Illustration: John Tiedemann
What’s interesting about the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney’s inner-city Ultimo in recent times turns on that which is suddenly missing at the top of the organisation — namely, the prevalence of denial that has pervaded the public broadcaster for decades.
For eons, the ABC board, senior management and high-profile staff have denied the public broadcaster has a problem with bias or political diversity. This despite the fact the ABC has been, and remains, a conservative-free zone without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.
Some ABC defenders have claimed there are many conservatives within the organisation — without naming one such person. Others have asserted this is a non-issue since there is no relationship between how journalists do their jobs and their political views. The latter position excludes the possibility of not only deliberate bias but also unconscious bias.
Ita Buttrose was appointed ABC chairwoman by the Coalition government in late February this year. On May 3, she announced that the ABC board had appointed David Anderson as the public broadcaster’s managing director and editor-in-chief. He had been acting in this position after Michelle Guthrie’s contract was terminated by the ABC board in September last year.
On May 30, Buttrose did an interview with Rafael Epstein on ABC radio in Melbourne. The left-of-centre presenter lobbed up what appeared to be a leading question in search of an expected reply. Namely: “There’s a lot of people in government who think we’re biased — how do you address that?” Epstein was referring to the criticism that the ABC is biased towards the left.
The answer was not what the presenter expected. Buttrose’s immediate response was: “Sometimes I think we might be biased. I think sometimes we could do more with diversity of views. I haven’t got a problem with anyone’s view but I think we can make sure ours is as diverse as we can make it to be.” Following further questioning, she raised the issue of unconscious bias.
Then on June 10, ABC Radio National Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly queried the ABC chair about what she meant by saying that ABC people sometimes reveal a bias without really knowing it. Buttrose doubled down on her earlier view, stating “we’re all biased in one way or another”. She then reflected that media types did not respond well to criticism.
As far as I can recall, Buttrose is the first incumbent ABC chair to concede early in her term that the public broadcaster has a problem with bias. Maurice Newman, however, did made some criticisms to this effect towards the end of his term as chairman. Buttrose also told Kelly all media organisations are in a pretty similar position when it comes to bias.
Last Monday, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran an interview with Anderson by Jennifer Duke. He told the Nine newspapers’ journalist that in future the ABC will push for a greater diversity of viewpoints among guests on its panel shows.
In particular, Anderson said, “from time to time … the perspective of views that we represent is something that we could improve upon”. He mentioned that the greater diversity of opinion he had in mind included political views, ethnic background and gender.
Anderson then added: “I think that is what leads to people’s rush to judgment about the ABC being biased — perhaps that we haven’t accurately reflected what would be the views of the country, for whatever reason.”
As far as I can recall, Anderson is the first incumbent ABC managing director and editor-in-chief to concede the public broadcaster has a problem with presenting political pluralism and has failed, on occasions at least, to reflect the views of all Australians. He has not specifically conceded bias in the public broadcaster. However, a lack of political diversity does not occur without ABC producers and presenters making choices about who is invited — and who is not invited — on to their panels.
It is a matter of record that many an ABC panel takes place where everyone (the presenter included) agrees with everyone else in a left-of-centre kind of way. Such panels lack political diversity. That also makes them boring.
Anderson told Duke that some conservatives do not want to go on ABC panels. That’s true. But it’s also true that some conservatives have been effectively de-platformed by ABC producers and presenters.
It’s early days yet under the Buttrose-Anderson management team. It seems that more than 90 per cent serious criticism of the ABC’s lack of political balance relates to less than 10 per cent of its total output — with a focus on the public broadcaster’s news, current affairs and comedy production. It should not be all that difficult to inject some conservatives into prominent presenter, producer and editor roles at the public broadcaster.
In the lead-up to the May 18 election, Melbourne-based ABC presenter Jon Faine warned Liberal Party deputy leader Josh Frydenberg that Bill Shorten was about to address a Friends of the ABC rally with a promise to increase funding for the public broadcaster. The Treasurer was unimpressed. Moreover, Q&A presenter Tony Jones suggested that Scott Morrison should accept the “great opportunity” presented to appear on his program and, in doing so, “might get a sense of what the public was thinking”.
The Friends of the ABC had no impact on the election outcome — not even in Melbourne, where support for the public broadcaster is strongest. And the Prime Minister remained in his job without accepting Jones’s (condescending) invitation and without being unnerved by ABC chief political correspondent Laura Tingle’s confident prediction the Coalition would be defeated.
With the next election scheduled for mid-2022, there is time for the ABC to renew its somewhat strained relationship with the Coalition and improve its own performance with respect to its audience. Dropping the decades-long denial about real or unconscious bias and a lack of political pluralism is a good start.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.