THE ABC declines to acknowledge the point. But a greater plurality of views can be heard on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel in the US than on the taxpayer-funded broadcaster in Australia. The ABC does not have one conservative presenter or producer or editor for any of its prominent television or radio or online outlets.
Sure, Fox News is a self-declared right-of-centre station. However, it does have several paid contracted contributors who express their opinions on its main current affairs programs.
The difference between the ABC and Fox News is perhaps most marked in their coverage of the media.
Since the ABC1 Media Watch program began in 1989, it has had a succession of leftist or left-of-centre presenters who use the public broadcaster as a pulpit from which they lay down the law on journalistic standards: namely, Stuart Littlemore, Richard Ackland, Paul Barry, David Marr, Liz Jackson, Monica Attard, Jonathan Holmes and Barry (again).
Littlemore set the tone of the program during his long stint as presenter between 1989 and 1997. He boasted in his book The Media and Me (ABC, 1996) how, as a journalist on This Day Tonight (the predecessor of 7.30), he had used the public broadcaster to campaign against “conservative values” in general and the Coalition in particular.
Marr, when presenter of Media Watch, declared that “the natural culture of journalism” is “soft leftie” and anyone who did not fit into this category should “find another job” (Big Ideas, September 26, 2004) .
Fox News’s coverage of journalism involves a debate with experienced commentators expressing varying positions.
Last weekend MediaBuzz focused on the media’s coverage of Hillary Clinton. Presenter Howard Kurtz presided over a debate between the left-of-centre Michelle Cottle and the right-of-centre Amy Holmes, with panellist Lauren Ashburn taking a neutral position. Kurtz facilitated the discussion, while refraining from preaching.
Last Monday Media Watch presenter Barry adopted a dramatically different approach. In the program’s long-established tradition, he stepped into the pulpit to deliver a sermon on what he believes to be declining journalistic standards – set against a background of what he regards as the almost certain death of Monday to Friday newspapers.
The essential problem with his presentation was that he failed miserably to meet the journalistic standards he requires of others.
First up, Barry produced a thesis on the decline of newspapers, focused on News Corp and Fairfax Media publications, with barely a skerrick of checkable evidence.
When discussing News Corp publications, his sources included “one former News Corp editor”, an “ex-News Corp editor”, “another ex-News Corp executive”, an “ex-News Corp executive”, “insiders”, “one former News Corp editor”, “another former News Corp executive” and “a former executive”, along with “industry insiders” and the catch-all “some”. In any decent university course such a dissertation would have earned a fail mark or, at best, a requirement that the piece be rewritten.
Also, Barry did not bother to check any of his statements about the alleged plight of newspapers with News Corp. He defended this by telling a Daily Telegraph reporter: “I don’t think if we’d have gone to News Corp that we’d have got anything.” This is mere assumption.
In relation to Fairfax Media, Barry made much of the fact that, in absolute terms, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age “are now selling not much more than 130,000 copies each a day”. He meant weekdays. I understand this is in line with the company’s aim, since it now has the capacity to produce only 130,000 copies Monday to Friday. Rightly or wrongly, Fairfax Media sees its long-term journalistic future in digital publishing.
In his rush to (pessimistic) judgment, Barry underestimated the current and possible future success of News and Fairfax in selling online subscriptions to its main mastheads. Instead Media Watch drew attention to the challenge to Australian newspaper companies from “big international groups … now muscling in on our market”.
Barry mentioned Britain’s The Guardian and the Daily Mail. He claimed that the latter, once it “gets its bearing”, is expected to “take Australia by storm” with its online product. Maybe. Maybe not. Moreover, Barry failed to mention that The Guardian, under the editorship of Alan Rusbridger, was losing about $50 million a year.
The losses of some newspapers can be covered by profits in other parts of the company. Not so The Guardian. Its losses draw from the Scott Trust. Andrew Miller, a director of the trust, said in 2012 that its money would be exhausted if losses are not dramatically reduced (The New Yorker, October 7, 2013). Clearly, unless Rusbridger can change his business model, the fund will eventually dry up.
Barry also overlooked the pressure placed on Fairfax and News Corp by the ABC’s move into online news and opinion where, using taxpayer funding, it dumps electronic copy for free. This was criticised by former Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn in an article in The Age on February 14.
Alcorn also criticised the move by the taxpayer-subsidised The Conversation into publishing opinion online. The Conversation, run by former Age editor Andrew Jaspan, is backed by many of Australia’s taxpayer-subsidised universities and also received an annual effective grant of $2 million a year in the last federal budget.
Such largesse should be difficult to defend in what Joe Hockey has described as “the end of the age of entitlement”. The Conversation seems heavily overstaffed already. However, as Tony Thomas has pointed out in Quadrant Online, it recently had to employ a “civility tsar” to discourage academics from abusing one another at taxpayers’ expense. Really.
The ABC’s Media Watch and The Conversation are generously funded by the taxpayer. Yet the evidence suggests that, at times, both entities run material that is intellectually shoddy while displaying an undeserved moral superiority.