Several years ago I wrote a piece for the Sydney Institute Quarterly (SIQ) on what I saw as a mismatch between the ABC’s charter and the way in which news was presented. It was a ‘more sorrow than anger’ piece, because I had a long association with the ABC, as a talking head on radio and television, an advisory committee member for NSW, and a junior organiser of concerts in a country town. I had even tried, and failed, to get my piano music played, when there was an opportunity to be heard by an expert. He said I wasn’t one, and that was fair comment. You can read a summary of that piece, and some further reflections, plus comments from former sympathisers with inside knowledge, here.
Nothing much has changed in the last seven years. There is still no balance. If you want it, you really need to tune into Channels 7 or 9, plus Sky News. Then you will have to make your own mind up. Likewise in the print media. Those who read only the Oz and the Tele need to see, at least some of the time, what Granny Herald and The Guardian are printing. Again, you will need to make your own mind up.
The Institute for Public Affairs, a longstanding essentially right-wing think tank decided that it would find out more, and used the Freedom of Information system to explore one aspect of the ABC culture, that to do with ‘climate change’ and the environment generally. It has released the 300 pages it received. You can read them here; note: there is a lot of repetition. Oh, and all this was some months ago.
The pages are correspondence, somewhat redacted with respect to most of the repliers, to a request from one Barbara Heggen, a radio producer in Melbourne. Ms Heggen used the whole-of-ABC email list to say this to her colleagues:
Sorry for bulk email but I’m reaching out to gauge [sic] interest in forming a [sic] ABC?Staff climate crisis advisory group.
To gather together the brains trust of ABC staffers to develop ways to report on and inform Australians about the climate crisis using a solutions journalism approach.
To report back to ABC Management our ideas and strategies for responding to the climate crisis both internally and externally.
If anyone is interested in taking this idea further let me know. Or perhaps such a group already exists? Please feel free to share this with others who may be interested.
Thanks in advance,
Surely someone in the ‘brains trust’ might have asked her what the climate crisis actually was, but apparently none did. I didn’t count the responses, but someone else seems to have done so, and I think there were 77 of them. A couple of respondents were irritated, not about the climate exactly, but rather the use of the main list. One correspondent apologised, ‘I’m in a demo until 1 pm but I’ll catch you when I can.’ There’s some honesty. Another called it ‘the issue of our times, please count me in Barbara’. A third said ‘we must report established science, the evidence, and not myth.’ A fourth asked ‘why the denial is so prevalent’. Most of the others used the words ‘brilliant’ or ’fabulous’.
No one asked what ‘a solutions journalism approach’ might be, so I had to look it up. Apparently the ABC has a ‘unit’ of one person in Hobart. Wikipedia defines it like this:
is an approach to news reporting that focuses on the responses to social issues as well as the problems themselves. Solutions stories, anchored in credible evidence, explain how and why responses are working, or not working. The goal of this journalistic approach is to present people with a truer, more complete view of these issues, helping to drive more effective citizenship.
Is it consistent with the ABC’s charter emphasis on fairness and balance, you ask. Is it the same as ‘advocacy journalism’, which another respondent said the ABC should be wary of, even if The Guardianwasn’t? Wikipedia defines it this way:
Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda. It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets, since the bias is intended.
Hmm. I don’t see much difference in practice. If there is a problem it is because there are competing ways to solve it. To advocate a particular solution is to suggest that you know what the right answer is, without bothering to present all the possibilities. That, it seems to me, is a form of advocacy. It seems to me also that the ABC has decided that (i) there is a climate crisis or emergency, (ii) it has to be solved by reducing our use of fossil fuels, and (iii) all right-thinking people will see that this is so, while those who disagree are simply ‘deniers’.
Well, the climate action group was to have a meeting, but this was postponed because of the weariness of staff with responding to bushfires. Moreover, ABC chair Ita Buttrose told ABC radio that the idea was not going ahead, because the leadership team and the managing director were opposed to it. That didn’t stop the crisis action people, one of whom leaked to The Guardian that meetings would be going ahead just the same. You can’t stop informal meetings, and I doubt that was Ms Buttrose’s intention. Rather, she and the management team would not be taking formal notice of anything the climate crisis action group came up with.
A week later Four Corners, the Corporation’s flagship current affairs program, devoted its time to climate policy, with the presumption that there thought to be an effective ‘climate policy’, which would be based on some sort of price on carbon. Why would this be necessary? According to the latest National Greenhouse Inventory, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) were at their lowest level for 11 years in the year ended September 2019, while emissions per capita have declined since 1990. Globally, GGE have increased a great deal.
It did not help the ABC’s arguments that the former senior bureaucrats interviewed for the program were not asked about this discrepancy. Martin Parkinson, once head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, thought we had no climate policy. Maybe that has been a good thing. Ken Henry, former head of Treasury, felt angry about what Australia had lost. What exactly was that? He wasn’t asked. The implied notion that somehow all this has had a bad effect on our climate is difficult, indeed impossible, to demonstrate. Yet it is at the heart of the ‘policy problem’.
Ah well, nothing much has changed. We go on having droughts, bushfires and floods and bushfires. We deal with them more effectively than we used to, but the ABC rarely mentions successes. Gloom and disaster make for news, not to mention blame, if you can point a stern finger. I said in my essay for the SIQ all those years ago that the problem with organisations is that they tend to appoint people whose values are like those of the appointers. On the evidence, the ABC is a wonderful example.