The Political Culture of the ABC

In August 2011 I went off to hear Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the ABC, at the  National Press Club, and was moved to write to him about what I thought was a mismatch between what he was saying and what I saw and heard on the ABC – and between the latter and the ABC’s own Code of Practice and Editorial Policies, both excellent documents. I received a nice letter from the head of Audience and Consumer Affairs, but it rather missed the point.

More inconclusive correspondence followed, until I abandoned it and wrote an article for the Sydney Institute Quarterly, which had once published an article by Ron Brunton, a former Board member of the ABC, who felt that the Board had little effect on the Corporation while he had been there. My beef was different, but related: that the ABC had a world-view and a political culture that were inconsistent with its own published policies.

I’m not an opponent of the ABC – far from it. I have been a member of its advisory committee system and a talking head on most of its long-established shows in radio and television. I listen mostly to Classic FM, about which I wrote an appreciative piece a few weeks ago.

As I see it, the ABC’s charter and its policies require it to be balanced and impartial. But in news and current affairs, I would argue, it is not. Here the ABC has its own view of the way the world is and should be, a view shared by its staff and by many of its viewers and listeners. It is in favour of the UN and its agencies, sympathetic to boat people, worried about environmental degradation and endangered species, apprehensive about ‘climate change’, alert to the needs of the disadvantaged, convinced that our indigenous people are the victims of government policies, and generally for good and against ill.

Worthy though such an outlook is, and some of it is mine, too, it is neither ‘right’ nor balanced, and the ABC commands something like 15 per cent of the attention of the Australian public. But within the Corporation, as the letters I received made clear, it is almost incomprehensible that there could be any other way of seeing things. But of course there are others. Go to Channel 9, which I do, and you get a different take on the world, in which traffic gridlock, Kate’s baby, shootings in southwestern Sydney, rugby league and the stars of popular music and the screen are altogether more important. Go to SBS, and Australia itself becomes less important.

Because I am now deeply interested in environmental issues, I am alert to the way the ABC presents them. I think it is fair to say that the prevailing tone is one of unrelieved gloom. The world is in danger. Something must be done. International meetings are important. Sea-levels are rising. Glaciers are melting. Heat, cold, floods, droughts and fires are all increasing and spell the end of civilisation as we know it.

Contrary readings about what is happening rarely get a mention. The ABC has yet to note that there has been no increase in warming for the past 16 years, despite a steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The question of rising sea-levels depends, as does so much about climate change, on measurements, and these are contested, worried about, re-analysed and argued about in the literature. Has there been an acceleration or a deceleration in the rise? What is the long-term movement of sea-levels, anyway? I am unsure, because argument and evidence point in different ways. If the ABC refers to it, seas are rising and they threaten low-lying settlements. That the Dutch have protected low-lying Holland for several hundred years is not mentioned.

For the past few days it seems as though there has been a campaign to remind us of how dire our situation is. One little news item after another has had an anthropogenic global warming tinge to it, but these items seem to me less ‘news’ than ‘op ed’. What are they doing in news bulletins?

I think I understand about news. There has to be a collective sense of what is important, and it needs to be coherent and consistent. If I were running ABC News there would be a rather different world-view, and others would complain about mine. But I hope I would be conscious of the Corporation’s own published standards, which emphasise impartiality and balance. I hope I would recognise that there might be other sides to most of the stories I would be running, and at least hint at them.

It was difficult for me to write the essay I wrote, because of my long association with the ABC, but I had come to the point where I felt I had to say what I thought I was seeing and hearing. You can read it by going to the Sydney Institute website, and downloading the pdf.

 

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Walter Starck says:

    In the past news reporting was the domain of journalists who came from diverse backgrounds and learned their trade by direct on the job experience in an apprenticeship system. There was a strong ethos of skepticism with striving for factual accuracy and getting to the truth of matters being of high importance. Today journalists are overwhelmingly middle class, academically trained and politically correct. Their direct experience of the world is that of urban non-producers. Beyond that, their understanding strongly reflects the views of the academic world from whence they come. Not surprisingly their reporting tends to be politically correct, their concept of truth subjective and consensual while accuracy is subordinate to what is deemed to be unquestionable higher truths.

