THERE can be little doubt things have improved at the ABC since the appointment of Mark Scott as managing director and the appointment of Maurice Newman as chairman. A new broom has swept aside some of the egregiously obvious problems of bias and a more professional approach has supervened.
There have been new programs that increase debate, including the ill-fated, experimental Difference of Opinion, to be replaced with a new question and answer program, based on the lively and controversial BBC show Question Time. Media Watch is not as politically partisan. Paul Chadwick has been appointed as director of editorial policies to try to ensure that the ABC fulfils its statutory obligations under the ABC Act to be accurate and impartial. In terms of balance, Middle East correspondents Matt Brown and David Hardaker are marked improvements.
For anybody who believes that the taxpayer-funded broadcaster needs to be impartial and accurate, balanced and fair, this is all to the good.
The two main issues for the ABC are those of bias and genuine diversity. The culture of the ABC is clearly left of centre. Bias has not been so much party political as cultural.
It is often not deliberate but bespeaks assumptions, mind-sets, that are far from the concerns of the mainstream Australia that pays for the ABC and that, in return, the ABC is supposed to serve and be fair to in its range and content. It is not the job of the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster to act as a counterweight to other media or mainstream ideologies perceived to be too right wing by a staff whose centre of gravity is way to the left.
Why is it that the only intentionally liberal-conservative program on Radio National is titled Counterpoint? It is a counterpoint to a way of thinking that dominates the culture of the ABC in the assumptions of the "people like us" who broadcast to other "people like us".
In 1968, German student leader Rudi Dutschke, drawing on the idea of hegemony of Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and of Marxist critical theory, suggested "a long march through the institutions" of power to create radical change from within government and society by becoming an integral part of it; as critical theorist Herbert Marcuse put it, "working against the established institutions while working in them".
The countercultural capture of cultural institutions meant the emergence of what Swinburne University sociologist Katharine Betts calls a "new class" whose object was not old wealth. Instead, Betts writes in her 1999 book The Great Divide, "the attack was concentrated on the Australian mass and its materialism, racism, sexism and insularity".
A noticeably homogenous class of inner city, tertiary-educated social professionals, often referred to as the chattering classes, has an identity that developed together with mass tertiary education. While the old Left emphasised economic reforms to help the working class, the new class focused on issues such as refugees, multiculturalism, reconciliation, civil liberties and so on. This new class of social professionals includes teachers, academics, public servants and welfare workers who adopt distinct ideological positions and values that serve as social markers for the new class.
The "knowledge class", which includes ABC journalists, is an important segment within the new educated class that has more distinct values that increasingly set them apart from business and the general community.
I mention this not because I think the ABC has no diversity at all but because it's a trend embedded within the institutional culture that will take another "long march" to reverse, this time in the opposite direction towards the centre. It's a march that has begun from the top but needs to infuse its way to the bottom.
A Four Corners program, Dangerous Ground, broadcast on March 10, illustrates some of these issues. The program began with problems about setting up an Islamic school in Camden. Those against a Muslim school being set up are described in primarily racist terms. In the next suburb, according to the blurb, "Aussie-born sons of the Middle East bitterly complain of being treated like enemies in their own country. Now some community leaders", the program blurb continued, "are warning of a nasty backlash due to the hostility that young men like these feel is aimed against them. The program is concerned that counter-terrorism and security could actually be increasing the threat of breeding home-grown terrorists."
Erring on the side of aggression - just to be on the safe side - can radicalise and alienate the people who are targeted, analysts tell Four Corners. An expert suggests radicalisation occurs because of "young people feeling under siege from police and wider public. His fear is this could morph into an agenda for violent change", Four Corners asserts. Finally, it suggests, "defeating terrorism presents not just a policing issue but also a challenge to core community values of pluralism and tolerance".
No mention of Muslim cleric Taj Din al-Hilali and those more extreme than him or the effect of Muslim fundamentalism and propaganda, or the role played by police and security forces in protecting us from Muslim extremism. The only actors of any consequence for Four Corners are those who buy the narrative that the causes of Muslim extremism lie in the West. It is a problem of criminality, law enforcement, poverty and racist behaviour towards suspects of Middle Eastern appearance.
Of course, there are legitimate issues here to debate, but I am pointing to the one-sided narrative that suffuses this program and others that does not take Muslim extremism seriously in its own right but mainly as due to its exacerbation by us.
That the Labor and Liberal parties receive similar treatment on the ABC demonstrates that there may not be cultural bias towards one mainstream party rather than the other.
It is true that the ABC has criticised both sides through the years, but that may be because it comprises cultural liberals who are to the left of both the main parties, in the direction of theGreens.
The ALP has been the victim of the ABC while in government. During the 1991 Gulf War, the ABC employed Robert Springborg, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at Macquarie University, as its expert commentator for The Gulf Report. In an article in the Melbourne Sun, Springborg equated the modes of government of Saddam Hussein and Bob Hawke. Hawke's decision to send ships to the Persian Gulf was "every bit as much of a one-man show as is the country we may be fighting".
Eleven years of the Howard government, basically bipartisan estimates critiques in the Senate and an ABC board comprising conservative and centrist members have made some difference to all this.
The much-mooted number of ideologically conservative members has not translated into a conservative agenda for the ABC.
However, I am pleased to note that this culture does not dominate all parts of the ABC. In news and current affairs, PM is fair, balanced, impartial and professional. I think Lateline casts a wide net and is generally fair and balanced, as is The World Today. The ABC should not advocate causes left, right or politically correct but should be a repository for a genuine diversity of views in addition to being accurate and impartial.
Douglas Kirsner is professor of philosophy at Deakin University. This is an edited extract of a speech he gave at the Sydney Institute last night.