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WHAM! CRUNCH! KAPOW! TAKE THAT, RUSSELL BALDING!

Surely Errol Simper, the Australian's debonair media critic, is mistaken in denying that bashing the ABC "has anything like the cachet it did, say, 20 years ago". I'd say it has never had more cachet—even that ABC bashing is positively chic if, to borrow from the Compact Oxford Dictionary's definition, it is done "stylishly, in the best fashion and best of taste". The national broadcaster's current strategy of evasion and denial at the first sign of an upraised fist indicates that bashing has had an effect, making it aware it has things to hide and even of the need to try and do better.

In May, the ABC was caught tampering with the transcript of an interview by Tony Eastley, host of its radio program AM, with the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. The subject was the mistaken 2001 deportation to the Philippines of Vivian Alvarez, an Australian citizen. By the time this article appears, the key passage in the interview may have become as familiar to some as the dialogue in Casablanca. However, it's worth setting down as a reference point. This is the record made by Media Monitors, a commercial transcription service:

Eastley: This woman has been lost for four years. Your officials dropped her off—the car was still moving, perhaps—and no records have been kept as to where she was left in the Philippines in 2001.
Vanstone: With respect, with respect...
Eastley: It's quite an extraordinary case.
Vanstone: ... I think it's extraordinary that the ABC would make a suggestion that someone was dropped off when the car was moving. It is indicative of an attitude, but I'll refrain from saying any more than that.
[Later in the interview] The suggestion from the ABC that the Australian government would drop someone out of a moving car leaves me speechless.
Eastley: It was a comment said in jest, which was probably not appropriate.
Vanstone: Jest? On a matter like this? Help me, please. I don't think this is funny.
Eastley: Well, it's unbelievable, the entire story ...

As it unfolds, this is a classic example of a quickwitted politician, under some pressure, spotting a small opening and giving it the charge. I find Eastley's aside quite funny but a tactical error. In any case, the crime— as in so many instances in recent history—is not Eastley's wiseguyism but the ABC's subsequent cover-up. It omitted the entire exchange, above, from its purported transcript of the program, which it posted online.

I'd suspected the ABC of falsifying its "transcripts" since, in March, I found my memory of a couple of 7.30 Report broadcasts fitting uneasily with what I was reading on the ABC's website. If my memory held up to forensic inquiry, I intended to bash the ABC in print about this. However, I was too parsimonious to pay the rather high costs of independent transcripts myself and was unable to persuade a client, going through an unfortunate managerialist phase, to cough up. Vanstone suffered no such inhibitions and her office's shrewdly selective distribution of copies of the Media Monitors transcript forced the ABC into one of the most slippery confessions heard outside an actual confessional.

Greg Wilesmith, the ABC's acting head of national programs, said that "at the moment" it was the corporation's "online policy" to "amend errors of fact by removing the error of fact and that is the policy that we have". The "transcript" of the Eastley-Vanstone interview carried the qualification: "The transcript for this story [has] been amended due to a factual error." What factual error was made in the missing bits? Wilesmith stated at the end of the interview that "of course, there's no indication that Miss Alvarez was mistreated", a sufficient correction of even preposterously inferred fact. This was also cut from the transcript. Obviously the transcript faking was done only because somebody thought Eastley's ad lib made the ABC look bad.

If this is typical of the ABC's execution of its "online

A community aligned only with itself, responsible to nobody but its members, and living by high principle alone, needs monastic discipline.
policy"—and there's no reason to think it's not, given the swiftness of its bowdlerising of the Eastley-Vanstone interview—what is the extent of its misrepresentation of itself in print? Wilesmith's assertion—"It wasn't a case of trying to conceal it ... a huge number of Australians heard it"—is just blowing smoke rings. Something heard, perhaps while negotiating going-to-work traffic, is ephemeral. Something in writing is a record.

The response of other media to revelations about the ABC's transcript tampering has been remarkably mild. It shouldn't be. What would be the reaction if Lachlan Murdoch and Fred Hilmer ordered revision of News Ltd's and John Fairfax's online archives to remove evidence of misjudgments and acts of foolishness by their newspapers?

