it was made.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.