James Allan

What The Brits Could Teach The ABC

BBCI’m in Scotland at the moment.  It’s been rainy and chilly, though today is nice.  I’ve been curling, of all things, and asking people here about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, both of which are the main topics of my upcoming Diary piece for the Spectator Australia.

But in between curling matches and sightseeing I’ve watched a bit of television.  And one of the odd things that struck me is that the BBC appears more even-handed in its handling of politics, a lot more even-handed, than our ABC.  Now be careful and notice what I’m not saying — that the BBC leans right or is just mildly left or even-handed. No, I’m simply saying that it looks a lot better than the Q&A-type stuff we are force-fed by Australia’s ABC.

The BBC’s default setting still seems to me to be largely what you’d expect if you blended together a green-loving public service middle manager, a human rights barrister, a couple of people who’ve spent most of their lives working for the UN (and thus did not have to pay a penny of tax, though they tend to keep that little advantage nice and quiet), and maybe a Germaine Greer clone and someone who heads up some lobby group for illegal immigrants (oops, I mean those who have “differently accessed” the country).  So, thus far, it’s all much of a muchness with the ABC.

But here’s the thing.  The BBC does seem at least to try to get every point of view on the telly on its big ticket programs.  And they do have the odd host who actually comes from the right of the political spectrum.  It is a scandal — and a scandal that Mark Scott and Jim Spigelman never address — that  we have our top ABC political and current affairs shows hosted exclusively by those with left-of-centre backgrounds.  Sure, you can be an ex-speech writer for Whitlam or Hawke and land a job.  But forget it if you hung out with Howard.

The BBC is even making half-hearted gestures to give UKIP people an airing at the moment, perhaps because that protest party is now leading in the polls over here for the upcoming European elections (or perhaps, if you are cynical about the BBC’s motives, it’s because UKIP ultimately drains more votes from the Tories than from Labour).

My point, though, is that watching the BBC after watching the ABC makes you almost feel kindly towards the BBC.  It shows how one-sided the ABC appears to be – and remember, the issue is NOT whether the ABC is biased or not (an unprovable assertion), it is whether the ABC appears to be biased, which it patently and unarguably does appear to be.

And then there’s Canada’s CBC.  My wife and I spent the second half of 2013 living in Canada.  The CBC appears more even-handed again than the BBC, and miles more so than the ABC. It’s still a lefty broadcaster.  But it seems more balanced. Want to hear my theory on why?  It’s because the CBC has to take ad revenue and commercials, in the same way that SBS does at present.  That means that ratings matter.  No way in the world could Canada’s CBC have over a third of the country think it patently biased, as is the comparative case in Australia.

So given what looks to me to be intransigence at the ABC on staffing and bias issues, maybe it’s time that the Abbott government took a leaf out of Canada’s playbook and forced ads on the ABC.  Or mandated two hosts per big ticket program, one clearly from each side of the political spectrum.  That latter move is one I have been advocating for a while now.

Whatever happens, a short trip to Britain or Canada and you’ll be even more convinced that ‘our ABC’ is really ‘the left’s ABC’.

James Allan, is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is in Scotland as a member of the Australian National Curling Team




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