The announced cut to funding for the ABC has yet to be translated into actual job-losses and program departures, but we will know the result soon. Two themes have been prominent since Malcolm Turnbull spoke about the issue last week. The first is that there was a promise, which has been broken, not to impose cuts on the ABC. The second is that there is something special about the ABC that makes it a kind of icon of Australian life, so it should be protected against anything and everything.

There is no doubt that Tony Abbott made a specific promise that there would be no cuts to the ABC. Equally, he did say that there would be a reduction in the size of the public service, and the ABC is certainly part of that: it is a statutory corporation owned by the Australian Government. Julia Gillard did say that there would be no carbon tax under a government that she led. Yes, circumstances changed, but that was a promise that she did not adhere to. My own view is that politicians’ promises during election campaigns are hardly to be taken seriously. I wish it weren’t so.

As to the second, here’s Misha Ketchell, one of the editors at The Conversation:

No serious commentator or politician disputes the achievements and ongoing value of the ABC to the quality of Australian life. The question is, rather, what does “public service media” mean in the second decade of the 21st century, and how far should the ABC’s reach into the broader media environment extend?

It’s time to go beyond the cultural politics of the latest cut and think ahead to what kind of media we want our children and grandchildren to have access to. And then to think about what the ABC needs to deliver that vision.

Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘achievements and ongoing value’, doesn’t it? I would regard myself as a serious commentator, and I think the ABC has  to some degree gone off the rails. As I have written elsewhere, it has admirable documents in its Code of Practice and its Editorial Policies. But, despite them, the ABC seems committed to the view that anthropogenic global warming (AGW, later transmuted into “climate change”, and later still into ‘extreme weather’) is a real and present threat to humanity.

Such a position is at odds with both these documents. Among other things they state that ‘Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC’ — and who could disagree? Accordingly, ‘The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism’.

I don’t think it does its duty here. And to be fair, I don’t think it is possible for any news-gathering and news-dissemenating organisation to do this perfectly, because one has to have a position about what is ‘newsworthy’, and how that ‘news’ should be presented. But you don’t help people ‘to make up their own minds’ by giving them only a part of any story. And in many areas, not just ‘climate change’, the ABC’s position is clear: there are rights and wrongs, goods and bads, and it knows which is which. No listener or viewer needs to know much about the wrongs and the bads, even if that is not how those involved would describe themselves, because the ABC knows best.

How many Australians do watch or listen to the national icon? There’s no simple answer to such a question. Its reach is greater in regional areas, and less in the big cities. Nielsen and similar ratings can give you audiences for particular programs or particular times of the day, and particular days of the week. The ABC’s Annual Report for 2013 is a bit hazy on all this, but I did see that the biggest number listed is 19 million for the number of plays of ‘Peppa Pig’ on iview. 

The Report claims that the combined audience reach for radio, television and online is 73 per cent (presumably of all Australians), but what does that number mean? In radio, it seems to have, on average, about a quarter of the big-city audience and about the same in the country. In television it claims 17.8 per cent of the prime-time metropolitan and 19.5 per cent of the regional audience.

These figures don’t make it something that everyone watches, listens to and knows about. Rather, there are people who only watch and listen to the ABC, people who watch both the ABC and commercial stations (I’m one of them, for news, anyway) and people who never watch or listen to the ABC. The ABC conducts its own community surveys, and discovers that 85 per cent of Australians think that it ‘plays a valuable role’.

Well, I think it does too. But I also think that its news and current affairs areas have a pronounced cultural bias which gets in the way of presenting news in a balanced way. The Annual Report started with a quotation from the first address given on ABC radio in 1932: This service, the ABC, now belongs to you. We are your trustees. It is a service that is not run for profit, but purely in the interests of every section.

It is to me a true indication of the problem inside the ABC  that this statement was given such prominence, because in my judgment, the ABC is not run ‘in the interests of every section’ but in the world-view of its staff and  management.

The cuts to funding are not trivial, but they are what every other organisation in the Australian public sector has had to deal with, and they do not mean the end of the ABC as we know it. But it would be nice if they were a start towards a truly balanced and professional ABC, because that is  the ‘kind of media we want our children and grandchildren to have access to’, Ms Ketchell.


Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    There are some concerns about ABC political hosts such as Tony Jones, Emma Alberieci and Leigh Sales: at times all of them adopt a dominant, hectoring tone that one finds hard to equate with journalism – although, perhaps, compared to Hadley and Jones it is rather mild. Sarah Ferguson was lauded by some for her aggressive, straightforward style but personally I prefer a more sensitive and subtle form of questioning.

