The ABC’s Department of Obfuscation

complaintMasochists like me, although dwindling in number, still derive an insane pleasure from complaining to the ABC, then waiting excitedly all those weeks to read the excuses concocted to justify the rejection of a carefully-drafted allegation.

Alas, much of the fun has gone out of it. I can almost always guess the line that the allocated functionary of Audience and Consumer Affairs (ACA) will take in dismissing my complaint of bias, lack of balance, factual inaccuracy or evidence of ‘groupthink’. I have long ceased to wonder at the lack of independent thought and reasoning in an outfit which is an integral part of the broadcasting monolith yet has been hypnotised into believing it is “separate to and independent of content-making areas within the ABC.”

Only once can I remember being stimulated by a rapid-fire, feisty exchange with the ACA long-stop, who was determined to prevent my well-executed shot reaching the boundary which represented admission. Five years ago, I had the cheek to object to an error in a 7pm news bulletin – pointing out that the U.N. enclave in Srebrenica had not been “overrun” by the Mladic forces; the Dutch peace-keepers had handed over the people they were sheltering without a shot being fired. The news that day was that a Dutch civil court had found that the relatives of the three hundred men and boys killed after being ejected from the Potocari compound were entitled to compensation, because the Dutch state was responsible for the conduct of its peace-keepers.

Audience and Consumer Affairs disagreed, arguing that the word “overran” was intended to convey only that the Bosnian Serb forces took possession of the ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica. Foolishly, it quoted the Macquarie dictionary in support:

1. to spread over rapidly and occupy a country as invading forces: in 1940 German armies overran the Low Countries.
2. to take possession of (an enemy position, etc): French troops overran the German gun emplacement.

Nonsense, I replied, “overrun” is a military term carrying the implication that one party supervened in a fight, and the Macquarie examples confirm this. The French troops would have overrun the German gun emplacement by attacking it with grenades and perhaps flame-throwers, not by asking if they could come in.

I quoted the Military Dictionary: to fight your way onto an enemy position.

And the Free Dictionary: to seize the positions of and defeat conclusively.

And the Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: to attack and defeat conclusively, crush.

“I am unable to find any support  for the idea that a position can be overrun without a fight”, I wrote. “So the ABC’s rather pompous invented definition: ‘The details of the possession, whether by the threat of force or the actual use of force, or indeed any imbalance in troop numbers, perceived or otherwise, are immaterial to the consideration of whether the phrase “overran” was appropriate’ is simply absurd. Was that written by the in-house lawyer?”

I finished up: “This small episode proves not only the carelessness and ignorance with which ABC reporters now use the language, but also the lengths Corporate Affairs will go to defend the indefensible. And the ABC is not even aware how foolish it looks.” There was no reply.

That was then. Today I received the ABC’s self-exoneration of my charges of bias, lack of balance and political partiality in a Radio National Saturday Extra programme immediately after the Brexit vote. Three U.K. commentators, all identifying as ‘Remain’ supporters, berated the decision as “stupid” and carried on for 19 minutes 32 seconds as if the vote still had to take place. It was a maudlin lament of negativity which missed the opportunity to objectively examine Britain’s future position in terms of economy, trade, immigration and European links.

Cut to its essentials, the ABC’s long-winded response said: a) that my complaint had been referred to ABC Radio for its consideration, and its comments had been taken into account in reaching the determination. (So much for independence?), and b) that on review, the inclusion of a commentator who supported the Leave campaign would have made for a more interesting programme.

But then the coup de grace: “However, we are satisfied that the ABC has, in any event, complied with the requirements of 4.2”. Standard 4.2 of the Editorial Guidelines is the ‘get out of jail’ card that can be played when mere obfuscation and tendentious reasoning appear too thin to be convincing. In its high-sounding commitment to impartiality, 4.2 “requires the ABC to present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented”. (my emphasis).  ACA was able to quote only one subsequent interview, on RN Breakfast, as balancing the Saturday Extra programme. But that was largely concerned with the ructions in the Labour and Conservative parties.

This trivial case exemplifies the non-trivial problem at the heart of ABC bias. Too often there is no attempt to present a balanced range of views in the one segment, seek out speakers with a contrarian viewpoint, or challenge the conventional opinions of favoured experts. Progressively, the progressives of the ABC have loosened the Editorial Guidelines to ensure that nothing and no one can be found in breach.

