OPINION: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide
, April 14, 2007
Bill James offers some guidelines on how to detect political bias on the ABC.The federal Labor nomination of former ABC presenter Maxine McKew has ignited a fresh outbreak of the debate over bias at the national broadcaster.
Defenders of the ABC are citing Pru Goward's involvement in the Coalition as proof that the ABC is a broad church containing many political views, but they are being disingenuous. Pru Goward is an anomaly. The vast majority of ex-ABC political players are found on the left.
Highlighting the very occasional non-leftist at the ABC as alleged evidence of its diversity, is only one of the organisation's defensive tactics. Here are some other methods used by the ABC and its supporters that listeners and viewers should look out for.
A discussion will hosted by a presenter who poses as the honest broker, and a token non-leftist is included. Inevitably, however, the presenter drops the façade of impartiality, and sides with the other left-wing guest or guests to gang-bash the alien in their midst.
The ABC is always careful to label the alien ("conservative", "right-wing", "contentious", "controversial") in order to distinguish his or her aberrant status. Its own people, of course, are merely normal, and therefore never designated as "left-wing". They are sometimes branded "radical", but only as a means of praising their daring and unorthodox opposition to a particularly dangerous opponent - John Howard, for example.
Not only are the aliens labeled, but they are related to coldly and formally. This is in contrast to the treatment enjoyed by the "normal" guests, with whom presenters are jokey and chummy. It is obvious that they socialise frequently, and enjoy many shared milieux and acquaintances.
The ABC has been fond of portraying itself as the only outlet for minority and unpopular (i.e., left-wing) opinion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its views are those propagated in Australia by state schools, the universities, the public service, unions, the mainline churches, show business, the arts and the media.
Leftists will go into conniptions at the foregoing assertion about the print media, but consider the situation in Melbourne. In the last few years, non-left commentators such as Pamela Bone, Tony Parkinson and Gerard Henderson have been dropped from Fairfax's The Age
Meanwhile, the Murdoch press gives Phillip Adams two columns a week in The Australian
. And while that bête noire of the chattering classes, Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun
, regularly has leftists harrumphing into their muesli, his colleague and ex-ABC leftwing commentator Jill Singer gets equal space in the same publication.
Another ABC tactic consists of a mixture of agenda-setting and moral blackmail. Take the case of Guantanamo Bay.
Most people would agree that there are, at the very least, serious justice issues to be addressed regarding the US's incarceration of terrorist suspects. The trouble is that the world contains innumerable instances of cruel and immoral treatment of prisoners.
Just over the fence from Guantanamo, the victims of Castro's jail system have, for nearly 50 years, suffered far worse conditions than David Hicks and his fellow inmates. The global media concentration on the US naval base on Cuba would seem to be a golden opportunity to highlight their plight.
No such attempt has been made by the ABC, for whom lack of an exclusive preoccupation with alleged American depravity is synonymous with lack of "compassion".
A passionate and grossly disproportionate concentration on the real or imagined shortcomings of a tiny group of liberal democracies - Australia, the United States, Israel - is one of the overwhelming features of the ABC's content.
The actions of genuine and habitual human rights offenders, such as communist, Islamic and postcolonial regimes, on the other hand, are ignored, or reported briefly and objectively, or rationalised.
Apologists for the ABC will retort that we are obliged as Australians to respond to the actions of our own nation and its allies. Oppression practised by other countries is none of our business.
For a start, this would appear to be a rather strange approach to an imperative such as human rights which, it might be imagined, should transcend parochialism and insularity. But more than that, it is an approach that the ABC has never taken consistently, as its vociferous opposition to Franco's Spain and later Pinochet's Chile, demonstrates.
Compare the former Soviet Union and South Africa, which attained democracy three years apart (1991 and 1994), and which are both struggling in the aftermath of rotten and authoritarian regimes.
Today, the ABC regularly reports on Russia's very real problems, such as crime, corruption and alcoholism, with little or no mention of its communist past.
South Africans, on the other hand, are routinely praised as heroic survivors of an apartheid system which the ABC constantly revisits, while South Africa's rampant AIDS, sky-high murder rate, and sinister utterances of Young Turks on the lunatic wing of the African National Congress, are played right down. Nelson Mandela is often, and justifiably, praised; but I can't remember when I last heard an ABC reference, favourable or otherwise, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov.
The pre-democracy ABC coverage of these countries also differed. Both had trade and sporting connections with Australia, but only South Africa was targeted. There was never any ABC interest in attacking visits to Australia by Soviet and other communist athletes, despite the fact that they had as little chance as South African rugby players of being selected purely on the basis of their sporting prowess.
Religion, mainly in the form of Christianity, gets a fair degree of coverage from the ABC, but is often forced to jump through the hoops of relevance and political correctness in order to win the ABC seal of approval.
The ABC has no conception of accepting historic, creedal Christianity on its own terms (as it does with other faith systems, such as Islam or traditional Aboriginal beliefs) and merely reporting on it.Persecution
Christians constitute the world's largest single target-group for persecution; but you won't hear anything about them on the ABC, its ostensible preferential option for victims notwithstanding.
Many other examples of prejudiced journalism to look out for could be mentioned (climate change is a current and egregious case), but one of the oldest and most deeply entrenched is the ABC's love affair with the idea of big, meddling government as the panacea for the nation and the world.
The ABC never met an increase in taxes, regulations and bureaucracy that it didn't like. The reductio ad absurdum
of this mindset is the ABC's worship of the United Nations, despite the UN's extravagance, inefficiency and corruption (not to mention a contempt for liberal democracy that can straightfacedly appoint Saudi Arabia as a human rights monitor while simultaneously demonising Israel!)
These are only a few of the things that will leap out at you when you tune in to "their" ABC. Many others will crop up, and you might want to start your own list. Happy listening!- Bill James is a Melbourne writer.