December 1st 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Afghanistan: After the fall of the Taliban - the tasks ahead

Editorial: Policies for John Howard’s agenda

Canberra Observed: Election outcome - reality and dreamland

Irian Jaya: Was Jakarta involved in West Papuan leader’s murder?

Queensland: Boswell beats Hanson, but what now?

Interview: Will Bailey answers development bank critics

LAW: International Criminal Court leads to legal uncertainty

Straws in the Wind

MEDIA: ABC electioneering

Letter: A bad mix

Letter: New patrol boats

Letter: Queue jumping

Interview with Bjorn Lomborg: Science versus name-calling

ECONOMY: The trade news from Doha

WA family debate hots up

DRUGS: Community drug prevention

Books: 'Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty', by Michael Casey

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ABC electioneering

by John Styles

News Weekly, December 1, 2001

On November 10, 2001, Federal election day, time differences meant that ABC TV’s national poll coverage started at 6.00 pm in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, 5.30 pm in South Australia, 5.00 pm in Queensland, 4.30 pm in the Northern Territory and 3.00 pm in Western Australia.

In other words, polling was still in progress in several parts of Australia as the ABC began to beam out early results from the three States where booths had closed.

This has happened before in federal elections; and the fairness - or otherwise - of the practice has been debated.

Nevertheless, perhaps the defenders of the ABC, those stalwarts who, in the face of example after example of anti-Coalition bias, continue to maintain that the national broadcaster is balanced in its political coverage, could explain the following.

The ABC interspersed the number-crunching part of its coverage with cross-overs, mostly live, to candidates in various electorates. Yet for the first two-and-a-quarter hours of the coverage, the show’s anchor, Kerry O’Brien, couldn’t seem to bring himself to chat with any member of the Coalition outside the tally room.

During those 135 minutes, while polls remained open in WA and, for some of that time, elsewhere, it was interesting to see who he was prepared to interview.

At about 6:40 pm (EDST) O’Brien crossed to an interview that had been recorded shortly before with ABC’s Gillian Bradford talking to Kim Beazley in his WA electorate of Brand.

That was followed almost immediately by a live cross to the WA electorate of Stirling, where ALP frontbencher and Beazley campaign adviser Stephen Smith was waiting to talk.

Smith used the opportunity to deliver a last-minute appeal - OK, let’s call a spade a spade, an ad - promoting the ALP to those WA viewers who had not yet voted. "If you’re watching here and you haven’t voted, think GST and Peter Costello," he advised.

O’Brien’s reaction? Laughter. Amid his mirth, he cautioned the Labor frontbencher: "Now, now," he said. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

By now, you are beginning to get the picture. Obviously, a cross to a Liberal or a National would have been risky for the ABC. You never know, those Howard people might have tried to do what Stephen Smith had done. Better to play it safe.

The next interview, at about 7.15 pm EDST (4.15 pm in WA), saw Jim Middleton of the ABC’s Canberra bureau interview former ALP Senator Stephen Loosley.

About 10 minutes after Middleton’s chat with Loosley, Kerry O’Brien crossed to the seat of McMillan in Victoria and spoke with, you guessed it, Labor’s Christian Zahra.

Next on the ABC’s list of preferred people, the Independents. First, Peter Cochran in Eden-Monaro. That was a rather brief session. When Cochran raised the subject of what he called Labor’s dirty campaign tricks, it was time to move on.

Next stop, Independent Tony Windsor. One sensed O’Brien was more comfortable with this interview, especially when Windsor opined about the alienating effect he felt the Prime Minister’s visit to the electorate had had on local young people.

Then, at about 8.05 pm in the east, over to the ALP’s Michelle O’Byrne in Bass.

Just 45 minutes before the polling booths closed in WA, and two-and-a-quarter hours into the election telecast, O’Brien for the first time that evening interviewed a member of the Coalition - Tony Abbott in Warringah.

If you were tracking the election count that night, you will recall that O’Brien crossed to Tony Abbott at about the time computer projections were indicating that the Coalition pretty well had the election in the bag. At that stage, even a couple of surprises in WA would have been unlikely to have affected the outcome dramatically.

Once that threshold had been crossed, interviews with the Coalition victors flowed relatively freely. In succession there were hook-ups with Peter McGauran, Chris Gallus, Gary Hardgrave and, just after 9.00 pm EDST, coverage of the celebration in Peter Costello’s camp.

But the fact remains. For the potentially influential first two-and-a-quarter hours of the election night telecast, the Coalition did not rate an interview on the national broadcaster. That’s balance ABC-style.

Change Natasha?

The media-predicted electoral boost Natasha Stott Despoja was supposed to give the Democrats did not happen. Under Natasha’s leadership we have seen that "change politics" actually means Realpolitik - replete with dodgy preference deals.

On election night, Stott Despoja reeled from a question by ABC’s Maxine McKew. "So what happened," the ABC presenter asked. "The Democrats have been the party that have always said, ‘We’re the party that will give you some real product differentiation.’ But that hasn’t come through that clearly this time, especially with you as new leader."

"What a wrong analysis," Stott Despoja retorted. "I’m quite surprised to hear the analysis you’ve just given on this network."

Those who are familiar with the sleigh ride the ABC has given the Democrats down the years would have been surprised too.

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