The essential criticism of the ABC is that it is a conservative-free zone without a right-wing presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. This critique has been denied by leading ABC identities such as Julia Baird, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales. However, none of this trio has named names in support of their case that the ABC has many conservatives.
The problem at the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster was evident again when ABC TV contracted left-wing Fairfax Media journalist Peter FitzSimons to present a Foreign Correspondent episode titled Don’t Call Australia Home! last Tuesday.
The middle-aged FitzSimons, who wears a red bandana, essentially ran the line that the Australian government had acted harshly in deporting New Zealand residents who had committed crimes in Australia. Assistant Minister for Home Affairs Alex Hawke criticised the program for not interviewing any of the victims of crime in these instances.
In his column in Sydney’s Sun Herald and elsewhere, FitzSimons presents himself as an advocate of women’s rights and a fierce critic of domestic violence. Yet, as Hawke points out, the Foreign Correspondent reporter did not raise the issue as to whether any of the New Zealand deportees were found guilty of offences against women.
Towards the end of FitzSimons’s advocacy, former ABC presenter Tony Eastley tweeted: “Really is this what #ForeignCorrespondent is supposed to be about? Objectivity out the window.”
It’s difficult to think of any fashionable leftist cause that FitzSimons does not embrace with alacrity. Yet ABC management chose him to cover a sensitive political issue.
Step back a month to ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie’s speech to the Melbourne Press Club on June 19. This was one of Guthrie’s rare public appearances. However, she failed to address the key criticism of the ABC. This turns on the broadcaster’s lack of political and social diversity. Instead Guthrie focused on the book Against Public Broadcasting: Why We Should Privatise the ABC and How to Do It, which is written by RMIT University academics Sinclair Davidson and Chris Berg and published by the Institute of Public Affairs.
Davidson and Berg want to privatise the ABC. A motion to this effect was passed at the recent Liberal Party federal council meeting in Sydney. Malcolm Turnbull and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield have assured the ABC that it will not be privatised. Even so, the defence of the ABC against privatisation was the thesis of Guthrie’s speech. Talk about railing at a straw man.
Guthrie went on to criticise some (unnamed) commentators and politicians who “like to pigeonhole our audience as being of a particular political bent or social strata”. Whoever has said that? Indeed, former Liberal Party operative Grahame Morris once described the broadcaster as “our opponents talking to our friends”.
The criticism of the ABC as a conservative-free zone turns on ABC staff — not the public broadcaster’s audience. Guthrie should know this. She also should be aware that nearly all of the considered criticism of the ABC turns on some news and current affairs programs. Yet Guthrie spent valuable time defending the ABC’s coverage of the New Year’s Eve fireworks and praising programs such as Mystery Road.
It was much the same when ABC chairman Justin Milne addressed the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia in Sydney on July 11. He also denied the ABC lacked pluralism. And there was a fair degree of hyperbole. Milne claimed “Labor supporters are outraged that we are ‘captive to the right’ and Liberals complain that we are ‘a hotbed of communism’.” However, he did not produce any evidence that any critic of the ABC had ever said such a thing.
Milne felt the need to tell his audience that in 1934 Sir Keith Murdoch “bitterly opposed” the ABC’s “right to broadcast an air race”. How frightfully interesting. But it is more than eight decades ago. Later on, Milne had a clear go at Murdoch’s son Rupert when he declared “we don’t push a proprietor’s line”.
The truth is that there are more left-wing journalists on News Corp’s payroll in Australia than there are conservatives employed by the ABC. Moreover, it’s a myth that only “the proprietor’s line” is found in News Corp publications. For example, it is known that Rupert Murdoch supported Britain’s exit from the EU. But while The Sun in Britain was pro-Brexit, The Times supported the Remain cause. Murdoch is the proprietor of both papers.
Milne asserted that without the ABC “pretty soon our kids (would) only see American stories and perspectives to mould their morals, culture and behaviour as adults”. He focused on the area of ABC storytelling where there is little criticism. But Milne ignored the public broadcaster’s lack of social and political pluralism in its news and current affairs area.
ABC TV Media Watch presenter Paul Barry is no IPA conservative. Yet on June 25 he agreed with the criticism of the ABC that it should air more conservative views and that it appointed staff from too limited a political and cultural gene pool.
Jonathan Holmes, Barry’s predecessor, came to a similar conclusion in a column he wrote for Fairfax Media on April 5, 2016. Holmes acknowledged that the ABC’s capital city radio presenters “come across overwhelmingly as leaning more to the left than the right”. He added that ABC management was in denial about this.
Meanwhile the ABC has released yet another editorial review. Written by ABC editorial director Alan Sunderland, it’s titled Analysis & Opinion. At the beginning of the report, Guthrie writes that she agrees “with Alan’s conclusion” that ABC journalists should not be providing opinions.
This misses the point. The problem is not that ABC journalists express opinions but that they tend to express the same conservative-free opinions. Witness the performance this week of the man with the red rag on his head railing about Australia deporting convicted New Zealand criminals.