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May 01st 2013 print

Tom Switzer

Why the ABC Should Be Privatised

Let me stress from the outset that I think the ABC is a great and important Australian institution, and many of its staff members—from Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann on ABC1 to Sandy Aloisi and Glen Bartholomew on News Radio to Scott Bevan and Kumi Taguchi on ABC News 24—are highly professional and intelligent members of the Fourth Estate. I rather like Mark Scott, the managing director, who has expanded ABC services to vastly more people than at any time in the corporation’s eight decades. I am also a regular contributor to its television and radio programs, and I am proud of my association with them.

But one can make these observations, and still believe the ABC should be privatised. Why? Well, because a soft-Left “group-think” clouds its editorial content, which alienates large segments of the Australian public. Group-think, taken together with expansion into the internet and digital broadcasting, makes the case for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster highly questionable.

Of course, the ABC is not calculatedly partisan, nor do its masters deliberately pull the strings in any one direction. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that an entrenched Left-liberal bias—or perhaps mindset is a better word—seriously undermines the ABC’s claim to be an impartial provider of news and current affairs. If the ABC were sold off, no one would have grounds for complaining that it is impossible to watch the ABC for a whole evening without once shouting at the screen. After all, the broadcaster would no longer be bound by its charter to be even-handed.

Much of the ABC’s news output is professionally produced and accurate. It is just that when an investigative documentary or current affairs segment—or a drama, comedy, entertainment or religious program—expresses an attitude or a tone of voice, it is a progressive, leftist one, albeit subtle and insidious.

What Boris Johnson has said of BBC journalists could be said of their brethren in the ABC: “All their instinct and culture is to support state funding over the private sector—which is not surprising, since they are state-funded themselves.” He further asserts: “In any argument they will instinctively gravitate to what they think is the most civilised and liberal option, irrespective of the merits of the case.” In the Australian context, they are located on a political spectrum running from Malcolm Turnbull, via Andrew Wilkie towards Tanya Plibersek and Christine Milne.

On every issue of political controversy, the ABC’s mental default position is essentially left of centre: opposition to labour-market deregulation, anti-terror laws and tough border protection; support for a republic, multiculturalism and same-sex marriage; an obsession with gender issues, Aboriginal rights and catastrophic manmade global warming; and a deep suspicion of Tony Abbott, neo-conservatives, economic rationalists, climate sceptics and the “Christian Right”. These people won’t get the soft interview.

Such perceptions are hardly confined to the margins of the ideological Right. It was not Piers Akerman or Janet Albrechtsen, but Don Aitkin, the founding chairman of the Australian Research Council and a former chancellor of the University of Canberra, who argued in the Sydney Institute Quarterly last year:

A regular ABC listener/viewer will learn that environmentalists are always virtuous. Species always seem to be in danger of extinction. Women are always coming up against patriarchy and glass ceilings. Outside the business news domain, corporations always seem to be acting badly. Rich people are likely to be mean. Health and education seem to be in a disastrous situation, and the fault is plainly that of government. The UN is a good thing, and international organisations such as Greenpeace are plucky and well intentioned.

“Boat people” are always “asylum-seekers”, which suggests a political reason for their emigration, though on the face of it they simply have more money than those in refugee camps. Scientists who are sceptical of the AGW scare, like Jennifer Marohasy, are made the subject of what seem to me tendentious personal attacks, in this occasion on Media Watch. There is an awful predictability about the tone of ABC News in these domains. 

According to much-cited research in the mid-to-late 1990s by Professor John Henningham at the University of Queensland, the broad cross-section of the journalist class more or less think alike. In a survey of 173 journalists and 262 citizens of metropolitan Australia, a wide disparity in thoughts and attitudes prevails, with the journalists holding far more “progressive” positions than the general public.

That might explain why the ABC, as Gerard Henderson often observes, cannot point to a prominent conservative or non-Left screenwriter in its ranks. Or why the public broadcaster is widely viewed among many Liberals, as Grahame Morris once quipped, as “our enemies talking to our friends”. Or why many ABC journalists tend to be completely caught out by episodes such as the public backlash against the carbon tax or widespread community support for the offshore processing of refugees.

None of this is meant to suggest that Sir Robert Menzies was right when he once said, “Labor needs no Public Relations men so long as it has the ABC”, or that Kerry O’Brien’s regular election-night calls about “a swing to the ABC” meet the Washington definition of a “gaffe”: when someone inadvertently tells the truth. (Still, it is curious to note that at one time or another many ABC journalists have represented or worked for the Labor Party: O’Brien himself, Maxine McKew, Mary Delahunty, Bob Carr, Claire Martin, Alan Carpenter, Barrie Cassidy, Mark Bannerman, even the weatherman Mike Bailey, among others.)

Just as the veteran BBC reporter Rob Aitken once quipped that he could not raise a cricket team of conservatives among staff at the British public broadcaster, one would be hard pressed to pick an indoor-cricket team at the ABC. One would be naive to think the lack of alternative thinkers does not amount to skewed editorial content. As even David Salter, the former Media Watch producer, has conceded: “The national broadcaster tends towards monoculture [and] its factual programming is too often produced from a predictably common stance of assumed progressivism.”

No program sets the terms of the debate better than Q&A. On topics such as refugees, gay marriage and climate change, its coverage is loaded. Its choice of guests is always unbalanced. Its host Tony Jones is incorrigibly biased. It employs double standards in treating conservatives far more roughly than the other guests. Much of its questioning rests on a series of leftist ideological assumptions. Even Labor ministers are not immune: when Tony Burke once defended his Catholic faith on a panel discussion on religion featuring Richard Dawkins, he was immediately given the pariah treatment. All of this, moreover, is before a studio audience which treats anyone who strays from the progressive consensus with shock and distaste.

Then there is Insiders. Although a right-leaning commentator is accommodated (nearly) every Sunday morning, he or she is always outnumbered by two more Left-liberal counterparts and more often than not host (and former Labor media adviser) Barrie Cassidy. The token conservative’s input, moreover, is often regarded by the other panellists not simply as a contentious contribution to the debate but as a flat-earther’s fit of extremism.

Defenders of the ABC rightly argue that the broadcaster presents equal time to the Prime Minister or the Labor Party and the Opposition leader and Coalition. They further argue that because the ABC is regularly attacked from both Labor and the Coalition, it must be getting the balance right. But it is possible to annoy both sides and still be doing something wrong: that is, ABC criticism is all too often to the left of both Labor and the Coalition. (Ask Labor immigration ministers such as Gerry Hand and Chris Bowen about the ABC’s overly critical reports on mandatory detention and offshore processing.) Moreover, the issue here has more to do with what the producers and reporters decide is newsworthy, how that news story is presented and, crucially, what they choose to ignore or play down.

Take an example I have often cited: Ronald Reagan. During the week of the conservative lion’s death in June 2004, Lateline ignored the Republican president’s life and times. No stories, no features, no debate. Yet several months earlier, the presenter went weak at the knees remembering John F. Kennedy forty years after the liberal lion’s death. Instead of affording similar treatment to a conservative icon—much less having a debate about Reagan’s place in history—Lateline paid tribute to another American legend who died that week, the musician Ray Charles. For good measure, the presenter browbeat foreign minister Alexander Downer on Australia’s (as it turns out) non-role in the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq.

Some might argue that since Mark Scott became managing director in 2006, the ABC’s revamped news division covers all big breaking stories. How that explains ABC News 24’s decision to screen documentaries about Belgian identity issues after the Japanese tsunami in 2011 is not clear. What is clear is the ABC’s selective news judgment. Immediately after Gore Vidal’s death in August 2012, Lateline ran a sympathetic twenty-plus-minute segment on the radical writer, including a long, soft interview with Foreign Minister Bob Carr from the Middle East. Which prompts the question: did the (left-wing) literary identity deserve so much live coverage even though the same presenter and program failed to run a story on a (conservative) political giant?

