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June 18th 2018 print

Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson

The ABC, ‘Independent’ to a Fault

Private media organisations must defer to consumers and advertisers, while politicians and bureaucracies answer to voters. Independent statutory agencies, such as the ABC, know no such masters. This opens the door to staff capture and, as the national broadcaster demonstrates, makes bias inevitable

their abcIt is appalling that a sitting government should have to complain that the ABC is repeating Labor lies as facts. The ABC itself should be ashamed to have received such a complaint. Yet that is precisely why the Labor Party supported the establishment of the ABC – to provide a forum for pro-ALP news and opinion. This points to questioning the precise meaning of what is meant by the ABC being “independent”.

The Charter describes the ABC as an “independent national broadcasting service”, and it is that independence which forms many arguments in favour of public broadcasting. But this notion of independence needs deeper examination. The ABC is a state-owned broadcaster, which is dependent on triennial funding arrangements drawn from the Commonwealth budget, which is set by the political discretion of the government of the day.

ABC supporters refer to the ABC’s independence in two senses. First, it has editorial independence from the government, insofar as it is a statutory agency that is self-managing and separated from the normal chains of political accountability. Second, it is independent of the interests of advertisers and private sector media moguls, providing the “independent information” that the commercial media might not.

Public broadcasting has always been defined against the evils of private broadcasting, and the theme of an independent bulwark against the commercial media (the moguls and monopolists) has been integral right from the start. In the early years it was claimed that a purely private media market would be simultaneously disorderly and monopolistic. In the debate over the 1932 bill, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie, Albert Green, warned of the “chains of newspapers … obtaining such a stranglehold over the eastern part of the Victoria, and disseminating its propaganda through the stations that it controls”. The private monopolisation of radio – “one of the most revolutionary additions to the pool of human resources” – was constantly invoked by Labor members throughout the early debates. This concern, they felt, was more than just theoretical. The 1931 election loss showed, they felt, that the private media was systematically biased against the Labor Party, and a public broadcaster would be able to right that wrong.

Control of the wireless was the high ground of the political contest. In New South Wales a few years earlier the Lang government had sought to establish a state government radio that would resist what Labor saw as the Nationalist Party-dominated private media. As Albert Green, the most forthright of the Labor members on this point in the 1932 debate, put it:

Some B class stations are controlled by newspaper combines, which use them to broadcast only one political opinion. I had hoped that the air would be free to all, and that at election time every party would be given an opportunity to express its opinions over the air. Unfortunately that has not been our experience. Certain newspaper combines are endeavouring to obtain a monopoly of B class stations, and I sound the note of warning that sooner or later some government will have to tackle the very difficult, but necessary task of dealing with the problem of metropolitan B class stations. Nothing short of a complete national scheme will do.

In this sense, independence was understood by the Labor Party as being pro-Labor – or, at least, not anti-Labor. The 1942 inquiry into wireless reiterated this concern, arguing that public broadcasting was needed “to prevent the service from being used for improper purposes”.

Similar concerns drove the introduction of television. The overwrought claims about the social and psychological power of television only intensified the concerns about the new technology’s political importance. The public position of the Labor Party and the ACTU emphasised the cultural good that public broadcasting television could bring, rather than its role countering political bias. But there is no doubt that politics was front of mind when the labour movement considered the significance of television.

A public disagreement between Arthur Calwell and H.V. Evatt as to whether Labor would nationalise the commercial television stations if they were returned to government pivoted on their different impressions of how sympathetic the ABC was to the Labor Party. Calwell, who had been Minister for Information during the Second World War, had a hostile relationship to the commercial press. He believed that Keith Murdoch, who controlled the Melbourne Herald and several other papers across the country, was “a fifth columnist”, “megalomanic”, and his network of papers “a law unto itself” and “Public Enemy No. 1 of the liberties of the Australian people”. Murdoch’s pernicious influence could not be let onto television. Evatt felt that if the hybrid system was maintained, at least the Labor Party would be able to buy a commercial station to air its views. For its part, the conservative parties were just as aware of the political significance of television, arguing in response to the Chifley government’s proposal to establish a monopoly broadcaster that Labor was “merely another milestone on the socialised road to serfdom”.

The modern ABC’s independence is often declared but in practice is hard to pin down. Unlike the BBC, the ABC was not established under a royal charter, and the 1948 move away from licence fees to funding through budget appropriations brought it more into the political window.