    There are some concerns that former Liberal Party Minister, Neil Brown, and The Australian’s columnist, Janet Albrechtsen, have been recently appointed to the independent nomination panel overseeing board positions at the ABC and SBS.

    M Scott may even exploit the ‘efficiency dividend’ for strategic change but some pain will occur today. Even the mother who tweeted that her children’s pocket money was going to have an efficiency dividend imposed and a similar one about the Great Barrier Reef having a 5% efficiency dividend, pose dilemmas.

    It will be interesting to see Mark Scott’s response later today but a big loss for locals, in my view, is Stateline 7.30 on Fridays on the ABC. It captures the heart and soul issues, it is good for business and local initiatives: it is the sort of program that should not be up for the chop.

    • David says:

      “…at times all of them adopt a dominant, hectoring tone that one finds hard to equate with journalism” Really?

      Name some good journalists that don’t have this ability? You could nominate interviewers like Parkinson, David Frost Charlie Rose and perhaps even Andrew Denton. But they are not time constrained by time. Their specialty is the “fire side chat”.

      Janet Albrechtsen’s problem is that she is lazy. If she wrote more articles of her own instead of complaining about bias in the ABC, presumably the public discourse Australia would be enriched.

      • dlb says:

        Speaking of Andrew Denton, I quite enjoyed some of his series such as “Elders”. One of the best moments of TV was when he interviewed biologist and vocal atheist Richard Dawkins. It was quite a civil conversation till right at the end he cheekily asked Dawkins what star sign he was. Dawkins was speechless you could see the fury in his eyes for this imbecile asking the great man such a stupid question. A couple of seconds later he realised he had been had, he couldn’t swallow his pride and laugh it off. Classic TV.

      • Peter Donnan says:

        HI David,

        I realize the point I was making seems almost quaint and old-fashioned: I am not suggesting a lack of probing, incisive interviewing, soft-peddling or just tolerating ministerial PR and gobbledegook but interviewers such as Andrew Ollie or Laurie Oaks could/can cut to the chase. I like Geraldine Dooge as an interviewer on Saturday morning ABC radio and she explores all sorts of agendas in a non-adversarial, lively and interesting manner; the Jim Luhr Show has interviewers of the same style. It’s true, though, that when Geraldine was on This Day Tonight or whatever, she was similar to the rest of them.

  • David says:


    What do you think of this as an idea? Obviously part of the debate around cuts to the ABC, is motivated by perceived left wing bias in the news and current affairs programs.

    The underling issue with print media in particular is that since the arrival of the internet the traditional models are becoming more difficult to be sustain in the private market. For example, News Limited like all papers is continually reporting losses. The concern is that long term the quality of journalism will decline.

    So perhaps one solution would be to increase funding to the ABC, and grow its web page into a fully functional online newspaper, but allow political parties to nominate at least some of the journalists they want to write on the website. Perhaps based on their parliamentary vote, or what ever. Other models could be considered.

    That way would would have a viable public news media, that had some transparency with respect to content.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      An interesting possibility, and I would need time to think about it. I am simply unsure of the future of the printed page — there is a sharp drop-off in the proportions of young people who buy and read newspapers, though they do buy and read magazines. (and presumably, some books).

  • Lysander says:

    The ABC went off the rails as soon as they allowed their “journalists” to write pieces in The Drum and at The Conversation. If you’re a journalist (and a taxpayer funded one in particular) I don’t want to know your personal views!
    They then “jump back into ABC mode” and pretend to facilitate debates when they’ve actually still got their Opinionista hats on.

  • dlb says:

    I also wonder why they need so many television channels? Perhaps ABC 2 and 3 could be combined offering high quality children’s shows during the day and high quality young adult programs in the evening. At the moment their seems to be a lot of average shows just filling space.

    The other thing I question is the role of the national broadcaster in public awareness campaigns? Recently we had what seemed like 2 weeks focusing on mental health. Sure this is important but is this the ABC’s role? Then of course is their fixation with environmental and social justice issues, these are important, but do the ABC really understand the complexities of such issues? I think not as we only seem to see one side and hear only from certain “experts”.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    The ABC has a choice, I think, and that is to recognise that it has a cultural bias that is widely, if not universally, shared among its news and current affairs staff and management — and change its editorial statements to reflect its real position — or to recognise that it is not following its own protocols, and do something about that.

