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December 20th 2008 print

James Allan

Balance in Public Broadcasting

“Had you been listening to these [ABC] reports during the recent US elections, it would have been a complete mystery to you as to why any sane person would be considering voting for the Republican John McCain. The fact over 46 percent of US voters ended up doing so would baffle you.”

National Public Radio, or NPR, is the non-commercial radio station in the United States. The joke over in the States, playing off H.L. Mencken’s famous line that the Episcopal Church of the 1920s was ‘the Republican Party at prayer’, is that NPR is the Democrat Party doing radio. Or at least it’s the furthest left part of the Democrat Party doing radio.

My point isn’t that the Episcopalians or US Anglicans of today are the Republican Party at prayer, not least because we all know today’s American Episcopalians are more like some suicidally fast dwindling collection of every politically correct organisation you can think of at prayer.

No, my point has to do with public radio broadcasters and the standards they seem to bring to the job.

Bear with me for a moment because it’s worth telling you that I’m something of a junkie for this sort of radio. In my native Canada I used regularly to listen to CBC radio. And in London and Hong Kong it was the BBC. And in New Zealand it was Radio National. And here in Australia it’s usually one of the ABC stations to which I’m tuned in.

This radio is interesting; it’s informative; though it’s rarely all that funny it certainly can make a half hour car drive pass by quite pleasantly. But what it’s not is politically balanced. The BBC is the best of the bunch on that front, at least in my view. But it’s still a choice where all these Anglo-American radio broadcasters start from the same whole-hearted commitment to giving you the world through the prism of a liberal-left set of beliefs, pre-suppositions and supposed moral certainties.

By and large I don’t share all that many of these pre-suppositions and supposed moral certainties so it might seem rather odd that I like to listen to this sort of radio. But in fact it’s quite the opposite. If you want to test your views and think about them and see if you think they can stand up to opposition then you need to be hearing opposing views. And better still you need to be hearing the opposing side of things when it is intelligently put. If nothing else, that allows you at least to refine your own positions.

Sure, at times the sanctimoniousness and smugness of a presenter will make you want to barf, but by and large I like this sort of public radio. I rarely agree with the underlying assumptions of editors, interviewers (and even most of the guests). But I like this kind of radio.

If you buy this line of mine, that all of us are better off having our fundamental assumptions challenged, then you might wonder why those broadly on the left of the political spectrum don’t push ABC radio to provide a bit less of the usual, warm lib-left certitudes.

Take ABC’s News Radio. That’s their station with the rolling news coverage that slips over to covering Parliament when it’s sitting. Now this is the station I virtually always listen to when I drive into work in the morning. One of the regular features they have is a report from the US on American politics.

And who would they often get to give that report? Of course you already guessed it. It is one of the senior reporters from NPR. Now this woman who gives the updates on what is happening in American politics is no doubt smart. And she has interesting things to report. But I defy anyone to listen to the exchanges between her and the ABC News Radio man when they talk about, say, Barack Obama without immediately being reminded of what it must have been like to interview a female groupie of the Beatles back in the 1960s.

In fact, had you been listening to these reports during the recent US elections, it would have been a complete mystery to you as to why any sane person would be considering voting for the Republican John McCain. The fact over 46 percent of US voters ended up doing so would baffle you.

Not only that, the nice back-and-forth banter on ABC barely touched on the free-trade credentials of the two candidates. And it certainly didn’t point out that Australia’s trade interests, based on the records of these two men, would be far better served – assuming candidates say what they mean and act as they have in the past – by McCain.

In the same vein there was next to no mention of Obama’s Senate voting record, one that put him at the very far left of the Democrat Party. Yes, McCain’s heroism in Vietnam got a mention or two, true, but they were vastly outnumbered by the mentions of Obama’s wonderful speechifying. And so on and so on.

And I hardly need mention that Sarah Palin was not the flavour of the day. If you can sneer on radio, then the ABC commentators and their American correspondents managed to do it to perfection.

Here’s what I wondered then, and keep wondering now when I listen to these reports on American politics. Why is it that ABC radio doesn’t occasionally call a reporter from, say, Fox News rather than NPR and get the American update from that right-winger. Even if they did it every fourth or fifth time, surely it would be interesting to hear what the person on the right thought, not just the one on the left. Does anyone honestly believe that Fox is more one-sided than NPR?

And let me be clear about this. Surely it would be interesting to people here on the left of the political spectrum to hear what those with opposing views were thinking and to try to put themselves in their shoes and understand what is motivating them and why they are leaning the way they are in terms of voting.

If you never do that then you’re left having to think that all who disagree with you are just dumb or wicked or in need of education (or re-education). It doesn’t take all that much experience of the world, however, to realise there are lots and lots and lots of people out there who are every bit as smart as you are, and as nice, who just don’t agree with you on fundamental issues.

Come on ABC. You can do better.