Okay, if you’re like me you’re fuming mad at the Liberal Party for ditching Tony Abbott and putting in his place a man who destabilised the Libs in order to keep the polls down so that he could say they needed a new leader – because the polls were too low! Who rewards that kind of stuff? Well, now that you ask, Julie Bishop does. George Brandis does. The list goes on and on.
I have a piece coming out this Friday in The Spectator on the substance of this hatchet job. But here I want to focus on something else, namely the media coverage of Mr. Abbott, especially that of the ABC’s. Of course its coverage of the former Prime Minister was in some ways despicable. (I refer to the personal abuse and insults that would never have been hurled at a Labor Prime Minister.) In other ways it was simply massively one-sided. So what do you hear when you pointed out to people that the ABC is so one-sided it makes the BBC look like Fox News and that it hasn’t got a single, solitary right-winger fronting or producing any of the current affairs shows, not a single one?
Well, if you work in a university, as I do, and so spend much time around people with a virulently anti-Murdoch view of the world, then the regular response to assertions of this undeniable bias on the ABC is the counter-claim that ‘the Murdoch empire is worse the other way’. Okay, usually it’s more likely to have been phrased in terms of ‘the evil Murdoch empire’ or ‘that malevolent embodiment of wickedness with whom I would never deal in person, okay I wouldn’t were it not for the fact that I just have to watch European soccer and European cycling and so need to buy FoxTel.’
But the point is that this sort of person tends to see the ABC as a counterweight to a massively right-leaning Newscorp publishing empire that is – sorry, thanks to Ms. Bishop & Co., make that was – actively engaged in pumping out propaganda in order to keep Mr. Abbott in office.
Now if you are a reader with a brain in your head you will have noticed two big problems with this Murdoch Derangement Syndrome, a disease that not only infects the universities but also the ABC itself, including that billion-dollar-a-year behemoth’s three-quarters-of-a-million dollar man, Managing Director Mark Scott. (You may recently have seen a photo of Mr. Scott joshing around with the then-Communications Minister , the man who was charged with ensuring that the ABC complies with its statutory obligation to be balanced and impartial. I suspect that Mr. Turnbull had better things to do than his job, like leaking and undermining – not the ABC, you understand, but Mr. Abbott.
But put that aside and ask yourself what the first problem is with this ‘even if the ABC does lean left, it needs to do that to counter-balance Darth Rupert and his minions’ line of reply. Well, the initial problem is that people who read or watch any Murdoch product have to pay with their own money. The ABC is taxpayer-financed through and through. When it leans left, as it inevitably does, it is taking money from the half the population that votes right and using their taxes to fund the propaganda arm of what amounts to the Antipodean counterpart of the Jeremy Corbyn fan club.
You can see the problem here, I take it. By all means get your news and opinions from anywhere on the political spectrum you wish. Need a good dose of lefty nostrums about the evil of stopping boats, the urgent need for a carbon tax (oops, emissions trading scheme) and higher taxes on, well, everything? No problem. Buy a Fairfax rag. Or The Guardian. Or tune into channels 7 or 9 or 10. I don’t begrudge a person buying any worldview that appeals.
But the ABC is paid for by all of us, even the half of us who voted for Abbott (and now are saddled with Turnbull). That is why there is a statutory requirement, a legal obligation, for this taxpayer-funded broadcaster to be balanced. When that fails to be the case it is a non sequitur to point somewhere else and claim ‘he does it too, the other way’. Fairfax and Newscorp can lean as they please, in whatever way they reckon will bring in the customers. The ABC cannot. So that is the first problem with the ‘Murdoch Derangement Syndrome’ reply.
But here’s a second one. People who rely on this reply have their facts wrong in two ways. First off, as noted above, the ABC is less balanced even than its sister organisation, the BBC. Look, the BBC leans left. But at the same time it actually employs a few conservatives on big-ticket current affairs shows, both in front of and behind the camera. You might not take all of them to be your kind of fire-breathing Tories, but you have the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson; you have the business editor, Kamal Ahmed (formerly of The Telegraph); you have the presenter of the BBC’s marquee This Week and Daily Politics shows, none other than Andrew Neil (the chairman of the Spectator publication); and more.
Meanwhile, to repeat myself, we in Australia have the situation in which not a single, solitary current affairs show on ABC TV employs a conservative. Not one. You have to turn to a couple of once-a-week radio shows to find Tom Switzer, and if you count the most lefty conservative you can find (now that Malcolm Fraser has passed away) then Amanda Vanstone, too. It is nothing short of an outright disgrace that during Mr. Scott’s tenure he has not rectified this in any way. He should have been fired. I wonder why then-Communication Minister, Malcolm Turnbull did nothing at all to make Mark Scott rectify the situation. Any ideas on that front, anyone? Any at all?
Still, that’s only one way these purveyors of Murdochian derangement have their facts wrong. Here’s the other way. You see, the fact is that the Newscorp empire doesn’t really lean all that far to the right. Put to one side The Australian and instead consider Brisbane’s Courier Mail. You could hardly call it a flag-bearer for the right side of politics. Same for news.com.au, which is overseen by the former online editor of The Age and, increasingly, attacks Abbott and other conservatist’s with a frothing and unhinged adolescent gusto that would do his former employer proud. Same goes for Sky News. These media outlets may well be positioned to the right of the ABC.
Okay, so maybe the real gist of the grievance here is about The Australian, a national newspaper with a lot of pull. Maybe Murdoch loathers think that, to counter-balance The Oz, the ABC should be allowed to present the most left-leaning line-up it is possible to assemble. The national broadcasters get taxpayer money to even things up, as it were. For people who take this view the only balance that matters is balancing Reactionary Rupert.
But wait. The Australian is, in fact way, way more balanced than the ABC. Seriously. Sure, there are righties like Greg Sheridan and Janet Albrechtsen and Henry Ergas and Chris Kenny. But there are also your Graham Richardsons, your Troy Bramstons, your John Blacks. And Niki Savva has only been able to write anti-Abbott vitriol, nothing else, for eons. What will she write about now that she can’t spew venom about Mr. Abbott? And Peter van Onselen, the man who gushed that Julia Gillard had nothing to answer, who thinks it morally wrong to stop a boat or impose the death penalty, and who loves the idea of a higher GST? He can hardly be categorised as a rightie. He, too, was obsessed with criticizing Abbott. His dislike oozed out of every paragraph the man scribbled.
Can you picture the ABC employing two formerly left-leaning pundits who spew out venom about a sitting Labor Prime Minister? Seriously, can you imagine it? Me neither. As I said, The Australian is far, far more balanced than the ABC, though in the sarcastic words of John Cleese ‘that’s high praise indeed’. These days The Australian strikes me as a far less right-leaning publication than is Mr. Murdoch’s US paper The Wall Street Journal. And the rest of Mr. Murdoch’s Australian empire is to the left of the Oz.
So the trendy, progressive defence of the ABC’s patent bias fails on all counts. Thus far our national broadcaster, meaning the one that you and I and all taxpayers fund so lavishly, has been kind to Mr. Turnbull. I expect that to continue for a bit and then – when our new Prime Minister is forced by the remaining conservatives in his party to keep most of the Abbott policies until the next election – to come out swinging at him, too. But when that happens? Who will be Malcolm’s Malcolm, a minister in charge of the ABC who secretly welcomes such unbalanced treatment of a Coalition PM?
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline