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December 23rd 2015 print

Peter O'Brien

The ABC Gets What It Pays For

Surprise! The national broadcaster's hand-picked inquisitors have concluded their review of Q&A with the advice that a few more Greens and women will banish perceptions of panel-stacking and bias. Such reckoning does not withstand scrutiny

thumb on scaleRecently added to PM Turnbull’s Christmas reading list is the much-anticipated ‘independent’ report into the ABC’s flagship Q&A programme by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown – a review prompted by vehement protestations by then-PM Tony Abbott that the programme is outrageously biased.

Perception of bias is subjective, of course, so I can understand that the national broadcaster’s initial response might have been defensive.  But surely the responsible course of action for an organisation that exists solely by courtesy of $1 billion-plus worth of taxpayer largesse would be to treat the complaint with a modicum of respect. In this regard the choice of Ray Martin, himself a former ABCer and an avowed admirer, was curious to the point of making the jaw drop.

I’ve dipped into this 108-page report and can confirm that, as as students of the ABC fully expected, Martin and fellow investigator Shaun Brown, formerly of SBS, issue a clean bill of health on the substantive issue of bias. The duo throws a couple of bones to progressive critics of the show (if there are any), notably that there are not enough female guests (a problem attributed in part to the lack of women on Tony Abbott’s front bench) and they also suggest that the show get out of Sydney more often to learn what the rest of the country is thinking and saying.

Getting to the nub of the report, Martin and Brown, as expected, delpoy statistics to show us there is no bias. According to the report, their review of 23 programs showed the Coalition had 19 representatives, the ALP 17, Greens 1 and Independent/Others 3. That metric, it appears, is the primary basis to proclaim that Q&A is not biased, not in the least.

My keen interest over many years in the climate change debate and the allegedly settled science that underwrites it has taught me to approach quoted statistics with not a pinch of salt but a wheelbarrow.  So I decided to take an independent look at Q&A, just to see it the Martin-Brown numbers withstand the scrutiny of an independent eye. It is my sad duty to report that they bear little relation to reality.

For my analysis, I drew up three columns: Sympathetic to Coalition, Hostile to Coalition, and Neutral.  I surveyed the panels for all of 2015′s programs. What I found, as might anyone who cares to look,  is that there were:

  • 28 sitting Coalition MPs (State and Federal), and
  • 38 sitting MPs (State and Federal) hostile to the Coalition (I include ALP,  all Greens, Palmer, Lambie and Xenophon in this category).

All of a sudden, it didn’t look quite so balanced.  Those figures alone, untainted by any suggestion of subjectivity, show clear bias and contradict the claims of Martin/Brown.

But if we then add to the mix retired politicians of all flavours, as well as political commentators and activists, we find the imbalance increases alarmingly.  Here I’ve had to exercise some judgment when assigning journalists and other non-politicians. Should readers disagree with my analysis I will be happy to be corrected in the comments thread below.

I classified Greg Sheridan, Rowan Dean, John Roskam, Kate Carnell, Graham Morris and Tim Wilson, Fred Nile and Katy Faust (traditional marriage advocate) as likely being sympathetic to the Coalition.

I classified Ann Summers, Geoffrey Robertson, David Marr, Corinne Grant, Lisa Wilkinson, Gillian Triggs, Dee Madigan, Miriam Margolyes, Wendy Harmer, Paul Ehrlich, Peter Singer, Annabel Crabb, Brian Schmidt, John Daley, Tony Windsor and Van Badham among those likely to be hostile to the Coalition.  There were many others as well — any guest, for example, representing an organization with the words ‘human rights’ in its title.

Altogether, by my estimation, the panellists for 2015 comprised:

  • 42 likely to be sympathetic to the Coalition,
  • 74 likely to be hostile to the Coalition, and
  • 62 nominally neutral, but in many cases they were in this category because I gave them the very generous benefit of the doubt.  My inclination (which I manfully resisted) was to classify anyone with a university connection as hostile, but notwithstanding this, I would suspect that well over 50% of these 62 would incline Left.

Add moderator Tony Jones to the mix and the imbalance becomes even more pronounced.

But, of course, these statistics are not the real story because they reveal nothing about the tone and tenor of the questions and commentary, which I do not intend to address because they are well known to Quadrant readers.  My intention here is not to prove Q&A’s bias but to shine some light on the  Martin/Brown thesis.

Their report ignored the Zaky Mallah episode, apparently because the ABC had already admitted an error of judgement in that case.  They also highlighted  as unbalanced the episode of June 18, in which Rev Fred Nile was the lone traditional voice against five LBGTI advocates. They also made note of the June 22 show, which saw two conservatives pitted against four ‘vociferous’ progressives. These episodes were noted as lacking in balance but were dismissed as ‘isolated lapses in judgment and not systemic’.  Notable by their absence were ‘isolated lapses in judgment’ favouring conservative guests and perspectives.