Yet how independent could the ABC be? Compared to private and non-government organisations, the fortune of any state authority is going to be closely tied to the government of the day. Public broadcasters have their budgets set by the same governments which they purport to keep a check on. Commercial broadcasters might be dependent on the goodwill of advertisers, but the fact that there are many potential advertisers is a protection against excessive advertiser influence. A public broadcaster has only one funder, and it is a funder whose interests are driven by political rather than commercial incentives.

Nor are commercial broadcasters required to constantly justify their activities to professional politicians. Public broadcasters are regularly brought in front of parliamentary committees to answer for editorial decisions, from the trivial to the significant. The Senate estimates committee procedure requires statutory agencies to present themselves in front of a committee of Senators three times a year. At her first Senate estimates hearing in May 2016, Michelle Guthrie was interrogated about the cancellation of livestock market reports on ABC regional stations, the ABC Fact Check program, how unionised the ABC’s workforce was, whether the ABC was too Sydney-centric, how many people it sent to the Cannes film festival and how long they were out of the office, and how much the ABC spent on a custom typeface to use across its brands. This sort of scrutiny is, of course, entirely appropriate for a state instrumentality. But the notion that independence is the ABC’s unique value as a media outlet is difficult to sustain.

It is not obvious that independence from a democratically elected government is desirable. The ABC is a state-owned organisation, and like any state-owned organisation it derives its legitimacy from its relationship to the democratic expression of voter preferences. Public broadcasters join a large number of other regulatory and bureaucratic agencies that have been deliberately separated from the normal lines of democratic accountability: rather than being the “arm of the minister”, in the classical Westminster bureaucracy formulation, they are protected from political interference and given independence. In an open market, private media organisations are subordinate to consumers and advertisers. In government, politicians and bureaucracies are subordinate to voters. Independent statutory agencies are, by intention, subordinate to neither. Even at their most benign, they are highly susceptible to capture by their employees and management.

Indeed, staff capture has been a longstanding concern of critics of public broadcasters. As Michael Warby writes, “‘Independence’ from government interference … comes to mean effective independence from whatever tenuous public controls over the ABC exist in practice—it amounts to independence from the direct legal owner”. One of the consequences of staff capture, of course, is political bias. The historical context shows that this political slant is a deliberate feature of public broadcasting, not a bug.

Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson are in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University

Comments [6]

  1. Jody says:

    I watched the excellent interview with the personable Dr. Berg on Bolt’s program last night. He seemed pessimistic (Berg) about the privatization but I’d advocate the woodpecker principle. Keep chipping away and the tree is weakened, if not felled. Hope reigns eternal.

    • LBLoveday says:

      I did not watch the interview, so I pass on without comment or verification Gerald Henderson’s contrary opinion:

      CHRIS BERG’S ABC HOWLER

      Could it be that the co-authors of the book that advocates privatising the ABC know next to nothing about the history of the taxpayer funded public broadcaster? Sure could.

      Chris Berg, co-author with Sinclair Davidson of the recently released Against Public Broadcasting, appeared on The Bolt Report on Monday to flog his tome. Messers Berg and Davidson are all for privatising the taxpayer funded ABC – but not the taxpayer funded RMIT University in Melbourne, where both are academics. Fancy that.

      Early in the interview, your man Berg said that the ABC was set up in 1932 to solve serious problems with broadcasting markets at that time. And then, soon after, confusion – as the transcript demonstrates:

      Chris Berg: I’m not sure that we should be required to pay for it [viewpoint journalism].

      Andrew Bolt: And particularly subsidise only one side of the debate. Look, if individual ABC broadcasters inevitably show their bias on there – that’s natural, that’s fine, it’s actually entertaining. But why does it always have to be of the left?

      Chris Berg: Well that’s the purpose. That was why they set the ABC up. So one of the reasons they set up –

      Andrew Bolt: The left?

      Chris Berg: Yeah, to be a counter-party to commercial media bias. So the Labor Party believed that the new services provided by, particularly the Murdoch press if you will, the Murdoch press was providing this right-wing, or commercial bias or whatever it was. And the Labor Party felt that they needed a counter-measure to that. So they insisted that the ABC set up a news service. And that news service is specifically non-commercial. It’s specifically non-right and it’s specifically left.

      Andrew Bolt: Except, of course, the media landscape has changed, most media outlets are of the left – Fairfax, Guardian, BuzzFeed, Junkee. I could go on and on, half the News Corp journalists at the very least are of the left.

      Chris Berg: We live in a totally different world.

      What a load of absolute tosh. Chris Berg does not know that when the ABC was set up in 1932 Joseph Lyons was prime minister of the United Australia Party government. The UAP is the predecessor of today’s Liberal Party of Australia. A full discussion can be found in K.S. Inglis’ This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983 (MUP, 1983) and Anne Henderson’s Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister (New South, 2011).