All of this reflects a pattern. When Milton Friedman died in November 2006, the ABC hardly covered the Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist; yet the ABC dedicated a lot of air time to mark the passing of interventionist economist John Kenneth Galbraith a few months earlier. When anti-terror laws make the news, the ABC all too often interviews experts on this subject, usually civil libertarians; and, sure enough, they agree that the laws, supported by both government and opposition, are draconian.

On climate change, much to the chagrin of its former chairman Maurice Newman, the ABC has jettisoned all semblance of impartiality; it campaigns with a consistent stream of doom-and-gloom stories. Yet it devotes very little attention to Climate-gate scandals, any scholarship that challenges the warming orthodoxy, and the UN’s consistent failure to reach a binding global deal to reduce emissions.

More honest friends of the ABC insist it is needed to balance the so-called shock jocks on commercial radio and right-wing newspaper columnists. The argument goes, what difference does it make that ABC journalists are lefties? But those who hate talk-back radio or Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids can take solace in the fact that they are not financing Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt. Taxpayers who subsidise the ABC to the extent of more than $1 billion a year do not enjoy that peace of mind. Remember: the need for balance and fairness is there in the ABC Charter: it is the legislative quid pro quo for public funding.

How then to fix the public broadcaster’s entrenched group-think?

A step in the right direction is for the ABC itself to recognise that it exists within a cultural bubble. That is precisely what several distinguished BBC identities have done in recent times. Although they express themselves in different ways, senior journalists and executives have conceded that the BBC’s staff is drawn disproportionately from the liberal metropolitan classes and this means that editorial output is all too often shaped by the creed of political correctness. In 2006, at a seminar convened to discuss how best to safeguard impartiality, Andrew Marr—a leading light at the BBC and no right winger—conceded that the British public broadcaster “is not impartial or neutral”. It has, he added, “a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

Veteran BBC presenter Michael Buerk has attacked the BBC’s “creed of political correctness”, accusing staff of an “uncritical love affair with environmentalism” and warning that they read the left-wing Guardian newspaper as if it is “their Bible”. Even the chairman, Christopher Patten, has called on staff to listen to accusations that they are “drowning” viewers and listeners with “prejudices” and “stereotypes”.

When anyone makes similar observations about the ABC, they are widely dismissed. But no matter how much the Australian public broadcaster swears blind there is no problem, the issue refuses to go away. Why? Because for many taxpayers, the ABC’s skewed assumptions about the political world are very annoying.

Another way of addressing allegations of bias is to insist that journalists deliver news instead of opinion. Although Mark Scott is right to say that under his tenure the ABC has taken to finding different viewpoints, he is wrong to claim that ABC journalists carry “no ideological badge and [push] no line”.

Just ask Eric Beecher, the Crikey online publisher who is neither a conservative nor an economic rationalist:

The Drum seriously and dangerously compromises the ABC’s editorial integrity. It is full of personal opinions, mainly from the Left and often wacky, which is something that sits uncomfortably with the notion of a rigorously independent, publicly funded national broadcaster. In doing so, it provocatively reinforces the fairly widespread perceptions of where the ABC and its journalists sit in the political spectrum.

Indeed, it is absurd to allow so many allegedly objective reporters and presenters a platform on the Drum (both online and television) or local radio to air their subjective judgments about controversial political views. It merely highlights the left-wing mindset. Who could forget Marieke Hardy, who called for Christopher Pyne, a senior Liberal frontbencher, to be “attacked by a large and libidinous dog”? Or Radio National breakfast host Fran Kelly who declared her support for the highly unpopular carbon tax: “Bring on the certainty, I say, get the thing voted in”? Or economics reporter Stephen Long who advised listeners to “man the soup kitchens and erect their tent cities” during the global financial crisis? Last year, Long called Scott Morrison, the tough-minded Coalition’s immigration spokesman, a “racist” for representing the federal seat of Cook, the scene of the Cronulla riots.

One could provide many more examples of ABC journalists revealing themselves as biased and compromising their editorial judgment, but you get the point. By allowing so-called objective hosts and reporters to give their (usually leftist) opinion online or on air, the ABC proves itself fundamentally at odds with the thoughts and attitudes of the Australian people, to whom the broadcaster purportedly answers. It also shows it has essentially chosen to end its pretence of being a public service broadcaster. As a result, it has made the clearest case yet for its privatisation.

