The ABC is biased: get over it!

ABC_Mobile_Studio_CaravanRichard Salant (1914-1993) hardly deserves his reputation as the source of the silliest thing ever said about media objectivity. President of CBS News for most of the 1960s and 1970s, he expended much time and personal courage resisting the encroachment of political power into US news and current affairs and also warned against the now-ubiquitous melding of journalism and entertainment. Nevertheless, his assertion of neutrality has become a standing joke in media studies, and one doesn’t have to be a post-structuralist (or cease to share in the popular opinion that media studies is itself a joke) to appreciate its self-satirising quality. For surely it would take a Joseph Heller, or an Onion, to do better than this: ‘Our reporters do not cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.’

I thought of this doozy the other day, when the Queensland senator James McGrath (Lib) used his maiden speech in the senate to attack the ABC’s left-wing bias. Employing the register of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, McGrath set out his case as follows:

As someone who grew up in regional Queensland, I grew up with the ABC. But the ABC has left people like me and my constituents behind. I want to support the ABC. I like the ABC. But while it continues to represent only inner-city leftist views, funded by our taxes, it is in danger of losing its social licence to operate. I am calling for a review of the ABC’s charter. And if they fail to make inroads to restore balance, then the ABC should be sold and replaced by a regional and rural broadcasting service.

McGrath didn’t get much support for that last idea, even from his Liberal Party comrades. But as an example of the kind of criticism that has descended upon the ABC from the government and its proxies in the last few months this is fairly representative. Indeed, the Abbott government has made no secret of its desire to bring the ABC back into ideological alignment. The appointment of Janet Albrechtsten and Neil Brown to the panel overseeing the broadcaster’s board is widely regarded as a step in this direction – one that recalls the investiture of Tim Wilson, formerly of the IPA, as the Human Rights Commissioner at the HRC. Meanwhile, the IPA itself has waded, guns blazing, into the fray. In the May issue of the IPA Review (‘HOW TO WIN THE CULTURE WARS’), the rightwing think tank made the case for the privatisation of the ABC, noting amongst other atrocities its decision to go into partnership with The Guardian in breaking the Indonesian phone-tapping story, its airing of thinly-sourced allegations that Australian navy personnel had burned asylum seekers’ hands, and the Chaser’s crudely Photoshopped image of The Australian’s Chris Kenny humping a labradoodle – an image that brought legal action from Kenny and a less-than-veiled threat from the Australian Prime Minister, who let it be known that if this was the kind of stunt that passed for entertainment at the ABC then the government might have to rethink its funding. (It was, by general consent, the PM’s threat, and not the threat of being sued, that caused Mark Scott to apologise and send a fat cheque Mr Kenny’s way.)

Those who value the ABC often respond to accusations that it is biased by trying to prove that it just ain’t so. Pointing to the ideological audits that the organisation is now obliged to conduct, to statistical analyses of the exposure allowed to the major parties at election time, and to figures on audience satisfaction, they argue that there is simply no proof that the national broadcaster is politically partial. In the words of Wayne Errington and Narelle Miragliotta, authors of Media and Politics: An Introduction, ‘there appears not to be any factual evidence to back the claim of left-wing bias’.

But ‘bias’ can not be established through statistics any more than mist can be quantified with a tape measure. The phenomenon of bias is more complicated than that. In his recent book, The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater makes the following (uncharacteristically sensible) point:

To suggest that the ABC leans to the Left or the Right, that it favours Labor or Liberal, the Democrats or the Greens, is to drive the public-service broadcasting debate along a barren path. Neither is it accurate to talk of systematic bias for, if anything, the ABC’s bureaucratic accounting of editorial content is evidence of a systematic process of impartiality. Bias at the ABC is systemic rather than systematic, where, like many large institutions, it is hostage to the normative assumptions of its management and its staff. In the ABC’s case, they are the assumptions of a self-selected cohort drawn from the university-educated middle class.

Notwithstanding the use of the word ‘hostage’, this strikes me as uncontroversial. But the conservatives’ mistake is to think that this ‘cohort’ constitutes a self-conscious elite. Indeed, and despite protestations to the contrary, this is what Cater himself believes. His book is clearly wedded to the idea that what he calls ‘the Bunyip alumni’ is a kind of fifth column or enemy within: a latte-fuelled clique of egg-heads and know-it-alls who think they’re better than everyone else and who are, in some indefinable way, separable from ‘the real Australia’.

But ‘the university-educated middle class’ is not an ‘elite’ in any sense that matters, and its greater access to, or overrepresentation in, the media doesn’t make it one. Rather, it is just that – a class. Yes, it has its own values and assumptions – values and assumptions that may not obtain within, say, a small farming community. But to that extent, such ‘bias’ as exists in the ABC’s coverage of news and politics is rather like the bias in a bowl: it is the inevitable (and largely unconscious) ‘drift’ that occurs when members of a particular class are invited to decide what is worthy of attention and in what ways it should be attended to. In an excellent discussion of Cater’s book, Guy Rundle took the author to task for failing to see that what he was describing was not the machinations of an elite but the unconscious expression of a socio-economic stratum; it is an ideology, not in the sense of a utopian or emanicpatory scheme, but in the Marxian or Mannheimian sense of the distortion of thought inevitable in a particular social and economic context.

In other words, and with some teensy exceptions, the ABC does not proselytise for progressive values, progressive values being the kind of values that the university-educated middle class tends (if I may be reductive) to hold. But it is, I would argue, objectively progressive. If progressives are overrepresented at the ABC, well, that’s because the ABC is the kind of place progressives want to work.

The problem for the advocates of ‘greater balance’ is that you can only stop the ABC being objectively one thing by making it determinedly something else, and to do this would be to undermine the national broadcaster’s independence and integrity. Imagine an ABC that told its journalists not only what kind of stories to pursue but also what kind of assumptions and values to engage when they caught up to them. Or that employed some kind of quota system whereby journalists were recruited on the basis of their voting habits! The effect would be creepy, if not actually sinister. Certainly the sort of journalists who value and work in public broadcasting wouldn’t stick around for very long.

And what sort of journalists are those? Well, they are the sort of journalists who, while they may be objectively progressive, are also, like the ABC itself, determinedly objective. That’s to say: they may not be objective; but at least they make an effort to be so. Unlike journalists in the private sphere, they are not under any editorial pressure to toe a particular political line; if anything, they are under pressure not to toe a line at all. That’s what you get for ‘Your ABC’ – not ‘balance’ but a sincere attempt to attain it.

To be clear: to say that the ABC is not objective is not to criticise its staff or management. Nor is it to posit a mushy postmodernism that regards all reality and truth-claims as relative. It is simply to state the obvious point that the kind of people who go into public broadcasting are different from the people who don’t, and that complaining that there are too few conservatives at the ABC is like complaining that there are too few vegans in the meat-packing industry. It is to express a wish, not for greater balance, but for news from nobody’s point of view.

To the extent that the ABC is required to invigilate between two kinds of conservatism – the Labor kind and the Liberal kind – it behaves more like a guardian of the consensus than the campaigning broadcaster of rightwing myth. Speaking as someone to the left of that consensus, I am no more ‘represented’ by it than the libertarian gunslingers of the IPA, who, incidentally, nobody would have heard of were it not for their frequent appearances on The Drum, Q&A, and other ABC programs. If I choose not to carp about the fact, or bang on about ‘our taxes’ à la Sen. McGrath, it’s not because I think the ABC is perfect. It’s because I think the ABC is more likely than most other Australian news sources to keep the real elites more honest than they might be.

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First published at New Matilda.