    A few years (?) ago there was a kind of shoot-out between the ABC and The Australian in which, to me, neither side appeared to realise that each was operating from within a particular world-view. To each the opponents appeared deluded, and the group-think inside the organisations meant that there was little internal discussion about reality.

    That’s not a problem for Fairfax or for News Ltd, since they are private organisations that can, within the law, do as they like. But the ABC is not a private organisation, and is expected to be be even-handed and independent of world-views. I know that it this is a hard task, but in my judgment, not only does it not do it, but it doesn’t even see that it is not doing it — indeed, it says vigorously that it is.

    My own experience in organisations suggests that this perception is not peculiar to the ABC — it is common in all big organisations.

    • David says:

      “That’s not a problem for Fairfax or for News Ltd, since they
      are private organisations that can, within the law, do as they like. But the
      ABC is not a private organisation, and is expected to be even-handed and
      independent of world-views.”

      This is a highly contestable statement. Perhaps it won’t surprise
      you but I don’t agree with that. 🙂 Define “even-handed”. Better in my opinion to have open discussion and allow people to make up their own minds, rather than have some bureaucrat try to define “even-handed”

      • David says:

        It would be a very boring media if every article was “even-handed”. Your certainly not even handed but I enjoy reading you.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Many thanks. No, I’m not even-handed, but I do try not to let my biases determine my judgment.

          • Dasher says:

            Surely the point with the ABC is to at least set in place an organisation that has a decent chance of being even handed…not a balancing up of every discussion..they have no conservative presenters in their mainstream shows (Counterpoint with Amanda Vanstone is an exception, and I understand Switzer is about to host a show on RN…both tiny efforts twice a week (one is a repeat) Anyone objective person who watches Q&A, Insiders or Media Watch could not help but see the preponderance of progressive/left v conservative panels noting the hosts are also loosely p/left. It is a cultural bias. They are dismissing the biggest niche group in the country ..conservatives like me. I would not be so concerned if my taxes were not paying for this. I do not advocate a right wing ABC just one that genuinely attempts to get a fair balance of views. Of course I have my biases which are formed by a lifetime of experiences but I think I am very tolerant of opposing views…what astonishes me is how (in Canberra surprise surprise) intolerant left wingers are of opposing views.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Read the Code and the Editorial rules — a bit is set out in the essay. It’s not for us to define it — it’s there in their rules.

    • PeterE says:

      Agree. The ABC must be forced, in accordance with its charter, to give serious time to the non-Labor-Green [social justice, global warming, indigenous rights, republic, change of flag and the list goes on] viewpoint.The bias is obvious and inexcusable. I have watched the ABC news and current affairs programs for decades. I have voted for both the major political parties and know both well. Even the 7.00pm TV news is today invariably presented from the left, with announcers speaking through gritted teeth when dealing with the present Government. (The background illustrations invariably and deliberately emphasise the point). This has been the case since at least the old TDT format. All the ABC current affairs programs are nothing less than subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda for the left. This is handled professionally; these people (whoever they are) know exactly what they are doing. The board is useless and must be completely changed. I used to think that the Managing Director was sympathetic to the left’s views but since seeing him give evidence recently I have concluded that he is a very competent manager in a technocratic sense but that he has no sense of politics whatsoever. Like many another ABC Chief Executive before him, he is simply putty in the hands of those who wish to use the ABC as a propaganda tool (and this word is not too sensational; it is simply fact). Some programs, like Q&A, Insiders, Fran Kelly’s am, Phillip Adams and so on I have pretty well given away. Ditch the board and appoint one that will change the Managing Director and appoint one who will sweep away the propagandists. Frankly, we are in Big Brother territory with this outfit.

      • David says:

        What about “The Business” with Tickey Fullerton. You could hardly call her a bleeding heart liberal. Her views are pretty right wing.

        • David says:

          The CEO Mark Scott is an ex Liberal Party staffer for Gods sake!

          Then Chris Uhlmann

          Plus these conservative commentators

          Gerard Henderson

          Andrew Bolt

          Nicky Savva

          Piers Ackermann

          are all frequent flyers on the ABC.

          • whyisitso says:

            Piers Akerman was sacked over a year ago for repeating on Insiders a press gallery rumor about Tim’s sexuality. Andrew Bolt hasn’t been on the ABC since Channel 10 started The Bolt Report a long time ago.

            When Gerard Henderson appears on Insiders he’s always up against 3 left wingers, including the host. Similarly with Nikki Savva, although she’s more a centrist than a conservative (she’s hyper-critical of the current PM).

