Is the ABC biased or persecuted?

finalblogpicABC Chairman James Spigelman’s announcement of an audit of “impartiality” will not protect the public broadcaster from its opponents in the right wing press nor from the likelihood of budget cuts in 2014. This is partly a result of the fact that impartiality cannot be objectively proven or conveyed to the public via a single report, but it is mainly due to fact that the Right’s hatred of the ABC stems from an ideological conviction that public broadcasters unfairly impact commercial media entities, in particular, the News Ltd press.

On November 18 2013, the ABC, in collaboration with The Guardian, published documents leaked by Edward Snowden relating to the Australian intelligence service spying on Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. This caused a major diplomatic falling out and resulted in an embarrassing few weeks for the Abbott Government as Indonesia withdrew all intelligence sharing support and snubbed Australian attempts at reconciliation.

Anger towards the ABC

The Murdoch press, furious that the Abbott Government’s opportunity for a post-election honeymoon period had been dashed, turned their anger on the ABC. Notorious culture warrior, Daily Telegraph journalist, Miranda Devine remarked that “the timing of [The Guardian's] joint story with the ABC on Monday could not be more damaging. It came at a crucial point in Australian-Indonesian relations,” and went on to accuse the ABC and The Guardian of timing the leak specifically to damage the Abbott Government. The message she was promoting – that the ABC should not publish things that are contrary to the national interest – was also shared by Liberal politicians such as Malcolm Turnbull, who publicly criticised ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, and Tony Abbott himself, who said that the ABC was “guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia’s national security and long-term best interests”.

The outrage about the ABC publishing information damaging to Australian interests seems a bit odd, however, when one considers how different it is to News Ltd’s previous positions on whether the government has a right to dictate to the press what is deemed to be publishable in the national interest and what is not. It was only in 2009 that Cameron Stewart, a journalist for The Australian, received a tip of an impending police raid on suspected terrorists and, despite the pleas of then Victorian Police Commisioner Simon Overland to hold off on the reporting, The Australian published the story anyway so that they would not lose the exclusive scoop to rivals.

And it was only last year that the News Ltd journalists were thundering against the Finkelstein inquiry’s recommendation that an independent regulator investigate press standards. News Ltd CEO Kim Williams thundered “this [Gillard] government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government sanctioned journalism,” and, for typically subtle emphasis, The Daily Telegraph stuck a picture of former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s head on Joseph Stalin’s body.

ImageOne can only conclude that by expressing outrage about the “damaging timing” of ABC’s leaks, Miranda Devine is falling for the brand of “government sanctioned journalism” that her boss has railed so scornfully against. Yet I suppose we won’t see Miranda Devine’s head super-imposed on Stalin anytime soon.

The ABC’s response

Despite the hypocrisy, and predictability, of the Right’s outrage towards the ABC, its chairman James Spigelman nevertheless felt obliged to respond to the accusations of bias. A few weeks after the spying story, Spigelman gave a speech that, on the whole, defended the ABC. He argued that he did not believe there was “systemic” bias at the ABC, and that its reporting of the spying scandal was “within the reasonable grounds of professional journalism”. However, crucially, he also said that he believed that bias “sometimes” occurs, and that, to assuage public concern, he would announce a series of editorial audits assessing the impartiality of reporting.

Spigelman is trying to achieve two things with his audit announcement; he is trying to give objective credibility to his assertion that the ABC really isn’t systemically biased, and he is seeking to establish a political buffer so that if the Abbott Government tries to cut ABC funding in 2014, they cannot do so on the pretext that it is biased and not serving all Australians.

I think the impartiality audit will fail to deliver on both counts; the audit will not sway minds one way or another due to the essentially unprovable nature of impartiality, and it will not deter the Abbott Government from cutting the ABC’s funding on the pretext of budget saving measures, because their antipathy towards the ABC is based in ideology.

Impartiality is unproveable

Sometimes it can be easy for people to point out and collectively agree on what constitutes bias. The Daily Telegraph’s “Finally You Have A Chance To Throw This Mob Out” headline the day after the announcement of the 2013 election, for example, gave a clear indication of which party the newspaper preferred.

