James Allan

Appearing On The ABC, Bias

seesawBias is a pretty slippery concept.  At core it involves looking deep into someone’s mind and making claims about how that person really does think and operate. That’s why in law we don’t waste time looking for actual, real bias.  It’s too hard to prove; it’s too slippery a concept; it’s too prone to getting bogged down in allegations of bad faith or suggestions that others might want to ‘know thyself’ a tad better.

So the law deals instead in the appearance of bias.  No one cares whether the member of some quango handing out liquor licenses or hearing land-use appeals really is biased.  No, the law cares about appearances.  Would a reasonable person observing things from the outside have good grounds for thinking that person biased?

You see, it doesn’t matter whether he or she really was or wasn’t biased.  What matters is the look of the thing.

In my view this is the test we ought to bring to bear in judging our national broadcaster, the ABC.  We should ask about the appearance of bias, and ignore completely what this host or that presenter or the managing director and self-billed ‘editor in chief’ really do think and try to accomplish.

So bear with me for a moment.  If we focus solely on appearances the first thing likely to strike any outside observer is the complete lack of any right-of-centre presenters or hosts on any of the ABC’s big-ticket programs, both on television or radio.  This is flat out undeniable.  And it’s worse here than in other public broadcasters such as the CBC in my native Canada or even in the BBC.  They, at least, have a few righties.

To draw an analogy that might resonate with ABC management, imagine if every single host and presenter were a man.  No women at all.  The men all assured us that they had looked inside themselves and were presenting things in as disinterested a way as any woman.  ‘No bias here, mate’, they might assure us.  But it wouldn’t look that good, would it? Personally, I think a diversity of outlooks and political stances is more important than a diversity of sexual organs.

When this point about how things appear is put to ABC Managing Director Mark Scott we never hear an answer.  Never.  His waffling about being sure that a professional organisation would not be biased is wholly beside the point.  The core point is about appearances.  And they stink.  Indeed the ABC appearance of bias is such that many right-of-centre voters no longer want to pay taxes to fund what appears to be such a one-sided institution.

I am a regular consumer of ABC products, but I, too, have reached the stage where I don’t want my taxes to go to this organisation as it now operates.

Be honest.  It looks awful that every leading ABC host and presenter, without exception, has worked for the left, never the right.  It also looks terrible (I speak only of how things look, remember?) that the ABC spends so much time seemingly doing its best to discredit Mr. Abbott’s boat people policy when it was so much more relaxed about Ms. Gillard’s.

This in no way is to deny that the ABC would at times attack the former Labor government.  It did.  But it always attacked Labor from further to the left.  I can’t recall any sustained ABC critique, ever, of Labor from the right – that the carbon tax was a total waste of money, say, or that same-sex marriage ought to be put to the voters first, or that Keynesian spending didn’t seem to deliver much bang for the buck.

And then there’s the “appearance factor”, perhaps best illustrated by the ABC’s lack of scepticism, not to mention lack of journalistic due diligence, about torture claims against our navy while being eager to pass on and disseminate any and all unsupported and highly dubious claims about our former Prime Minister’s early career as a student politician and alleged wall-puncher.

Does Mr. Scott understand the point of this appearance critique?  I do know that Jim, the ABC chairman, gets it.  I have said in print before that Mr. Spigelman should have been Labor’s pick for Chief Justice.  He would have been excellent.  He is a first-rate lawyer. I am sure Spigelman can see the appearance problem.  So here, for Mr. Spigelman, is my suggestion for the ABC:

All the top current affairs and political shows on TV and radio have two hosts for each, with one coming from each side of politics.  Not only might that gain the ABC a few more watchers and listeners, it would go a long way to ending the appearance of pretty horrible bias.

It seems to me that it’s either something along those lines or we start offering people the option of not paying any taxes to support the ABC.  Don’t pay and you can’t watch would be the deal.  Go down that road and you’ll see just how wide the ABC’s appeal really is.  My guess is that you’d also see the ABC focus a bit more on appearances.


James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland





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