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Business as usual at biased broadcaster

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: News Limited

FOLLOWING the 1996 election, Prime Minister John Howard said of the ABC: "I think one of the weaknesses of the ABC is that it doesn't have a right-wing Phillip Adams." It was a gentle yet serious reminder that our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster is charged with reflecting the diversity of the Australian community under section 6 of its Charter.

Almost 18 years on, the ABC has grown in size but has still refused to address the lack of balance in its vast line-up of journalists - unless you count one hour per week of Counterpoint as balance. Instead, as Margaret Simons wrote in her 2005 essay, the then director of radio, Sue Howard, had a cartoon on her office wall. Featuring a cage, broken apart, with two people standing nearby, one says "Oh Lord. The Right-Wing Phillip Adams has escaped." Presumably, in humorous ABC circles, a person with right-wing views must be locked up.

This is standard fare from the ABC when even the slightest - and most obvious - criticism is made of it. Ignore and mock. And so it was last week when the ABC faced criticism that its breathless reporting of allegations of navy abuse of asylum-seekers was wrong and lacking in basic journalistic scepticism. The ABC rituals set in. Ignore and mock. When ABC journalists on local radio in Adelaide ridiculed Tony Abbott's comments, playing the national anthem to prove their nationalistic passions, even a few conservatives laughed. Alas, that's not the point.

Eighteen years after expressing their hysteria when Howard was elected, ABC journalists have now whipped up a sense of horror at the new Abbott government. And dancing the same old jig, they have used Abbott's remark to deflect attention from the PM's core criticism of Aunty. It's telling that one sole ABC journalist, Jon Faine, publicly expressed concern about how the ABC covered the allegations of abuse made by asylum-seekers. Surely an organisation that genuinely reflects the diversity of the Australian community could muster a few more journalists to stand apart from the ABC pack?

Even more predictably, the ABC went on the defensive, even questioning the need for an efficiency review of the taxpayer-funded media behemoth, as if the ABC should be exempt from such reviews. Then the national broadcaster evinced a sense of entitlement to run the Australia Network, despite being in breach of that mandate to pursue "soft diplomacy" into Asia (who, apart from travelling Australians, even watches this ridiculous channel?). ABC journalists grunted and squealed at the prospect of any kind of change. To be fair, on the first episode for 2014 of Insiders last Sunday there was significant change: host Barrie Cassidy switched from the chair on the left of the set to the chair on the right.

And, of course, most unsurprisingly, our taxpayer-funded broadcaster refuses to apologise for getting anything wrong in the way they broadcast unsubstantiated allegations about members of our navy. Remember this is how the ABC first reported the unsubstantiated allegations: "new footage appears to back asylum-seekers claims of mistreatment by the Australian Navy." The footage did no such thing. As The Australian has since reported, the man who made the most serious allegations was not on the boat at the time and the burns to the asylum-seekers' hands happened during a skirmish on board the boat between the sailors and the asylum-seekers. The navy had nothing to do with the burns. Deciding to publish unsubstantiated allegations is not a sign of an independent, fair public broadcaster. It is a sign of lazy, biased journalism.

Yet on the first show of Insiders for the year, Cassidy said: "It's not for the ABC to be sceptical." That will surprise good journalists who apply intellectual scepticism on a daily basis. The problem at the ABC is that its scepticism kicks in when it suits. Just as reports of catastrophic global warming from Tim Flannery attract no scepticism, neither did the unsubstantiated claims made by asylum-seekers of abuse by navy personnel. Most disappointing, editor-in-chief, Mark Scott, told The Australian this week that there was no need for the ABC to apologise for this reporting.

On Monday's PM program, Scott once again aired his arrogance, refusing to concede an obvious and grave editorial error: it's business at usual at their ABC.

If you are intellectually honest, you can admit to the folly of Abbott's remarks about the ABC failing to show "some affection for the home team" and still recognise the deeper problems at the ABC. Sadly, the ABC lacks this kind of intellectual honesty. Certainly, Abbott would have been better off sticking to the substance of the ABC's reporting errors rather than making broad brush comments about the ABC taking everyone's side but our own. Just as Howard reminded the ABC that it was failing to meet its obligations under section 6 of the Charter, Abbott was right to remind the ABC that they should be a straight, news-gathering and news reporting organisation.

Sadly, the ABC has a long and undistinguished history of playing a disingenuous game of ignoring and ridiculing every effort to make the broadcaster a more balanced and less predictable organisation. When criticised by Labor and Liberal politicians, the ABC says that must mean the broadcaster is fair and balanced, sitting somewhere in the political centre. In fact, it means that the ABC too often skews to the left of Labor. The ABC's bigger problem is that journalists are rarely held to account for errors they make. I saw this problem first hand as a director and it continues apace.

Soon after Mark Scott was appointed as editor-in-chief of the ABC in 2006, he said in an address to the Sydney Institute that he was committed to addressing the issues of editorial bias "because I think the organisation has been, at times, too defensive in the face of such criticism." He said: "To ignore [bias] or reflexively dismiss it only serves to limit ourselves, and is at odds with the ethos of open debate and discourse that is central to our reason for being. After all, it's your ABC."

And then Scott promised this: "It is very clear to me that this pattern of critique and reflexive defence needs to be challenged. It is like a ritual dance with only two steps - and it is unproductive and unedifying for all concerned. What I am outlining tonight represents the ABC taking the lead to break this ritual."

Eight years later, the ABC under Scott has failed on every measure. The ABC is still not our ABC and the ritual dance of defensiveness has continued. The great danger behind the smugness that has set in at the ABC under Scott's stewardship is clear. By ignoring its compact with the Australian people, its owners, as set out in its Charter, the ABC risks losing legitimacy as a worthy part of our media and cultural landscape. If that happens, the smugness among ABC staff will surely go but so will the ABC.

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Let the Biased Broadcaster continue doing business, as part of its democratic right. But let the budget set by the Estimates Committee consider its marginal value for money when they next set its budget

Posted by Danny on 2014-02-05 12:05:13 GMT