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years

10 thoughts on “The ABC’s Department of Obfuscation

  • Warty says:

    I can imagine that the Australian Film, television and radio school would be little different in that it’d be wall to wall progressives, so little wonder the ABC is fully left. It’s just the way it is today.
    As to what to do about it, we need organisations like the IPA and publications like Quadrant and conservative voices in general to firstly speak up, and secondly to encourage the conservatives, in our largely centre left government, to start to do something about Section 18c of Part II of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is difficult fighting the battle with our hands tied behind our backs. With yet a little more courage they might be tempted to co-opt the services of Pauline Hanson and her fellow senators. I think Derryn Hinch is also in favour of free speech.
    We can rail against obstructionism in organisations like the ABC but they’re programmed to respond that way. It is not unlike somebody complaining about the suffocating bias of a Peter Fitzsimmons of the SMH: he’s programmed that way. All we want is the freedom of speech so that we can have a level playing field.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    I heard that same interview, Geoffrey, and commented on it in these pages (https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2016/06/random-jottings-dark-season/):

    OVER Sunday and Monday I heard two ABC interviews concerning Brexit. The first, on Sunday morning, had an ABC presenter interviewing a panel of four British “experts”, all virulently opposed to Brexit. On Monday, the aforementioned Benson interviewed a former Tony Blair staffer, also predictably scathing about the result. I can’t be sure that someone, somewhere in the bowels of Their ABC didn’t interview a representative of the Leave camp, just to provide a soupcon of balance, but if they did, it escaped me.

    I’m glad you went to the trouble of complaining but like you I’m not surprised at the outcome.

    • Jody says:

      It’s this simple: the ABC has become a sheltered workshop for the bien pensant. A place where people can bemoan that society isn’t exactly to their liking because, god forbid, there are mavericks and entrepreneurs out there making real money, creating things which the market can buy and sell and employing people and paying tax. This is a world away from the inner portals of ABC-dom; I know, I’ve worked there. But I outgrew all that years ago.

  • whitelaughter says:

    While we moan about the ABC, it’s worth noting that all OZ free-to-air broadcasting must have a minimum 55% minimum local content – an absurd level of protectionism that is responsible for the low level drivel we see and hear.

    Abolishing the ABC is a partial solution to the problem of our appalling media, but killing local content rules is also necessary – otherwise these hacks will simply move over to nominally ‘commercial’ stations and control to produce drivel, confident that they will never face any worthy competition.

    • Steve Spencer says:

      Don’t worry, the current FTA mob are not long for this world, apparently unable to figure out how to compete with the internet and the growing number of reasonably-priced payTV offerings. They were already struggling with the effects of home recorders, which many people were using to avoid the interminable, shouty and crass adverts. Rather like the failing cafe that thinks putting up the price of sandwiches will fix its problems, FTA companies seem to think that throwing more and more adverts at us in between endless repeats of tired old rubbish and increasingly awful reality shows is a viable business model……..

      I’m backing the internet to win this one. It’s already won in my house.

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    Like most country people of our generation, my wife and I had been avid listeners/watchers of ABC radio and TV productions since our early childhood in the 1940s. It was axiomatic that if you heard it on the ABC, you could repeat the stories with confidence that they were factual and unbiased. Admittedly, its standards in other departments were not always as impeccable. As teenagers we would figuratively run screaming into the abyss the moment Jimmy Gussey and his ABC Dance Band started its weekly Hit Parade parody with a clutch of music hall-style singers who proceeded to butcher the hits of the day without the slightest notion that they were ridiculous.

    I can’t quite recall when it was that we fell out of love. I doubt we missed a single episode of This Day Tonight while it existed. Four Corners was also favourite for many, many years. But gradually the bias became so extreme that it became nauseating, and ABC personalities became obvious shills for the ALP no longer even trying to conceal their left-wing ideology. I think it was Kerry O’Brien whose incredible unprofessionalism

  • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

    Bah. finally tipped the balance. Maxine McKew’s nauseating public orgasms when interviewing ALP politicians were the last straw.

    These days, we don’t even watch the weather.

    They have no shame.

  • Steve Spencer says:

    Last year, I made the following complaint to the ABC:

    “A report on the 5pm news today concerned the bureaucracy faced by Buzz Aldrin on his return to Earth after his moon landing. Part of the story covered the fact that he claimed approx $30 to cover the use of his own car to get to the launch site. At the end of the story, the newsreader, without any apparent justification and in my opinion with malice, made a statement to the effect that ‘perhaps he should have taken a chopper’, in clear reference to the Speaker’s recent resignation. This gratuitous and unnecessary comment exposed the newsreader as partisan, especially given this was a news segment, not a commentary, analysis or entertainment program. I believe the ABC should apologise.”

    My complaint about ABC bias was referred to the ABC, which found that the ABC did nothing wrong.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Yes, Steve, inserting commentary into news broadcasts is now so common (and not only at the ABC) that it now seems to be accepted practice.

    • Jody says:

      I taught 14 y/o high school English students about how easy it was to detect bias in the news and elsewhere. We did comparative exercises with different news outlets, looking at the same stories and the values, language and ideas contained in these. Not terribly difficult to provide kids the tools with which they can do this. Same with “Rabbit Proof Fence” – I taught 16y/o’s how to identify propaganda in a film. The problem is that the ABC just isn’t intelligent enough to understand how transparent all this is, much less care that they’re doing it anyway. I’ll give you the first hint: emotive language which replaces objective language and facts. Sadly, this is now all too common in the media. Just one tiny example:

      !. The American army;
      The Russian war machine

      2. The arrival of large numbers of migrants into Europe;
      Tens of thousands fleeing persecution.

      On and on it goes…

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