No cure until ABC admits there's a problem
If you want a perfect display of what is wrong with the internal culture of the ABC, one cannot go past Quentin Dempster's latest book Death Struggle.
The book, by a former staff-elected ABC Board Member, manifests, with an amazing self-righteousness, a complete refusal to acknowledge, let alone engage with, critics and their criticisms.
The principle of the book is simple: the ABC never has a case to answer. Apart from bad management action such as the Whitlam Lecture broadcast of 1997 or creeping commercialisation, the ABC is never the problem, only its critics. It utilises a standard progressivist tactic: simply refuse to acknowledge as legitimate the concerns or questions which those who differ might have. With Dempster, as with other defenders of the ABC (such as Errol Simper and David Bowman) the question, 'is there something systematically wrong with the ABC's product?' is a non-question. There is no question of ABC bias, only the malice of those offended by the noble righteousness with which the ABC goes about its business.
An obvious example of this 'white-out' approach is provided in Dempster's discussion of the controversy over the ABC's 1998 federal election coverage. The widely-covered release by the Institute of Public Affairs of weekly studies of the prime time news election coverage of the ABC and the commercial free-to-air networks is simply not mentioned. Yet the ABC put great efforts into trying to either stop media coverage of the releases or discredit them. Journalists were rung up and pressured into querying sponsorship and critiquing the methodology. Media Watch weighed with ludicrous claims of statements being 'buried' in one-page press releases and made absolutely spurious inferences about (trivial) funding from a Liberal-associated trust (many of our sponsors also donate to the ALP, so what?) utterly unconnected to the media monitoring activities.
None of the commercial channels in any way attempted to suppress or discredit what the IPA was doing. Only the ABC attempted to close down debate by ad hominen attacks. (For the record, we found Channel Ten had the most pro-ALP coverage, though there was a remarkable shift in ABC behaviour from being the most pro-ALP to being balanced following various public embarrassments juxtaposed with the first release of our findings.) Similarly, the Bell report commissioned by the ABC into its coverage of the 1998 Waterfront dispute is mentioned: the IPA analysis of the same dispute which found, among other things, that Bell had not even counted soundbites accurately, is not.
Early on in Death Struggle, Dempster is outraged that then ABC Managing Director Hill agreed to provide tapes of ABC News during the 1993 election for analysis by a University media department in a study sponsored by a wide range of business organisations. The question of why business organisations might have been driven to taking this extraordinary step never seems to enter his head.
And the ABC is fully accountable, but any outside body attempting to examine its record is an attack on its independence.
On Monday 22 January, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on global warming. The coverage of this in the 7.30 Report of Tuesday 23 January reported this as if it was beyond reproach and all critics of global warming should now cease and desist. At the BBC website, the coverage was utterly different, with equal billing given to a series of senior scientists who strongly criticise the findings on scientific grounds (no Virginia, serious, human-induced global warming with major negative effects is not a done scientific deal). The BBC engaged in journalism, the ABC in propaganda.
Yes, the rest of the Australian media is prone to similar sins, but it is not a useful expenditure of taxpayers' funds to have the ABC intensify wider journalistic sins. Unfortunately, the ABC has the cues of credibility without the substance of it. When Professor Heningham of Queensland University surveyed journalists, he found they rated 7.30 Report, ABC News and Four Corners as the most pro-Labor media outlets.
It is very revealing that the ABC of the Triangle (Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra: rural ABC and the ABC in, for example, Perth are somewhat different beasts) has consistently refused to do the obvious---appoint a couple of presenters to prominent slots that the non-progressivist critics of the ALP would be comfortable with. This would disarm critics at a stroke. There is no commercial media empire in Australia that does not have more diversity of opinion expressed from within its ranks than the triangle ABC which, in the words of Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun talking of 3LO in Melbourne, has in its on-air staff the full range of opinion---from red to pink.
After all, broadening the ABC's support base is common sense. Why do they not do it? Because to admit the credibility of alternative viewpoints is to undermine the use by the baby-boomer collective which is the functional owner of the ABC of progressivist positions as moral assets.
A prime reason why they are so attached to the ABC is precisely because it is not a broad church in that sense, because it flatters their self-conceit that all morally and intellectually serious people agree with them. The ABC would have far less value to them if admitted the genuineness of other positions, if critics of the progressivist ascendancy were allowed on as more than occasional 'guest enemies' to show the progressivists' own magnanimity. Which is why they would apparently prefer that the ABC go under through the death of a thousand cuts and creeping commercialisation that Dempster so rails against than it become a genuine national broadcaster, representing the breadth of national opinion, or even of intellectual opinion.
Who are the intellectuals who get showcased by the ABC? David Suzuki, John Ralston Saul, Noam Chomsky and, for old times' sake, John Kenneth Galbraith. You don't have to be an ideologue to notice a bit of a pattern (apart from an appalling cultural cringe towards North Americans, some of whom get more exposure in Australia thanks to the ABC than they do at home). You have to go back over two decades and The Blainey View for a serious example of our 'national' (sic) broadcaster showcasing a non-progressivist intellectual. Given the resurgence in conservative and classical liberal thought over the last 25 years, this is a ludicrous dereliction of duty.
People from the 'right-wing' think tanks such as the IPA and the unavoidables, like Geoffey Blainey, are allowed on periodically as, in Blainey's felicitous phrase, 'the guest enemy'. Otherwise, they are definitely not part of the ABC's normal service.
Many of the defenders of the ABC---the David Bowman's, Errol Simper's and Peter Mannings'---are perfectly happy with this pattern. Progressivists do see their views as fully represented on the ABC, and, to the extent they notice the exclusion of classical liberal and conservative views, don't think it is a problem. They like the ABC being a hostile environment for conservative and classical-liberal views, which is why the elementary strategy of broadening the support base by becoming a genuinely national broadcaster is not suggested, even though it is a blindlingly obvious move.
But only obvious, of course, if you think that liberal-conservative views are a legitimate part of the national debate.
The 1988 series The True Believers, the ABC's last major Australian political drama, provides an excellent example of what is wrong with the ABC. Here was a golden opportunity to produce a great series, a mirror to ourselves, which would garner support across the political spectrum.
Instead we got one riddled with historical errors and which was, in Robert Manne's words, 'almost comically biased', publicly denounced by a range of participants in the events portrayed or by their families. Once again, taxpayer's money was effectively thieved, and the proper role of the ABC betrayed, so that ABC staff could indulge in undergraduate political preening. And this propaganda passing as history has been foisted on school children since.
It is interesting how contradictory are the arguments, depending on circumstances, which are mounted to defend the ABC. We are either told that left views are not represented in the commercial media (which is patently false, and an extremely arrogant attitude to public broadcasting) or that there is no problem with bias on the ABC (also patently false, and a sign, if believed, of an extremely insular attitude, of really believing that all people of intelligence and moral sensitivity believe in the same thing one does).
For the ABC, it is a matter of now or never. If the ABC cannot be reformed, if its internal culture cannot be broadened, if the attitude displayed in Quentin Dempster self-serving and self-indulgent Death Struggle remains indicative of the core of the ABC, then clearly reforming it from within will have proved to be a dead-end. The only alternative left will be abolishing it, for the good of broadcasting and the health of public debate generally.