I like to think I’m prepared to admit when I am wrong. For some time now I’ve been saying that the ABC is failing to adhere to its statutory obligation to be impartial. Not a single right-of-centre presenter or producer on any of its big ticket current affairs shows, including the biggest of all, Q&A. It’s lefties, lefties and more lefties as far as the eye can see. This in a media organisation that sucks more than one billion dollars a year from taxpayers of this country it was established to humbly serve.
When a visiting English journalist can say that ‘the ABC swings so far to the left that it makes the BBC look like Fox News’, then I used to figure there was a problem with that little thing called its ‘legal obligation to be impartial’. And so for these sort of reasons I railed against Managing Director Mark Scott, on his three-quarters of a million dollar annual salary, sitting in his office and inanely telling the 53% of us who voted for the Abbott government that a producer and presenter’s pre-existing political proclivities in no way at all affect their ability to be impartial. ‘No! No!, No! The ABC is even-handedness incarnate’, has been Herr Scott’s basic defence. We never got to test that claim by seeing what he would say if everyone were from the right, because he wasn’t about to test the claim in those circumstances, now was he? (editor’s note: That ‘visiting English journalist’ is James Delingpole, whose on-air encounter with an ABC archetype, Jon Faine, is not to be missed.)
And I also railed against the ABC Board. I thought it should long ago have fired Mr. Scott. I thought its members weren’t doing their jobs. And don’t forget these people are getting paid huge sums to attend a few meetings, presumably to do things such as, you know, insisting that the ABC actually meet its statutory obligation to be impartial.
Heck, I’ve even railed against Mr. Turnbull, the minister in charge of the ABC. Why in the world this most left-wing of Coalition MPs is in charge of the public broadcaster is beyond me. Mr. Turnbull also once seemed to me to be failing in his job. And the fact the ABC occasionally put him on air — ‘There’s no real problem here, folks. All good. Maybe a bit of misjudgement now and again, but that’s it!’ — really didn’t change my mind.
The thing is that on every single highly charged issue going, everyone in this country knows the ABC’s basic position. On stopping the boats? The ABC is against. On hefty carbon dioxide imposts in the name of saving the world? The ABC is in favour. On Australia moving to become a republic? Ditto, and notice how the ABC views align with Mr Turnbull’s.
Almost anything coming out of the Pope’s mouth (and note here, as a matter of laying my cards on the table, that I am an out-and-out atheist), the ABC is vehemently against. Well, they’re stridently against the Pope when his thoughts have anything to do with contraception, abortion or euthanasia. But should the Pope make some idiotic claims pertaining to global warming, well the ABC is more Catholic than the Pope himself, to the point that Mr. Abbott is being urged to take his marching orders from Rome. And the same sort of dreary predictability is true as regards alleged wrong-doing by Julia Gillard (nothing to see here, folks), by Tony Abbott (no doubt there’s more to this than a uni student punching a locker, folks), by the Australian Navy (let’s go with these claims of torture before we check it out, guys), and so on and so on. If anyone has ever been surprised by the general slant of an ABC current affairs show, please let me know.
So the appearance of bias and lack of impartiality seemed pretty clear to me. The attempted defences were lame beyond belief. And don’t mistake my views. I have no problem at all with people getting as much and many lefty views as they can stomach. I just want them to pay for it themselves – rather than all of us taxpayers forking out for what has seemed to me to be the propaganda arm of the Greens Party, because, truth be told, the Labor Party is criticised from time to time. It’s just that the ABC criticism comes from further to the left. The non-Keynesian, stop-the-boats, don’t-waste-money-on-carbon-tax policies, well those views pretty much aren’t allowed to exist, let alone be heard, on the ABC. At best they are framed as no more than off-the-wall minority views to be trotted out in the form of one panellist against four or five acceptable others.
So, all things considered, I was pretty certain that the statutory obligation to be impartial was nowhere near being met. But as of this week’s Q&A (June 22), I realise that I’ve been looking at this whole thing the completely wrong way. The ABC does do impartiality. Okay, it’s not the left/right of politics sort of impartiality that you and I might have thought was meant by the statute.
No, the impartiality is between, on the one hand, a view of the world anchored in democracy, equal treatment for women, the integrity of science and a perspective that takes seriously individual liberty. We can perhaps call this a Western worldview.
On the other hand the worldview that is anything but secular, which supports Australians heading off to fight with ISIS, that sees nothing much wrong with the odd woman being stoned to death, that glories in violence against non-believers and that will resort to any contortion in order to paint the wrongdoing as coming from Australia and Australians (and Mr. Abbott, if at all possible), rather than from the Stone Age holders of such views.
When the clash is between these two approaches to life, you certainly can depend upon Their ABC to be impartial. Now I see that I was wrong. Mea culpa.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline