ABC beats own Drum

With the introduction of The Drum the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has established a significant “new media” presence with an interactive site offering “analysis and views on the issues of the day”. The aim is to tap into the huge online audience looking for something more than straight, dry news reporting.

Like Huffington Post and Asian Correspondent (the obligatory plug for the site I write for), The Drum offers easy access to literally hundreds of articles written by a multitude of writers. All of these sites do provide news and “analysis” but much, perhaps most, of their content is actually opinion, many of the authors — me included — possessing no special knowledge of their subject matter. 

The Drum evolved from and subsumed its predecessor Unleashed, which is now The Drum – Unleashed. Unleashed publishes contributions from a diverse range of writers, typing ability the site’s only apparent publication criterion. Thus Unleashed publishes numerous opinion pieces by non-authority writers, many of them Leftists. The perfect example is the 11 opinion article archive of Antony Loewenstein – an authority on nothing -– on topics ranging from Robert Mugabe to the likelihood of an attack on Iran to the Beijing Olympics. 

Multi-Walkley Award winning former ABC journalist Chris Masters in an opinion piece published, ironically, at Unleased bemoans the growth of “empty-headed opinion” which he fears “will spoil the ABC”. Masters worries that the ABC is replacing time consuming investigative journalism with quick and cheap opinion-based journalism, of which there is an endless supply. He’s not wrong. 

Even though it is accessible from and promoted by the ABC News website, The Drum is technically not part of ABC News, this separation seemingly meant to preserve the news organisation’s impartiality. This distinction is an illusion, however, The Drum is for all practical purposes an extension of ABC News, only one mouse click separating the two sites, which are cross-promotional. The Drum is no more distinct from ABC News than the blogs of opinion makers Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt are distinct from the newspapers employing them. 

Annabel Crabb recently moved from the Sydney Morning Herald to the ABC which describes her as “ABC Online’s chief political writer”, The Drum cleverly dubbing her “The Stick”. She appears to write for The Drum, which has her archive, but her articles have an ABC News URL. 

Crabb is a clever writer with more than a superficial knowledge of matters political but, whereas her articles do offer a modicum of information, they are, more than anything else, meant to entertain a mostly Left-wing audience, her lighthearted stories continually poking fun at the right, with special attention devoted to Tony Abbott. 

Crabb’s prominence at the ABC is exactly the sort of thing Chris Masters worries about: reporting that is long on opinion and short on facts. ABC management would likely respond by saying that Crabb and the numerous Leftists appearing at The Drum offer news analysis, not opinion. And for articles at The Drum opinion content isn’t a problem anyway because it’s not a news site. 

Technically true, yes, but The Drum is prominently linked by the ABC News site — with cross-links and cross-promotion, the content at ABC News and The Drum is effectively commingled. 

Regardless, Crabb’s articles, although usually well written and sometimes informative, are not analytical. 

Aside from the news impartiality issue is the question of the propriety of the ABC publishing any opinions at all. Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes argues in an article at The Drum that the site’s opinion content violates ABC policy 5.1.6, which states: 

Context, analysis and comment included in news and current affairs content should be backed by demonstrable evidence, and based on the professional expertise and judgement of staff and not on personal opinion. The public expression of personal opinions of staff has no place in news and current affairs content. 

It seems that for the ABC rules are indeed made to be broken. 

A final comment on a particular Unleashed item that is neither news nor opinion, and certainly is not analysis. The article by Clive Hamilton is difficult to categorise but is probably best described as snarky far-Left anti-capitalist weirdness. A taste of the content, addressed to no one in particular: 

Hi there, 

There’s something you need to know about your father. Your dad’s job is to try to stop the government making laws to reduce Australia’s carbon pollution. He is paid a lot of money to do that by big companies who do not want to own up to the fact that their pollution is changing the world’s climate in very harmful ways. 

Because of their pollution, lots of people, mostly poor people, are likely to die. They will die from floods, from diseases like dengue fever, and from starvation when their crops won’t grow anymore.  

The big companies are putting their profits before the lives of people. And your dad is helping them. 

The ABC should not have published this tosh and should be deeply embarrassed that it did. 

It was perhaps inevitable that the ABC would seek to make itself more appealing to a broader online community through a move into interactive opinion. This attempt to broaden its appeal is mystifying, however: Australians have been repeatedly told that the ABC strives for quality of content and that the size of the audience it draws is irrelevant. The Drum applies that argument in reverse.

J. F. Beck, a keen observer of the Left, blogs at asiancorrespondent.com

UPDATE: October 13, 2010, read J.F. Beck on ABC News – ‘Cheap’ opinions masquerading as ‘analysis’ at asiancorrespondent.com

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