No doubt our PM and his new communications minister will be glad to have been assured by Martin and Brown that, apart from a few quibbles, Q&A is a near-impeccable example of the ABC discharging its duties as mandated by the broadcaster’s Charter. We can take this to mean it will be business as usual in Ultimo.

If newly anointed Managing Director Michelle Guthrie wishes to make a favourable impression in her upcoming role, she might want to consider tapping a broader pool of talent when subjecting her outfit to the next round of independent scrutiny. Any number of Quadrant contributors would jump at such an opportunity.

Comments [12]

  1. en passant says:

    Defund the ABC as it is unnecessary. I already pay for real news on cable. That is $1Bn saved.

    • Jody says:

      My son is a media adviser to an extremely high-ranking government cabinet minister and he’s always told me Pay TV is far superior to anything on offer at the ABC and to get this!! I’ll do so.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    Damning as this article is of the Martin and Brown report, neither the article, nor the report seem to refer to the fact that most questions are obviously pre-submitted, thereby almost certainly vetted, which procedure would eliminate anything that might be awkward for the leftist agenda of the program. Something like “what of the 17-year-plus ‘hiatus’ in global warming?” or “wasn’t the infamous ‘hockey stick graph a shameful fraud?” and similar.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Bill, given the time of the year and the fact that the Martin/Brown report is already yesterday’s news I did not have the luxury of fully and forensically dissecting the report. Given that it relied primarily on dubious statistics to reach its substantive conclusion, I felt that the best thing I could do, in the time available, was to counter that aspect. I fully agree with you about the framing of questions and many other aspects.

  3. Mr Johnson says:

    There are many who would beat themselves with birch branches if anything were to happen to the ABC that would result in less programming, a different sort of programming (balanced?), or even a change in talking heads. But there are also many who would rather put their head in an oven than watch the stomach turning antics of that Lefty sacred cow worshiping bunch. To those that regard it is high value for (our) money, and an indispensable part of their lives I say: prove it! Make the ABC pay-as-you-go, and those that would fight for it, certainly can, and those that do not want to see their tax dollars made hostages to this behemoth, can then sleep soundly knowing that now everyone has got what they want.

  4. PT says:

    The problem is these people live in their own little world. Journos in general lean to the left. Especially on social issues, morals etc. One reason why Pilger has never been challenged over his friends in Hanoi helping the Khmer Rouge to power in the first place. Or why Turncoat was never quizzed about his involvement in the deal to sell Fairfax to a consortium headed by Conrad Black – a Canadian – whilst simultaneously pushing for republicanism on the grounds that the Queen lives in the UK!

    • PT says:

      They, especially ABC journos just can’t imagine they’re biased. I mean they employ Eoin Cameron in Perth on the radio! Ray Martin once had credibility, but he shredded it long ago. No doubt the “guidelines” helped as well.

      Ultimately the approach should be that the ABC Web based stuff, unless directly linked to broadcast content – should be seen as commercial like ABC Shop products, and made user pays. This is essential. The ABC is a broadcaster, not an Internet service. There isn’t an ABC newspaper for instance! It may help to convince the staff that they do, ultimately need to maintain a broad base of community suppor to stay in business.

  5. Tony Thomas says:

    I read the report yesterday, by coincidence. Biggest copout was to say the Zaky Mallah stuff was all done and dusted, apologised for, now irrelevant to the inquiry. Yeah right. Check out the government inquiry into QandA:
    Justice Wood, when sentencing Zaky Mallah in 2005 to 30 months jail, had even then deplored the way the media had adopted Mallah and “gave him an entirely undeserved and unnecessary exposure… Placing a person such as the prisoner into the public spotlight is … likely to encourage him to embark on even more outrageous and extravagant behaviour.”

    Mallah registered to go on Q&A in 2011, went into the audience twice, and was booked by the ABC into the audience another three times, but was a no-show. He asked twice to join the panel but – and this is a mystery – Q&A rejected him. On a further occasion Q&A begged him to join an audience, but he in turn rejected the Q&A invitation. Then there was his June 22 appearance. (Dept of Communications report, 1/7/15).

    The Martin report also claimed the audience was non-stacked, whether or not applicants lied that they were Conservative voters in order to improve their chance of getting a seat.
    Frankly, I couldn’t understand the logic there. Maybe I’d eaten too much brandy pudding.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Tony, the report is full of other rubbish which I didn’t get around to addressing. For example, the suggestion that if only management would explain their policies and guidelines more clearly then the dumb conservatives would realize the programme’s not biassed after all.

  6. Simon says:

    Well, I don’t watch the damn show any more, and I’m sure most Conservatives don’t either. As it becomes more and more of leftard talking shop, the fewer listeners it will get. But, of course, ratings are not an issue for them.