If the ABC refuses to act like a rigorously independent national broadcaster, the need for political balance and all other forms of impartiality should end. Sell off at least the non-news-service divisions and let the market decide. This is especially justified, given that the ABC uses tax dollars to create a market distortion by gaining an unfair advantage against commercial rivals such as Crikey, Fairfax, the Australian, Sky News, and book publishing.

In the media marketplace, as the Australian’s Chris Kenny has argued, falling advertising revenue caused by a coincidence of digital evolution and cyclical forces is costing jobs and threatening the viability of newspapers and television stations. Why should a taxpayer-funded, free-to-the-consumer competitor be allowed to expand on their turf? Why should it be allowed to produce digital content (at taxpayers’ expense) when traditional commercial media companies increasingly need to build pay walls around their online content?

As Beecher has argued: “Operating in the commercial space, we [at Crikey] expect vigorous competition from other commercial publishers. But to see the ABC tanks roll up on our lawn was bewildering.” Sky News and other commercial competitors express the same justified concerns.

Friends of the ABC say that the public broadcaster provides a range of programs that would not be found elsewhere, or would be unaffordable otherwise. The free market, as Mozart and most dead poets show, is not always a good judge of quality. They also argue that many viewers and listeners feel at home with the public broadcaster and that its programs are appreciated by a large slice of the (economically up-scale) public.

But if the ABC has value not only for the prime television and radio spectrum it occupies but also its quality programs, why would the marketplace let this valuable franchise die? If it were a commercially viable entity, how would privatisation lead to a diminishing of the quality of its product? Selling off the ABC may eliminate much of the leftist content, but that would merely mean the Phillip Adamses and Julian Morrows and Media Watch-style programs of the ABC could take their chances in the private sector.

ABC defenders also believe that rural areas should have at least some access to ABC programs; and that privatisation would hurt regional Australia’s links with the media. However imperfect and irritating the ABC is, the argument goes, if we destroy the Australian public broadcaster we diminish rural and regional Australia.

But although there was truth to this argument during much of the corporation’s eighty-year history, the broadcasting landscape has changed utterly in recent times. As Pete du Pont, a former Republican governor of Delaware, has argued in the Wall Street Journal:

Cable and satellite have provided a buffet of interesting news, cultural and educational offerings for years. And the internet—with its ubiquitous availability in homes, schools, and libraries, and on cell phones, iPads and Kindles—provides far more information than public broadcasting ever could.

Or as the columnist George Will has suggested in the Washington Post, public broadcasting is “another middle-class—actually, upper-middle-class entitlement”. “If you doubt the entitlement mentality” of the public broadcaster lobby, he asserts, “hear its indignant rhetoric equating any questioning of their subsidy with censorship”. The lobby “consists disproportionately of people with financial and educational means to provide their own entertainment, but who have the political competence to bend political power to their private advantage”. 

Du Pont and Will make these points in the context of fully privatising the US public broadcaster. The logic applies to the Australian state-run broadcaster.

Last December Tony Abbott told the Australian Financial Review: “There is still this left-of-centre ethos in the ABC and I hope that Mark Scott continues to address it.” Alas, the ABC’s institutional leftism is incurable. And privatisation is unlikely to define Coalition communications policy, especially under Malcolm Turnbull, whose base of support is more likely to be an inner-city Q&A studio audience than the centre-Right mainstream of the Liberal Party.

Under an Abbott government, budget cuts will most certainly be on the legislative agenda if only to save tax dollars. But privatisation—or at least rationalisation—of the public broadcaster remains a sound policy option. If the ABC is sold off and capital is returned to the federal budgets, its journalists would be free to air all the ideologically-tainted content they like. Some programs would not sell, and others would continue to aggravate many Australians. But at least taxpayers would not be forced to pay for it.

Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia, an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and an editorial board member of Quadrant. A shorter version of this article appears in Really Dangerous Ideas (Connor Court), edited by Gary Johns, which was published in March.