Masochists like me, although dwindling in number, still derive an insane pleasure from complaining to the ABC, then waiting excitedly all those weeks to read the excuses concocted to justify the rejection of a carefully-drafted allegation.
Alas, much of the fun has gone out of it. I can almost always guess the line that the allocated functionary of Audience and Consumer Affairs (ACA) will take in dismissing my complaint of bias, lack of balance, factual inaccuracy or evidence of ‘groupthink’. I have long ceased to wonder at the lack of independent thought and reasoning in an outfit which is an integral part of the broadcasting monolith yet has been hypnotised into believing it is “separate to and independent of content-making areas within the ABC.”
Only once can I remember being stimulated by a rapid-fire, feisty exchange with the ACA long-stop, who was determined to prevent my well-executed shot reaching the boundary which represented admission. Five years ago, I had the cheek to object to an error in a 7pm news bulletin – pointing out that the U.N. enclave in Srebrenica had not been “overrun” by the Mladic forces; the Dutch peace-keepers had handed over the people they were sheltering without a shot being fired. The news that day was that a Dutch civil court had found that the relatives of the three hundred men and boys killed after being ejected from the Potocari compound were entitled to compensation, because the Dutch state was responsible for the conduct of its peace-keepers.
Audience and Consumer Affairs disagreed, arguing that the word “overran” was intended to convey only that the Bosnian Serb forces took possession of the ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica. Foolishly, it quoted the Macquarie dictionary in support:
1. to spread over rapidly and occupy a country as invading forces: in 1940 German armies overran the Low Countries.
2. to take possession of (an enemy position, etc): French troops overran the German gun emplacement.
Nonsense, I replied, “overrun” is a military term carrying the implication that one party supervened in a fight, and the Macquarie examples confirm this. The French troops would have overrun the German gun emplacement by attacking it with grenades and perhaps flame-throwers, not by asking if they could come in.
I quoted the Military Dictionary: to fight your way onto an enemy position.
And the Free Dictionary: to seize the positions of and defeat conclusively.
And the Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: to attack and defeat conclusively, crush.
“I am unable to find any support for the idea that a position can be overrun without a fight”, I wrote. “So the ABC’s rather pompous invented definition: ‘The details of the possession, whether by the threat of force or the actual use of force, or indeed any imbalance in troop numbers, perceived or otherwise, are immaterial to the consideration of whether the phrase “overran” was appropriate’ is simply absurd. Was that written by the in-house lawyer?”
I finished up: “This small episode proves not only the carelessness and ignorance with which ABC reporters now use the language, but also the lengths Corporate Affairs will go to defend the indefensible. And the ABC is not even aware how foolish it looks.” There was no reply.
That was then. Today I received the ABC’s self-exoneration of my charges of bias, lack of balance and political partiality in a Radio National Saturday Extra programme immediately after the Brexit vote. Three U.K. commentators, all identifying as ‘Remain’ supporters, berated the decision as “stupid” and carried on for 19 minutes 32 seconds as if the vote still had to take place. It was a maudlin lament of negativity which missed the opportunity to objectively examine Britain’s future position in terms of economy, trade, immigration and European links.
Cut to its essentials, the ABC’s long-winded response said: a) that my complaint had been referred to ABC Radio for its consideration, and its comments had been taken into account in reaching the determination. (So much for independence?), and b) that on review, the inclusion of a commentator who supported the Leave campaign would have made for a more interesting programme.
But then the coup de grace: “However, we are satisfied that the ABC has, in any event, complied with the requirements of 4.2”. Standard 4.2 of the Editorial Guidelines is the ‘get out of jail’ card that can be played when mere obfuscation and tendentious reasoning appear too thin to be convincing. In its high-sounding commitment to impartiality, 4.2 “requires the ABC to present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented”. (my emphasis). ACA was able to quote only one subsequent interview, on RN Breakfast, as balancing the Saturday Extra programme. But that was largely concerned with the ructions in the Labour and Conservative parties.
This trivial case exemplifies the non-trivial problem at the heart of ABC bias. Too often there is no attempt to present a balanced range of views in the one segment, seek out speakers with a contrarian viewpoint, or challenge the conventional opinions of favoured experts. Progressively, the progressives of the ABC have loosened the Editorial Guidelines to ensure that nothing and no one can be found in breach.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years