The puzzle at the heart of allegations of ABC bias

COMMENT by Barry Tucker                    7 May, 2013

On 11 February, 2010 ABC managing director Mark Scott outlined the future of digital news in an address to the Melbourne Press Club. It’s a long speech and well worth reading. It also sets something of a puzzle because Scott talks about ethics, standards, professionalism, bias, mentoring, monitoring and world class standards in a way that makes you wonder what the hell the on-going debate about perceptions of Left- or Right-wing bias is all about.

Unfortunately, his address doesn’t provide any answers directly. But if I read between the lines (and I’m not suggesting he is being devious), I get the impression that the reason for criticism of ABC News & Current Affairs is its own success. The publicly-funded organisation has adapted, grown and kept pace with technological change in a way that commercially owned organisations can only envy.

In support of this claim, Scott uses a rather telling quotation from the editor of another news organisation that does not rely on advertising or public funding, the trust-funded UK Guardian. More recently, The Guardian’s finances have come under some pressure.

There is and will rightly continue to be, debate around the role of public broadcasters in this new media landscape. My view was summarised elegantly by Alan Rusbridger, the Editor of The Guardian in his Cudlipp lecture last month [January 2010]. Rusbridger stated that it would be utterly wrong to hobble the one model that is able to successfully produce distinguished and serious journalism – publicly funded broadcasters – in order to sustain a failed business model.
And he points out that with no public service broadcaster to speak of in the United States, newspapers are still in desperate trouble.

I came across Scott’s comments when searching for some thoughts he might have expressed on whether or not Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster should be broken up and sold off — as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has recommended to its political offshoot, the Liberal Party. Scott doesn’t refer to the possibility. Far from it. He speaks confidently of the ABC continuing to perform at the forefront of news gathering and presentation into the next decade.

A month after Scott’s address, The Age journalist Karen Kissane (now European Correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, @KarenKissane) wrote a lengthy response that included comments from several proprietors of commercial news organisations. When you read their remarks, the reasons for allegations of bias from the Right wing become clear: unfair competition.

The remarks by Rupert and James Murdoch in Kissane’s article reinforce the case for unfair competition. It’s a philosophical argument whether a business should strive against a competitor by improving its business model and especially its customer service, or whether it should by fair means or foul eliminate all competition. The courts are clear-sighted on that one.

The only remaining part of the puzzle for me is why the Left thinks the ABC is biased against it. My view is shifting. I think some of its staff occasionally exhibit a bias against the Left. You will find some celebrated cases in this section of my resource centre. I cheer when I see bias against the Right, but I don’t get to cheer very often. Bias often is in the mind of the viewer or listener. Sometimes one single negative question out of ten will be perceived as “Oh, they’re always biased against us.” It’s only really provable if you keep thorough and accurate records, and you have to be watching and listening constantly and carefully to do that. Even then, you have to be objective in your analysis.

If you have the time you could read the two lengthy articles referred to above (there’s plenty more available in a Google search) and decide for yourself what the allegations of bias are all about. For my part, I hope the ABC/SBS broadcasters are never broken up and sold off. Their upkeep is a small price for an open democracy to pay. A sell-off to safeguard and reinforce the kind of shit product that the commercial operators are producing today is too high a price to pay.

Mark Scott’s address to Melbourne Press Club

Karen Kinnane’s article in response

Several days after Mark Scott was made managing director of the ABC he was interviewed by Julia Baird for ABC’s Sunday profile. The interview does not reveal anything definitive about bias, but it does deal with Scott’s previous involvement with the Liberal party.

For me, as an atheist, the most worrying aspect of Scott’s involvement in journalism, let alone the ABC, is his mission “… to bring the life and light of Jesus into one of the most hostile parts of our society, the media”. Journalists, quite rightly, deal with facts rather than fantasy.

Mark Scott looks favourably upon Scott Stephens, the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Editor. Mr Stephens occasionally used the official ABC Twitter account @ABCReligion to make disparaging remarks about the Labor Prime Minister, until a social media campaign put an end to it.


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  2. The puzzle at the heart of allegations of ABC bias | lmrh5

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