  • ABC drum beat says:

    You posed the question in your The Sydney Institute Quarterly (Issue 41, Dec 2021) essay: what do others less sympathetic to the ABC think?

    Tony Jones, Chris Uhlmann and Emma Alberici showcase some of the current ABC political interviewing styles in action around contemporary issues. Chris Uhlmann in particular often sprays all sorts of accusations at his interviewees, perhaps over-compensating for the fact that his partner, Gai Brodtmann, is an ALP MP. I find his hectoring, rapid-fire, interjectory style and lack of respect grating on occasions, e.g, his interview with the New Guinea PM, Peter O’Neill, yet Tony Abbott is on record endorsing him as fair and balanced.

    One might think that ABC coverage of boat arrivals is always scripted by Sarah Hanson-Young, so emotive and one-sided is its coverage although I place greater credence in Angus Hewston and Paris Aristotle. At times it seems the whole focus of ABC coverage in this area is sabotage of existing policy goals, failing to recognize that Australia is seeking to increase its intake of refugees and to change the current boat-smuggler model to a much more humane one.

    There has been, in my view, a debasement and falling away from ABC traditions of leisurely, courteous, balanced and incisive interviews. Media analysis tends to focus on the issues but there are occasions when the reporters’ interviewing styles are worth critiquing. Media Watch rarely subjects ABC balance, especially interviewing styles, to probing analysis, as it does with ‘The Australian’, Alan Jones et al., but there is scope in 2013 to do this seriously.

    The Drum is another such forum, with the likes of Peter Reith and Greg Hunt stepping out in the midst of many ABC heavies. Mungo MacCallum recently noted, tongue-in-cheek, that The Australian’s environmental editor, Graham Lloyd, “was effortlessly upstaged by a retired political scientist called Don Aitkin, who has joined The Australian’s jihad against the ABC”. [21 January, 2013 – The Drum].

    Bring it on!

  • RM says:

    Don Aitkin is right about the ABC. The presentation of the science about climate dynamics is evangelical. It takes the IPCC hypothesis as a holy text and promotes it with religious zeal throughout the network. This is a travesty of the ABC’s obligations under the Charter and of the Board’s duties under the ABC Act.

    I say this having been the person who lead the ANAO’s performance audit of the ABC’s compliance with the Charter in 2000/01 – 2001/02. See here:

    http://www.anao.gov.au/~/media/Uploads/Documents/2001%2002_audit_report_40.pdf

    Or try: http://tinyurl.com/ary8kls

    I have a good knowledge of the science of climate dynamics having had several papers on the subject published in leading peer reviewed scientific journals and having been an invited speaker at several national and international conferences (eg the annual conference of the Australian Institute of Physics and the general assemblies of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna.

    There is so much scope for good science programmes and for first rate investigative journalism. In relation to science programmes, there could be many investigating the major shortcomings in the numerical simulations of climate dynamics.

    Why doesn’t the IPCC use the superior (but still fundamentally flawed) simulations developed by Professor Karl Hasselmann (formerly Director of the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology currently Vice-Chairman of the European Climate Forum) and Dr Catherine Nicolis of the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium.

    Why aren’t there programmes devoted to the critique of the use of numerical simulations to understand/forecast/predict climate dynamics of the legendary meteorologist, Edward Lorenz? This critique is as valid now as it was when first published in 1967.

    There is so much high quality peer reviewed climate dynamics science published that is outside the IPCC framework for the ABC to report. It is a huge tragedy that the ABC does not report this.

    We are currently in the midst of a stunning natural experiment. The Sun is weakening, with many standard indicators showing the Grand Maximum of the last 3 decades is over and a Grand Minimum is on the way. There is a huge volume of high quality peer reviewed science being published about this and likely relationships with our planet’s climate dynamics. Why not showcase the findings of Professor Mike Lockwood, FRS, showing that Europe’s deep freeze and heat waves are both a result of low solar activity?

    There are major geodynamic processes that contribute to our planet’s climate dynamics: the plant’s rotation about its axis; the planet’s orbit about the Sun; the luni-solar tides. The ABC could broadcast many exciting programmes about these processes and their role on our planet’s climate dynamics.