Boldly denying the undeniable appears to be another aspect of the ABC cover-up strategy. A major case in point is the declaration by its managing director, Russell Balding, on March 1 this year: "I remain of the view—as I have said on a number of occasions—that AAfs extensive coverage of the war in Iraq was professional, comprehensive and balanced." This was Balding's ultimate response to a complaint by the former Communications Minister, Richard Alston, of bias by AM in its Iraq reporting and commentary against John Howard, the Australian federal government and the Bush administration. Alston listed sixty-eight claimed examples of AM bias. The events that unfolded between Alston's lodging his complaint on May 28,2003, and Balding's expressing satisfaction are meticulously chronicled by Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute, in the latest issue of the institute's quarterly journal, published in April. It's a zestful narrative.

To summarise Henderson rather arbitrarily: Balding referred Alston's complaint within forty-eight hours to the ABC's internal Complaints Review Executive, headed by an ABC executive, Murray Green. It responded on July 21, 2003, by grudgingly upholding two of Alston's complaints and assertively criticising the minister, in effect, for complaining. Henderson quotes the experienced and, indeed, eminent television journalist Gerald Stone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald that he had found at least twenty instances in which he would have "called AM staff members to task for making smug and gratuitous remarks blatant enough to call the program's impartiality into question".

After a protest from Alston, Balding passed the minister's complaints to the ABC's Independent Complaints Review Panel (ICRP), made up of outsiders. It upheld another twelve of Alston's complaints and found four other items to be in breach of the ABC's own policies on the use of emotional language. Linda Mottram, then AM's compere, went somewhat ape. She wrote to the Australian accusing the ICRP of "a complete lack of understanding of the job of journalism", of not understanding the dictionary meaning of words and lacking "forensic research capacity". She added that nobody at the ABC was telling her to do anything differently as a result of the ICRP report. David Marr gave the ICRP a working over on Media Watch, an ABC program aptly categorised by the Australian blogmeister Tim Blair as a "political blog".

Still dissatisfied, Alston asked the Australian Broadcasting Authority to look at his complaints. It upheld four more of them. The minister had gained support from three arbiters for twenty-one of his sixty-eight complaints, a heavy knock against the ABC. When Balding denied the undeniable he had, in the circumstances, all the credibility of Fox TV's maniacal right-winger Bill O'Reilly claiming he is fair and balanced.

I HAVE NOW BEEN in a steady relationship with the ABC for fifteen years, my previous thirty years having involved a good deal of coming and going and rootless cosmopolitanism. My conclusion is that the national broadcaster's influence over this period has been pernicious. It has relentlessly promoted, often with dirty tricks, all the causes and attitudes which Rob Foot described in his article "The Left's Descent into the Abyss" in Quadrant's March issue, such as favourable treatment of the enemies of the West, support for Green and feminist radicalism, "the displacement of marriage and family from the heart of the social condition and, not least, the insistent subordination of religious discipline to the imperative of human desire" and, most persistently, anti-Americanism.

Foot, a Left defector, described "a gruelling decade and a half for the Left", beginning with the collapse of Soviet communism, in which "the once-placid landscape of ideological certainties was suddenly confused by inexplicable earthquakes and volcanoes ... There were snakes in the watering holes and scorpions fell with the rain. Convinced of foul play, the Left looked to a familiar villain, America, as the cause of "the end of dreams, the death of trees, the ruin of hope, the murder of light ... But could the world be trusted to understand?" Foot names others but I would unhesitatingly include the ABC among the "standard-bearers in the campaign for global enlightenment".

I'm comfortable with these generalisations, reached as honest conclusions from intermittent but hard and professionally informed scrutiny of the ABC over these past fifteen years. It's easy enough to assemble specific examples of bias from even doctored texts. I've used this pointilliste approach several times in other venues. It's rather enjoyable—but makes tedious reading, I have come to realise. Revisiting Alston's sixty-eight complaints was a trudge. So let me offer as backup to my generalisations a single illustrative anecdote.

