COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA
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BY AUTHORITY OF THE SENATE
MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST Senator Moore—Order! It being 12.45 pm, I call on matters of public interest.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Senator SANTORO (Queensland) (12.45 pm)— There was something of a furore last week at the session of the Senate supplementary estimates at which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation appeared and from which its managing director, Mr Russell Balding, chose to be absent. This lapse was uncharacteristic as well as profoundly unwise. Mr Balding customarily attends the ABC estimates hearings. To date there has been no explanation for his absence on this occasion. The ABC’s new director of communications and strategy, Mr Murray Green, who told the committee he was appearing in Mr Balding’s place, also told us that he did not know why the managing director was not present. That non-explanation is a great example of the
sort of nonsense you can get from directors of spin and, for that matter, former complaints review executives of the ABC. Mr Balding’s absence was discourteous to the Senate. I think that point has been made with some force by the chairman of the estimates committee, my Western Australian colleague Senator Alan Eggleston. I certainly said as much at the committee as well and I won the support of my Labor opponent opposite, Senator Lundy, for doing so.
Today I want to revisit the issue of the ABC and the bias and lack of balance it shows in some of its critically important broadcasting. I do this with no pleasure. But I do this—and I will continue, in fact, to do this—because the problem with the ABC, which predates both my arrival in the Senate and the remedial efforts of the former minister for communications, then senator Richard Alston, still needs to be resolved. The ABC is still stonewalling. It is still adamant that it cannot sin. It is still trotting out newspaper surveys that show, quite properly—and, I believe, quite accurately—that Australians like and have a deep respect for the corporation, the work it performs as our leading public broadcaster and the institution as a whole. I say on the record in this place, as I consistently say at every opportunity, that the ABC is a highly valuable institution in the Australian community and overwhelmingly does a great job.
But, in respect of bias and lack of balance on some political issues, it is not doing a good job. This is the aspect of ABC affairs that I have concentrated on and the aspect on which I shall continue to press for the necessary remedies. I have been accused of nitpicking over the ABC. These accusations in some instances have come from some of the greatest nitpickers of all time—people in the media. I am not sure that there is anything actually wrong with being defined as a nitpicker. To my mind, it means someone who has a clear objective in view and is determined to reach it. I repeat—and I underline this so that the management floor at ABC headquarters in Ultimo can be in no doubt—this is a prosecution that I intend to take to its final conclusion.
In the present case—and I again repeat this so there can be no mistaking the objective of the exercise on which I embarked when I entered the Senate and from which I do not intend to resile—the issue is one of partiality, bias, lack of balance and unfair presentation of facts by some leading broadcast figures in the ABC. These defaulters do themselves no credit by failing in the principal duty of any journalist to present unblemished facts. By ‘unblemished’, in this context I mean facts that are not embellished by subliminal invitations to adduce that the political leaders of the great democracies are foolish, stupid, unwise or, in some unspecified way, a bunch of dangerous hicks.
Last week at the Senate estimates hearings I again sought to bring to the attention of the ABC a significantly large number of instances in which the corporation’s broadcasters had failed the test of objectivity. I will not attempt today to recanvass the specifics of those latest questions to the ABC. Suffice it to say that the ones I asked orally at the hearing were for the most part dodged by the representatives of the ABC who were present. There is nothing new in that outcome. It is the ABC’s standard operating procedure when under question: deny the issue, denigrate the questioner and hide the evidence. The ABC complaints system regularly does this to ordinary, everyday Australians who make a complaint. It does it to everyone who takes up an issue with them. It is adept at laying smokescreens.
One is tempted to speculate that, if Admiral Beatty had had the services of the ABC’s flotilla of obfuscators at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, he would have had the German grand fleet bottled up in the Kiel Canal within hours. Admiral Jellicoe’s main battle fleet could have stayed safely at home in Scapa Flow and the British might have won the war much sooner. But the ABC is not going to win this war. It cannot claim exemption from its own rules. It cannot expect to hide behind its own rules. Management has simply got to manage the problem that it has refused to concede exists. If it will not then the board must do the job for it.
On Monday I contributed an item to the online journal Crikey. I just make the point that, if the old ‘subs for mentions’ rule still exists there, I do not need a free subscription. That item responded to the chorus of criticism that came from a variety of sources following last week’s estimates hearing. I said in this item for Crikey that it is abundantly clear that there is institutional bias in ABC news and current affairs broadcasting. This bias is overwhelmingly anticonservative and is demonstrated by the many examples of such bias that I have presented to the Senate via estimates hearings and in speeches since 2002.
