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Instinctive bias not among ABC’s virtues

Long-time journalist Maxine McKew's decision to help Labor win the next federal election hardly enhances the national broadcaster's reputation as fair and balanced 

SOME truths are so self-evident that they are hardly worth debating. Yet one of these - that a certain bias shapes news and current affairs coverage at the ABC - still provokes outrage at the Ultimo/Southbank staff cafeterias. The bias, to be sure, is not deliberate; it's not as though Aunty's journalists sit around in dark corners and plan how they will slant their program in favour of their friends and causes. But there is little doubt that, notwithstanding their denials, most reporters and producers at the public broadcaster naturally dress a little to the Left.

Of course, there is a lot to like about the ABC. Its websites and the service provided by regional radio and News Radio are outstanding. Many journalists there - especially those who have no time for the union's "Vietcong-style industrial tactics" - are intelligent, extremely well-informed individuals who are almost always on the pace with breaking news. At a time when political and current affairs programs are being dumbed down on commercial television, it is heartening to know that at least one network takes ideas and public affairs seriously. On balance, the taxpayer is better off with the ABC than without it.

But when it comes to the quality of the news and current affairs programs, our public broadcaster could be so much better if a certain bias did not cloud so many stories.

Sure, ABC TV and radio journalists insist they keep their political opinions to themselves and merely produce objective and truthful inquiry. But, like everyone else involved in the political process, ABC journalists also have strong views about pretty much everything, no matter how neatly they put such baggage aside on air. (Just ask Sydney and Canberra news readers Juanita Phillips and Virginia Haussegger, who pen opinion columns for The Bulletin and The Canberra Times respectively). When recently challenged about the corporation's Left flavour by a listener, ABC radio's Virginia Trioli (a former opinion columnist with The Age) told her Sydney audience that she no longer voted at elections: that's how she maintains her objectivity. It is a nice idea, but personal opinions don't start and stop at the ballot box.

ABC journalists, like journalists in general, may say that they never allow their opinions to shape their reporting. They may even see themselves as perfect arbiters of ultimate truth. But this is a pretension beyond human capacity. Sometimes, a journalist's personal views cloud their news reports, their choice of topics and their analysis. Again, it's not deliberate; it just happens.

Which brings us to the news that former ABC stalwart Maxine McKew will help Kevin Rudd and the ALP beat John Howard and the Coalition in this year's federal election. McKew, who was an ABC journalist for more than 30 years until she quit the national broadcaster last month, will now be a special adviser on strategy to the Labor Party.

She is hardly alone; at one time or another many ABC journalists have worked for the Labor party (think of Barrie Cassidy, Kerry O'Brien, Mark Bannerman, Alan Carpenter, Claire Martin, Mary Delahunty and Bob Carr, among others). In contrast, how many prominent ABC journalists have worked for the conservative side of politics in recent decades?

Now, McKew, like the aforementioned Labor-oriented journalists, will say in good faith that she never consciously went out of her way to favour the ALP and criticise the Liberals on air. After all, as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating will attest, ABC journalists often offend Labor as well as Coalition governments.

This is true. But this misses the point about real bias: it comes not so much from what party the journalists attack; it comes from how they see the world. A left-wing conspiracy is not necessary at the taxpayer-funded behemoth, because (most) ABC journalists quite spontaneously think alike. Former BBC staffer Robin Aitken once said he could not raise a cricket team of conservatives among staff at the British public broadcaster. Could an indoor cricket team be raised at the other Aunty? Not when so many ABC workers are creatures of a culture that is divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of mainstream Australia.

How else to account for the fact that ABC presenters often identify conservatives as such but not those on the other side of the ideological spectrum? Thus, according to Lateline's Tony Jones, the right-wing Mark Steyn is a "conservative polemicist", whereas the left-wing journalist Robert Fisk is "one of the most experienced observers of the Middle East". No left-wing labels are necessary. Perhaps conservatives need to be identified because in the world-view that prevails at the ABC, they are outside the mainstream.

How else to account for the fact that the one ABC show that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy is called Counterpoint: Michael Duffy's Radio National program, which airs conservative voices and ideas?

And then there's the ABC's Insiders. Although a conservative commentator is accommodated on the program every Sunday morning, he (either Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman or Gerard Henderson) is always outnumbered by two other more liberal counterparts and sometimes host Barrie Cassidy. The token conservative's input, moreover, is often regarded by the panelists not as a contentious contribution to the debate, but as a flat earther's fit of extremist nonsense. Incidentally, during its 15 years of existence, Media Watch has never been hosted or produced by anyone in the centre, let alone right-of-centre. Why?

All of this might also explain why certain stories that would appeal to a conservative audience are played down. For instance, during the week of Ronald Reagan's death in June 2004, Lateline virtually ignored the Republican president's life and times. No stories, no features, no debate. Nothing. Yet several months earlier Jones went weak at the knees remembering John F. Kennedy 40 years after the liberal leader's death. Instead of affording similar treatment to a conservative leader - much less having a debate about Reagan's place in history - Jones focused on tributes flooding in for another American legend who died that week (musician Ray Charles) and he browbeat Alexander Downer on the topic of Australia's (as it turns out) non-role in the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq.

Now, more honest friends of the ABC insist that we need Aunty to "balance" the so-called shock jocks on commercial radio and the right-wing columnists at News Limited newspapers. So, the argument goes, what difference does it make that ABC journalists are lefties? But those who hate talkback programs or The Australian's opinion page can take solace in the fact that they aren't subsidising Alan Jones or Janet Albrechtsen; taxpayers who subsidise the ABC to the extent of more than $800 million a year don't enjoy that peace of mind. Besides, the need for balance is there in the ABC Charter; it is the legislative quid pro quo for public funding.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in Left-liberal voices being heard on the ABC. It's just that there should also be a place for conservative, more contrarian, voices: and these should not be put on air with some sort of health warning. At the very least, there should also be a place for the silent majority: that is, a good percentage of the population to whom the ABC purportedly answers.

Tom Switzer is The Australian's opinion page editor. This is adapted from the current issue of the Institute of Public Affairs' Review.

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