The Mediaby John StylesNews Weekly
, June 30, 2001
Political correspondent Michelle Grattan once said that Paul Keating regarded the media "as dogs to be sooled on to opponents". At the ABC the command is unnecessary. Attacking the Coalition seems to happen by instinct; and it leaves the national broadcaster looking like a Labor running dog. An example occurred recently.
On June 4 the emotive issue of nursing home standards arose during Question Time in the House of Representatives.
The Federal Opposition alleged that a Sydney nursing home owned by a Liberal Party donor had been allowed to stay open even though the Aged Care Standards Agency (ACSA) had supposedly recommended that its licence be revoked, a claim the owner later denied.
When Labor tried to question Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop about her knowledge of the donation, the Speaker ruled the question out of order.
That evening the ABC Radio PM program pursued Labor's line, intensely questioning Bronwyn Bishop and also interviewing the owner of the nursing home about the question of political donations. This, of course, is fair enough, even if the ABC journalists did appear to accept the ALP's questions at face value. Bronwyn Bishop, in the event, seemed able to refute them easily.
On the question of political donations, Millie Phillips revealed that she had not only made donations to the Liberal Party but also to the Labor Party. This exposed a certain hypocrisy in Labor's attack. But the revelation didn't seem to interest the journalist. He ignored it. He sought details of her donations to Liberal Party - for example, how much and how often - but not of her gifts to the Labor Party.
Millie Phillips accused the Labor Party of using her as a "whipping post" on account of her wealth and status. In view of Bronwyn Bishop's relatively easy rebuttal of Labor's questions and the fact that the nursing home owner had donated money to both major parties, surely it was time for the ABC journalists to turn on the Labor Party.
A truly balanced package would have questioned Labor's motives and challenged the accuracy of the allegations.
The Minister's Labor accusers should have been grilled about their blatant display of hypocrisy and about the nature and number of the donations their party also received from Millie Phillips. That kind of inquiry did not happen.
Nor did the program interview a member of the ACSA who surely would have shed light on Labor's claims.
The standard of care in nursing homes is a vital public issue and deserves the keenest scrutiny. But the ABC PM package, seemed more interested in advancing Labor's case than about balanced reporting and getting to the truth of the situation at the nursing home.
The ABC could be engaging in a little wedge politics of its own if you consider the national broadcaster's resurgent enthusiasm for rural programs, with offerings like Bush Telegraph broadcast at 11 am Monday to Friday on Radio National.
The ABC is a potentially divisive question for the Coalition. On the one hand, many urban Liberals loathe the left-liberal and pro-Labor bias of its capital city-produced news and current affairs programs. On the other, the National Party embraces the regional voice of the ABC as a much needed service for its constituency.
The Nationals' "warts and all" enthusiasm for the ABC rarely, if ever, seems to distinguish between the usefulness of the medium as a rural service through, for example, its 48 regional radio stations, and the nature of the editorial content. The Coalition adage that "the ABC is our enemy talking to our friends" is particularly relevant in National Party heartland.
If, as they claim, the Nationals' constituents rely on programs like AM and PM for their insights into current affairs, is it surprising that the party is in so much electoral trouble?
By extending rural services and playing to the rural audience, ABC programmers may be fulfilling the corporation's charter obligations more comprehensively. At the same time the moves could serve to muddy the debate within Coalition ranks about ABC political bias.
Incidentally, on June 18 a new series was launched on Bush Telegraph, looking at "the changes and shifts in Australian political parties". The presenter, Helen Brown, announced that the program would run "from the oldest - the ALP - to the likely new force in the Senate, and that's the Australian Greens". Surely, if you're starting with the oldest, the more logical place to finish would be with the newest. Of course, we know who that would be.