When the suspected bias is more subtle and encompassing than the above example, however, it can be much harder to agree on how to prove that bias, and what methods might be used.

A precedent for this audit is the last audit into the ABC’s impartiality that occurred following the 2003 Iraq War when the Howard-era Communications Minister Richard Alston strongly suspected the ABC of biased reporting on the issue. The method the 2003 audit decided on was a content analysis approach based on counting, for example, the number of times that a particular viewpoint or aspect of the conflict was reported. This can be useful in terms of comparing how often, for example, the ABC referred to the threat of terrorism relative to the threat of a high civilian death toll, but it does not give an indication of the quality of the airtime. As media and linguistic academic Annabelle Lukin points out: “What is the relative value of, say, appearing once for a lengthy interview, versus appearing briefly but frequently… over what span of news item is it reasonable to expect balance? Do all views deserve equal time?” (Emphasis mine).

Lukin’s last point is particularly important because the ABC’s attempts to give equal, or at least similar, amounts of time to differing views under the mantra of ‘journalistic balance’ often end up giving a skewed perception of the legitimacy of the different ‘sides’ of a debate. A notable example of this was the ABC’s tendency – right up until the end of the 2000s  –  to pit a climate ‘skeptic’ against a climate scientist to debate the veracity of climate change on Lateline or 7.30 Report. The flaw in this approach is that it conveyed the impression that skepticism and acceptance of climate change were split roughly 50/50 in the scientific community, when consensus about the veracity of human-induced climate change was well over 90%.

Ultimately, this shows that there is no obvious method for the ABC to prove impartiality and that when trying to adopt measures aimed at increasing objectivity, such as the doctrine of journalistic balance, it can often end up distorting, rather than illuminating, an issue.

Miranda Devine, was unsurprisingly dismissive of Spigelman’s audit announcement, calling it a “sop” on the basis that it was run by an ex-BBC staffer. The real reason the Right establishment hate the ABC runs deeper than misgivings about the objectivity of the audit.

Why the Right hate the ABC

Part of the reason is commercial self interest; Rupert Murdoch has long resented what he believes to be the encroachment of public broadcasters on his commercial turf. The fact that the ABC offers free content – especially with new innovations such as iView – hinders his capacity to sign up people on subscription services to News Ltd content (although this is disputed). A similar argument was recently used in Britain against the BBC and the subsequent tendency positions of journalists at Murdoch papers  – both in UK and Australia – to share Murdoch’s antipathy towards public broadcasters is probably not a coincidence, but part of a strategy to increase Murdoch’s commercial dominance.

Beneath this commercial self interest however, is a broader ideological conviction that a free market necessarily results in a freer press. This assumption clearly underpins Devine’s argument that the best way to make the ABC impartial would be to “split it into competing state organisations”. As I have argued in a previous post, free markets don’t necessarily lead to freer reporting, but in fact may actually encourage media companies to abuse the privileges of the fourth estate and distort reporting in order to maximise commercial gain.

The audit as a political tool

Spigelman is likely to be well aware that the ABC’s opponents will not be placated by an editorial audit, and is instead using the audit as a means of gaining public trust and support, and also to indicate to the Abbott Government that, through admitting “some” bias and announcing an audit, he doesn’t want to engage in an open conflict with the government and risk major funding cuts.

It’s not at all clear that the ABC needs to be out regaining the trust of the public though. Essential Polling have consistently found that the ABC is the most trusted media institution in the country  with bipartisan 75% public support. And considering the huge groundswell of public support simply on the basis of rumours of cuts at the ABC, Spigelman might find he has more public support and therefore political capital than he currently imagines.

In any event, there’s little reason to think Spigelman’s audit will have any tangible effect on the potential decision by the Abbott government to cut funding to the ABC, when one considers the ideological and highly aggressive manner in which the Abbott government has promoted and sacked old friends and enemies. Whether or not Spigelman wants open conflict with the government seems increasingly irrelevant, as it is being thrust on him by a Liberal government intent on aggressively pursuing its ideological interests.

Ultimately, the impartiality audit is just a proxy for a broader battle between those who believe the public broadcaster is a fundamental cornerstone of our media landscape, and those who see it as an unjustifiable government imposition on a commercial environment.

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