      Between the two world wars, the Labor Party was in office from 29 October 1929 to 6 January 1932. The Great Depression occurred on Labor’s watch – when Joseph Scullin was prime minister – and the party split three ways. Prime Minister Scullin had other things on his mind than establishing a national broadcaster.

      In fact, in its early decades the ABC was a relatively conservative institution. It commenced moving to the left when the self-proclaimed Marxist Allan Ashbolt was appointed to key producer positions in the ABC in the mid-1950s. Your man Ashbolt set about stacking the ABC with young leftists in the 1960s – who were said to comprise “Ashbolt’s kindergarten”.

      As to Chris Berg’s idea that the ABC was set up by the Labor Party in 1932 to provide balance to the Murdoch press (i.e. the newspapers controlled by Keith Murdoch) – well it’s one of the great media howlers of our time.

      Chris Berg: Media Fool of the Week.

      • LBLoveday says:

        Again, without comment from me:

        Berg v Henderson
        Posted on 1:52 pm, June 23, 2018 by Sinclair Davidson

        For those of you who don’t know Gerard Henderson runs a blog at The Australian where he pretends to be a bitch female dog called Nancy who comments on the passing parade. This column used to be at the SMH but they axed it and for reasons I can’t quite work out (pity? affirmative action?) he soon got a gig at The Australian peddling the same guff.

        Anyway he has taken a disliking to Chris Berg. Why he would consider a smart, intelligent and articulate person as a threat I couldn’t possibly comment on, but there you have it.

        So Chris and I have a book out on the ABC. I appeared last week on Outsiders to promote the book and Chris appeared on the Bolt Report to promote the book. Both appearances caused twitter storms. Me with a statistic that ABC journalists were almost 5 times more likely to vote Greens than the general population and Chris with this statement (emphasis added):

        Chris Berg: So the Labor Party believed that the new services provided by, particularly the Murdoch press if you will, the Murdoch press was providing this right-wing, or commercial bias or whatever it was. And the Labor Party felt that they needed a countermeasure to that. So they insisted that the ABC set up a news service. And that news service is specifically non-commercial. It’s specifically non-right and it’s specifically left.

        All the luvvies on twitter went wild. Didn’t the great Satan Berg know the ABC was set up in 1932, under the then Lyons government? Blah, blah, blah.

        It turns out Gerard Henderson has gone wild too. This is what “Nancy” had to say.

        What a load of absolute tosh. Chris Berg does not know that when the ABC was set up in 1932 Joseph Lyons was prime minister of the United Australia Party government. The UAP is the predecessor of today’s Liberal Party of Australia. A full discussion can be found in K.S. Inglis’ This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983 (MUP, 1983) and Anne Henderson’s Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister (New South, 2011).

        That latter author – Anne Henderson – is Mrs Nancy.

        Like all people with a feeble grasp of history Nancy knows dates but not stories. Even worse, Nancy purports to make claims about a book that he clearly hasn’t read! If Nancy had read the book, he would know that at page 29 the story is set out:

        Nevertheless, in 1932 the ABC was just a shadow of what it was to become, producing programming that was rebroadcast by the A-class stations. The first major change to the ABC was giving it the power to create original journalism. For its first decade in operation the ABC relied on the newspapers for news-gathering that it would subsequently broadcast. Labor however claimed that this reliance meant that the biases of newspaper proprietors were being transmitted through the national broadcaster. In a bill passed just before the 1946 federal election, the Chifley government required the ABC to gather its own domestic news itself. The opposition claimed that this was an attempt to bias the imminent election in the government’s favour. Robert Menzies objected that the bill had been ‘literally shuffled through the Parliament in the small hours of the morning on the last day of the session’. Nevertheless, the bill passed parliament.

        In fact, let’s actually quote Sir Robert Menzies’ objection to the Australian Broadcasting Bill 1946:

        … the central proposal of the bill [is] that the commission should establish an independent news service … Why, then, is the proposal put forward? Quite obviously it is because the Government believes that through a government instrumentality it can establish a news service of its own. The news collected will not be objective, but in ways and means suitable to the government of the day. This is not a case being put up for objective news gathering. It is quite the contrary.

        Now Nancy may wish to google the dates and the Chifley government – but I am confident that the Chifley government was a Labor government and Labor was in power in 1946. Bob Menzies was in opposition. True the ABC was set up in 1932 – but it didn’t have its own news service at that time. Perhaps if Nancy had read K.S. Inglis’ This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932-1983 (MUP, 1983) he would have known that already.

        If he had read our book Nancy would know we have a longer discussion of this point at pages 53 and 54:

        In the debate over the 1932 bill, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie, Albert Green, warned of the ‘chains of newspapers … obtaining such a stranglehold over the eastern part of the Victoria, and disseminating its propaganda through the stations that it controls’. The private monopolisation of radio—‘one of the most revolutionary additions to the pool of human resources’—was constantly invoked by Labor members throughout the early debates. This concern, they felt, was more than just theoretical. The 1931 election loss showed, they felt, that the private media was systematically biased against the Labor Party, and a public broadcaster would be able to right that wrong.

        Control of the wireless was the high ground of the political contest during the interwar years. In New South Wales the Lang government had sought to establish a state government radio network that would resist what Labor saw as the Nationalist Party-dominated private media. As Green, the most forthright of the Labor members on this point in the 1932 debate, put it:
        “Some B class stations are controlled by newspaper combines, which use them to broadcast only one political opinion. I had hoped that the air would be free to all, and that at election time every party would be given an opportunity to express its opinions over the air. Unfortunately that has not been our experience. Certain newspaper combines are endeavouring to obtain a monopoly of B class stations, and I sound the note of warning that sooner or later some government will have to tackle the very difficult, but necessary task of dealing with the problem of metropolitan B class stations. Nothing short of a complete national scheme will do.”

        In this sense, independence was understood by the Labor Party as being pro-Labor—or, at least, not anti-Labor. The 1942 inquiry into wireless reiterated this concern, arguing that public broadcasting was needed ‘to prevent the service from being used for improper purposes’.

        So when Nancy claims:

        As to Chris Berg’s idea that the ABC was set up by the Labor Party in 1932 to provide balance to the Murdoch press (i.e. the newspapers controlled by Keith Murdoch) – well it’s one of the great media howlers of our time.

        That is a lie – Chris made no such claim. Maybe this is why he still appears on Insiders – able to manufacture untruths about his betters while citing books he clearly hasn’t read.

        What actually happened in 1932?

        Nancy says that Lyons’ predecessor, Labor PM Scullin, “had other things on his mind than establishing a national broadcaster” and that the ABC was “a relatively conservative institution” in its early decades.

        If one were to actually read Inglis as far as pages 17 – 18 you would learn that the Scullin government introduced a bill to establish the ABC into parliament “on the very day that government was defeated in the House of Representatives”. And “A Bill differing little was introduced [by the Lyons government] on 9 March, and after some vigorous debate and some amendment the Australian Broadcasting Act became law on 17 May 1932”. Oh dear.

        Was the ABC a conservative policy as Nancy claims? Again no. The legal historian Geoffrey Sawer described James Fenton, the postmaster general who brought the bill through parliament, as speaking “more like a Labor man than a U.A.P. man”. (Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, MUP 1963 p. 54).

        Bottom line is this – Nancy has misled The Australian readership as to his understanding of the events he is discussing. He has misled his readership as to what Chris Berg was saying. He has not read our book, he has not read Inglis. Presumably he has read Mrs Nancy’s book. Pretty poor effort.

  2. Bran Dee says:

    I saw the same Bolt program and was impressed and much impressed with this article and the inevitable capture by the staff. Making the ABC advertise to generate some funds could help the bureaucracy be more responsive and advertising occurs on public broadcasting in NZ.

    In the current edition of the North Shore Times [14/06] in the letters section there is a letter by Sue Lubbers of Killara defending the ABC under the title ‘Minister’s bullying of ABC a slippery slope’. It reads as an academic spray at the minister so could the writer be the same university academic who wrote in the SMH about right to die/right to life? Watch the next edition of the NST this coming Thursday.

    • Jody says:

      The usual suspects who’ve outsourced their thinking to the ABC could be expected to react this way. They simply need to get out more. And it occurred to me later that nobody mentioned we carry two taxpayer-funded national broadcasters (SBS) and its aggregation of platforms and outlets duplicating the same group think. Completely outrageous and absolutely unsustainable.

      I read as widely as I can and find much of the ABC’s offerings (largely in the past, as I seldom engage) trite and superficial when it’s at its best. The buying of Horizon and PBS documentaries could be shunted across to SBS. A population of 24 million and two gargantuan propaganda arms is terribly disturbing.

  3. en passant says:

    I am one of the 96% of Australian’s who do not listen to ABC Radio, nor watch a single current affairs programme (and no, that does not mean which staffers are having affairs this week). Yet I know two numpties who do listen, though neither watch the ‘free-to-air’ $1.2Bn behemoth.

    Strap yourself in: both say they watch as it balances the commercial radio programmes …