The ABC does a magnificent job in providing Australians with a public broadcast service in radio and television that serves the entire nation. I have always made that point. Indeed, I have given public praise to the ABC for its magnificent performance in bringing the actuality of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 to its Australian and global audiences. Public broadcasting, I would submit, is a vital part of Australia’s heritage. My complaint is neither with the broad scope of ABC programming, although some of its entertainment programming is decidedly outre, nor with the overwhelming majority of broadcast and support staff employed by the ABC. It is simply that the natural bias of many of its leading broadcasters, working in a broadcast culture that has—in my view, wrongly—come to presume that it possesses the only acceptable wisdom in political and social affairs, is permitted by the ABC to flow through into what is broadcast on the publicly funded airwaves.
I do not believe this is the result of direction. No-one is making these people do this. In fact, the problem is much worse. It is that there is no acceptable direction of broadcasters by the management of the ABC that results in proper balance and objective reporting. The bias manifests itself in many ways—in skewed language, for example. The 2002 Bali bombers were immediately ‘terrorists’, but Arab bombers who have been terrorising civilian Israelis for decades are ‘militants’.
The motives—not merely the political decision making—of the leaders of free democracies who decided to act to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq are continually subject to analysis by innuendo, the effect of which is to encourage listeners and viewers to impute malicious intent in their actions. The important work of the media in keeping a critical eye on our own government is undermined by the partiality shown, propaganda disseminated and obvious open distaste for conservative thought demonstrated by some leading ABC broadcast figures.
One of the things that critics of my approach to the ABC problem like to ask me is why I do not subject the commercial broadcast sector to the sort of scrutiny brought to bear on the ABC. There is a simple answer to that question, and it is a three-part answer. It is this: commercial broadcasting does not depend on funds voted by this parliament; commercial broadcasters are not required to attend the Senate estimates committees for examination; and broadcasters who disseminate their own views over the commercial airwaves—and one thinks particularly of Stan Zemanek, on whose radio program I appeared last week—freely admit, and I stress ‘freely admit’, and indeed proudly admit their bias. Their listeners know where they are coming from. In this context, the ‘what about the commercial broadcasters’ argument is just simply another smokescreen.
The ABC charter requires it to perform as Australia’s public broadcaster, presenting a full range of views from within the Australian community and globally in an objective and even-handed way. That is what the ABC charter requires its broadcasters to do—to present a full range of views from within the Australian community and globally in an objective and evenhanded way. It has instead allowed itself the indulgence of taking on the role of leading the way in social advance—so-called social advance. It manifests itself in increasing bias towards ‘progressive’ thought that plainly does not mirror the attitudes of the bulk of the Australian people. It demonstrates this by denigrating people and points of view that do not fit the received wisdom of the liberal arts community. It shows itself in ridiculous examples such as the editorial ban on referring to Australian Defence Force personnel serving in
Iraq as ‘our troops’, on the grounds that ‘the ABC does not own the troops’. It is justified on grounds of balance, but that is Orwellian newspeak. It is perfectly feasible for an Australian public broadcaster to refer, in the context, to ‘our troops’ while still presenting balanced and objective reporting of their role overseas. Nowhere in its charter is the ABC required to be an arm of the extraparliamentary opposition. These problems have been growing within the ABC for the past three decades. The leading ABC news and current affairs programs—AM, PM, The World Today, The 7.30 Report, Lateline and Four Corners—have become the chief vehicles for pushing a skewed agenda.
I restate my objective of ensuring that the ABC meets the requirements of its charter to present balanced news and commentary on Australian and world affairs. It is an issue that can be resolved immediately by the ABC management, if it has the will to do so. A determination to perform this significant public service should be enforced by the board of the ABC. There is no requirement for a new charter or even changes to the existing charter. That is what I said on Crikey. That is what I repeat today in this parliament. There was a knee-jerk reaction, incidentally. On Crikey yesterday a ‘seasoned broadcaster’ said—surprise, surprise—that I had got it all wrong again. ‘The rule against using “our” or “ours” in journalism was soundly based,’ said this unknown luminary. So it is, but that does not stop the ABC referring to ‘our’ cricket test side or lots of other ‘ours’ when it feels like it. So its ban on ‘our troops’ is just a hollow political sham and it knows it.
These are not the only problems evident in the ABC, of course. Someone made the point to me the other day that it is the overwhelming—indeed, one might even say overweening—bureaucracy that is the real difficulty the corporation faces. On some readings, bias goes much deeper than the many examples that I have brought to the attention of the ABC at estimates hearings. For example, the Australian ICJS web site has posted an interesting anecdotal study that says that while overt bias is now relatively rare, particularly on ABC Radio National and ABC TV, there are many other ways the luminaries of the ABC broadcast world find to encourage Australians to believe that they are inadequate world citizens and their country is a blot on the landscape. That is something I want to return to in greater detail at some later time.
Of course, much of this material I have brought to the Senate estimates process for answers by the ABC. The Senate is still waiting for the ABC to take it seriously. ‘Our ABC’, it seems, is still on its dangerous non-learning curve, and it needs to get off it. This is something that is simply not going to go away, and the sooner the management at Ultimo understands this the better off the ABC and Australia will be.