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.