Almost three years ago, ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman fronted the National Press Club for one of those little exercises in issues management the Corporation has become so well known for. He announced a series of audits to “assess the impartiality” of a series of interviews conducted with the recently elected prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the man he replaced Kevin Rudd – to be conducted by a member of the fiercely independent and detached BBC.
Not that the learned former judge could see much wrong with his ward. Instead, his address continued, allegations of ABC bias had more to do with the topics chosen for reporting, rather than their content. “Journalists – all of you, not just you at the ABC – tend to have a social and educational background … that make them (sic) more interested in, say, gay marriage than, say, electricity prices,” he asserted.
Which, of course, is why the topic so regularly features at the top of commercial electronic news broadcasts and the front page of The Sunraysia Daily. Mr Spigelman, not to put too fine a point on it, was serving a steaming mound of bovine byproduct. The content of much ABC’s news reporting continues to feature the same ingredient.
Earlier this week the E-Type Jaguar-driving former Fitzroy Legal Aid Service lawyer-turned-ABC-broadcaster Jon Faine hosted a candidates’ forum in Wangaratta for the federal seat of Indi. An interesting choice, perhaps, to host an election gathering, given that a few months before Mr Spigelman made his remarks an internal ABC investigation had found Faine’s reporting of l’affaire AWU “was not in keeping with the ABC’s rigorous impartiality standards” and officially reminded him “of his obligation to gather and present news … with due impartiality”, but we’ll leave that aside. Even Media Watch was obliged to concede that Faine had transgressed, albeit with a dash of cavilling and dark intimations of ABC presenters about to be bound, gagged and neutered. (editor: no doubt some would regard that as good, clean Safe Schools-style fun).
What was more interesting was the local ABC’s own reporting of the night. “If the audience response was anything to go on, same-sex marriage and Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers are the most emotive issues this election for the people in the seat of Indi,” it began.
Thank God for that “if” – which makes that thought audience-specific but still doesn’t cover a multitude of sins.
Firstly, the audience at the candidates’ forum was an entirely self-selecting sample. As a basis for deducing wider public sentiment it had the same scientific integrity as phrenology. The do was organised by the ABC, so it drew an ABC crowd.
Indi is held by the independent Cathy McGowan, who won it at the last election by talking up her rural roots – but was assisted by a cadre of GetUp types who had rarely ventured past Footscray or Preston before they joined a grudge match against one of the progressives’ Great Satanettes, Sophie Mirabella. They turned out in force — and turned in their voter-change-of-address forms — to back their gal. They might have left the beard oil behind in Brunswick, but they took their inner-city values with them.
The night appears to have been completely skewed – ridiculously unrepresentative.
How can we be so sure? Well, in an amazing coincidence, Roy Morgan Research had polled the electorate the two days before as part of a set of studies of seats that aren’t typical Labor-Coalition contests. Even more coincidentally, Morgan hadn’t asked about voting intention. Instead it was interested in key issues. “Honest government” came tops, with 32%. “Managing [the] economy” was second, on 21%, closely followed by “reducing living costs”, on 20%. A little further behind came “improving health services” on 12%, followed by “improving education” and “reducing crime” with nine and five per cent respectively.
True, Morgan asked about the “most important” issues, as opposed to the ABC’s “most emotive”. And, yes, the Morgan sample was low. But it would be entirely reasonable to expect some crossover. Yet same-sex marriage and treatment of asylum seekers appear not to have come up in their polling of the broader electorate, despite those matters’ apparent crucial significance to the ABC mob that gathered in Wang.
How, O how, to explain this disparity? Perhaps Mr Spigelman can ask his friends at the BBC to investigate.