On the evening following the Iraqi elections in January, Quentin Dempster stated on the 7.30 Report that "between two million and eight million" Iraqis had voted. Much earlier in the day, a speculative—and in numerous cases reluctant—media consensus had emerged via the internet that the number was around eight million. I don't recall reading any statistical range as extravagant as the 7.30 Report's. To me this reveals a gold medal level of incredulity on the ABC's part. Surely the terrible news that an election had been held successfully, against all predictions, could not be true. Anyway, if nobody could decide whether two million or eight million people had voted, how could you have confidence in any outcome declared?

Like all media organisations, the ABC is entitled to its opinions, but its special position as a state-funded enterprise, as Gerard Henderson points out, requires that it "voice a plurality of opinion"—although, regrettably and surprisingly, this is not specified in its charter, contained in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983.

It would be fair and balanced to mention the ABC's accomplishments but I come to bash the national broadcaster, not to praise it. Helpful as it appears to be, though, bashing doesn't address the ABC's central weakness, which, with a changing Zeitgeist, could see the broadcaster inhabited one day by SWAT teams of Bill O'Reillys.

In an internal memorandum to staff, snapped up by Crikey.com, John Cameron, the ABC's director of news and current affairs, inadvertently defines this central problem while pursuing laudable goals. "We should remain unattached and dispassionate in the language we use," Cameron wrote. "[For example] 'The Howard government' is okay occasionally but when it's overused [instead of 'government' or 'federal government'] it sometimes seems we're trying to make some sort of unspecified editorial point by including the PM's name." Cameron concludes: "we may be swimming against a shallow tide of the tabloid and the vacuous in the wider media. But the fact we don't have commercial or political alignments—and our editorial values are not driven by ratings—is our badge of difference, and our big advantage."

Not only is the tone of superiority blush-making but the absence of alignment that Cameron claims as the ABC's big advantage strikes me as being to its enormous disadvantage. A community aligned only with itself, responsible to nobody but its members, and living by high principle alone, needs monastic discipline— probably including vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—to sustain its rule. Alternatively, the ABC community might need to embrace the more assertive methods of Japanese gumi and require members who refer to "the Howard government", or in other ways let the gang down, to lop off a finger. On camera would be good.

Failing radical action to make its chosen anchorite condition work to public advantage, the ABC risks fading away, at some future time in this information age, as an irrelevant ideological pressure group. When I asked an important ABC figure whether, had there not been an ABC, it would now be necessary to invent one, he struggled painfully with the answer honour compelled him to give: "No."

If bashing the ABC works as an external force for good, money is probably the best club. The 1983 Act provides for the national broadcaster to "receive such moneys as are appropriated by the Parliament for the purposes of the Corporation". For this financial year, the amount is $759 million. The corporation believes it doesn't get enough and its sense of being squeezed drives it sometimes to reckless blackmail attempts. In 2003 it created its own "children overboard" scandal by ditching an inexpensive children's news program as a way of protesting against what it saw as an inadequate allocation. In May this year, Balding said the ABC would have to stop making local television drama because it couldn't afford it. This is a risky way of stirring up public pressure on the government to open its wallet wider. Many listeners and viewers may not notice the gaps.

In its frequent clamouring for more money from parliament, the ABC never seems to refer to section 70b, articles la and Ib of the 1983 Act. These state that, with the approval of the Treasurer, the corporation may "borrow money from someone other than the Commonwealth; or (b) raise money otherwise than by borrowing it". Why doesn't the ABC give this a go? The Treasurer might be quite obliging. Since commercials would deplete the ABC's audiences and corporate sponsorships have been disallowed, it seems to me the ABC might follow the example of the US Public Broadcasting Service and energetically seek donations to supplement government subsidy. PBS makes productive use, for instance, of telethons, in which entertainers, including big stars, perform free and make polished begging speeches while volunteer in-studio telephone operators record and triumphantly announce pledges.

By seeking donors, the ABC would identify a real-life constituency, which it would be in its interests to cultivate across a broad range. By doing so it would acquire the alignment it now damagingly lacks.

QUADRANT JULY-AUGUST 2005


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