    There is a huge variation in climate dynamics that arising simply because the climate system is a complex system consisting of an ensemble of interacting complex subsystems characterised by sensitive dependence to initial conditions and perturbations. There are resonance interactions within the climate system which proceed by such non-linear processes as strange attractors; resonant amplification; stochastic resonance, phase synchronisation; and complexity matching. All of this is ignored by the IPCC and none of it is show cased by the ABC. There could be exciting and regular programmes on all of this science.

    The Sun-Earth system as a complex system (in the mathematical sense) electromagnetically, magneto-hydrodynamically and gravitationally coupled, and dominated by significant non-linear interactions varying over time and throughout the three-dimensional structure of the Earth, its atmosphere and oceans. It is fascinating and exciting to study. Huge volumes of the highest quality science are being published. They are ignored by the IPCC and not reported by the ABC. This is a failure of the ABC’s corporate governance.

    Don Aitkin is right about the ABC’s broader and deeper malaise of which the use of the ABC to evangelise the IPCC hypothesis is but a symptom. It would be possible for a suitably structured Board and motivated management team to bring lasting and beneficial reform to the ABC. The reformed ABC would enthusiastically comply with the ABC Charter. It would truly provide Australia with innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard by broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity, informing, entertaining, educating and reflecting the cultural diversity of the Australian community. This is not today’s ABC.

  • Thank you, Mr Aitkin, for eloquently stating what I have been feeling for some years now. I used to be a news-junkie, mainly listening to the ABC. I now no longer listen to the news from that source. Every item seems to be editorialised. They fear that I am so stupid that every non-conventional report has to be debunked as it sullied my ears.
    I enjoyed the “Counterpoint” program. It provided a wide range of stimulating discussions. Too much for innocents like me. We had to be protected, so it has been cut. The ABC is starting to sound like Pravda.

  • I am relieved to discover I am not delusional or senile when these same thoughts prevail . I am & have been a long time , 40 yrs or so , supporter of the ABC as an important public institution with a noble charter to keep Australians informed on a wide range of issues . Over the last decade or so there has developed a homogeneity in the area of personelle profile & a type of obvious ABC view of issues which is poorly masked by an often strained attempt to always appear impartial so that the ” maintenance of the charter ” box can be ticked . The gene pool appears to be getting smaller also when one looks at the various partner choices of some of the public affairs presenters .

  • Felix Hayman says:

    I was interested in your post from the “outside-in” as I spent a lot of my career with the ABC looking out from the inside.During this time I would meet journos, who were colleagues and the way there perception of the world around them changed significantly over the thirty years I was there. In the early days, the “critical days” I call them, the journalistic style was to present the news not commentate on it.This was the modus operandi of the AJA at the time and there were few, if any, star journalists in the ABC at all .I just had a quiet think then and realised that probably Paul Murphy was the only star journalist we had as everyone was responsible, particularly in radio ,to sub-editors and also executive producers to maintain the standards of impartiality needed under the AJA code.

    Sometime in the past ten years we had an influx, particularly in radio, of the contracted “star” journalist.Many of them were taken from the community media which did not necessarily conform to AJA standards, and some of them were star commentators from the print media.They were given little radio training and, particularly during the time Norman Swan was head of RN, were thrown in at the deep end with little on site training and, of course, what they had learned from community based radio was transferred to become the “status quo” of journalism in radio

    These days most ABC journos I know are very much in two classes (i) the wannabe TV star (funnily enough, cadet journos from Canberra mostly) and (ii) the star commentator who is “multiplatformed” to demonstrate their knowledge across the media. Both of these type of journo are inadequate to the task of presenting news impartially in a 24 Hr news environment and it is up to the Heads of News TV and radio and also the executive producers to instil once again that the basis of news in the ABC is that of presenting facts not casting The Drum across them.

  • donaitkin says:

    Felix,

    I think your comment about the change applies generally across the media. There is now much less of a distinction between ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ than there was twenty or thirty years ago — let alone fifty years ago, when I was reading newspapers of even older times. There was ‘news’ and there was comment.The two were kept apart. I wrote the Monday leader for the Canberra Times for several years in the 1960s, and even there you had to have great respect for what was ‘news’, and not just have an opinion about something because that was the opinion you had.

    Now there often seems to be a merging of the two.

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