            Chris Uhlman isn’t a conservative by a long way, but he is soft left rather than hard left like most ABC commentators.

          • David says:

            So the ABC, gave Andrew Bolt his start on TV.

  • Dasher says:

    Agree Don…I shall share a small experience. I rang Genevieve Jacobs on Canberra 666 ABC about an interview she had just completed with some “guru” on climate change. I said (in a tone that could not be taken as aggressive) that one could drive a truck through some of his apocalyptic predictions and was about to offer my views ( Genevieve, asked me if I was an expert on the subject and I said “no”, after which she said in her most pompous voice (as only Genevieve can) well “we” don’t listen to people who are not experts on this subject. Of course there was no problem not having expertise if you agreed with the ABC line. Yes I do listen to ABC a lot and I think they sell themselves short…no point being an echo chamber for the left or right.

  • DaveW says:

    I suppose I have a different view from most commentators, because (a) I used to rely on ABC tv for my news (because it covered things that the MSM didn’t), but was out-of-country for a decade and on return found it full of bias, empty of information often very poorly presented and (b) since I’ve returned I live in the country, get on well enough without a tv and rely entirely on the internet (through an expensive and barely functional modem connection – if and when the NBN arrives, no matter how crappy it is, I will be better off for my news). So, I only see the ABC tv news in motels when I am travelling and, although I seek out ABC radio stations on long drives, I soon turn them off as being too noisy, banal or biased.

    In my opinion, the primary problems with the ABC (based on my on-line reading) in order of severity are: (a) the audience they target is urban, ‘progressive’ and dilettante. As a result, their bias is towards the Greens and other fringe groups (you can fill in the blanks) and to a lesser extent Labor. For example, two of the four ‘Analysis & Opinion’ articles this morning were attacks on the Coalition (the other two were not attacks on Labor or the Greens). Several of the ‘news’ stories were also attacks on the Coalition and several more were ‘poor ABC’ stories highlighting how the bush was going to be punished for the spending cuts. ABC Rural is actually quite good for most of its article headers, but the articles are short and often laced with inaccuracies (see c below). Rural readers are currently screwed and it appears they will be expected to bend over even more in the future.

    (b) the ABC corporate model seems to be totally disjunct from its charter. Thus, professional sports that are well covered by commercial media occupy a large part of the online page. The ‘news’ is a list of disjunct violence, PC rants and sports that might as well be the Guardian front page. Where is the news about what is going on in places like the Middle East where Australian forces have been deployed? The ABC seems to think it is in competition with the MSM for readers.

    and (c) the presentation of ABC on-line is often riddled with errors of fact, grammar and syntax. In short, the ABC is not professional in its presentation. I’ve tried to correct some of the errors through the Byzantine complaints process, but usually all I’ve gotten is a condescending email saying ‘mistakes happen and f*ck you’ weeks later. Well, for one egregious double fail in an accompanying picture I did get an apology, but the fact remains that what is getting published on the ABC seems to be by reporters that know little about their subject and editors that are asleep at the wheel.

    Maybe I’m just a crank who thinks that images that accompany an article should accurately reflect the content, or that grammar is important, or that words have meanings (one ABC retrospective on Australian icons twice used ‘infamous’ as if it meant ‘famous’). I suppose I should give an example so the readers can judge if I am just being Don-cranky on this, but today in an article on ‘Five surprising things you’ll learn in A Country Road, the ABC’s documentary series about the Nationals’ is this:
    “you needed to look no further than the National Party to find some of the nation’s most colourful and laconic politicians”

    Now really, is it possible to be both colourful and laconic at the same time? Well, maybe if you wear a Joseph’s Coat and don’t say much or what you say is especially insightful, but I wasted part of my bandwidth watching a much younger, but still repulsive, Clive Palmer spouting on and on and he was neither laconic nor colourful.

    I don’t know if there is a solution to the problems at the ABC. Maybe those who say it should be sold off are right. However, I do know that I would like a reliable source of news and I do not want a public broadcaster that is channelling Pravda. However, here are a couple of suggestions:

    1. Fire Scott and the board and start over. Maybe the ABC Board should be appointed like our bloody Senate? Well, it would do less damage to the country if the ABC board were appointed that way (and insure diversity of opinion) and the Senate reformed.

    2. Enforce the ABC Charter and add a right of reply. When they go off charter and spew some leftoid nonsense, then they should be required to give equal space to an alternative view. In addition to providing a diversity of opinions at the ABC this would have the added advantage of getting people more involved in ‘their ABC’. Rant over.

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