August 24th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Embryo experiments: are there any limits?

ALP's problems deeper than pre-selections and branch-stacking

Zimbabwe: Mugabe aggravates drought crisis

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dizzy with success / Angry amnesiacs

EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION: Consuming our unborn is indefensible

LAW: High Court judgment deepens native title confusion

General Cosgrove was wrong on Vietnam (letter)

Why the stock market plunged (letter)

Snowy River plan damages Murray basin (letter)

Infrastructure savings (letter)

COMMENT: Whose voice can be heard?

VICTORIA: Public forces backdown on Victorian sex zone plans

POPULATION: Time to set the record straight

COMMENT: Can the ABC be saved from itself?

ECONOMY: The Reserve, interest rates and inflation

ASIA: Taiwan's banking system under siege

BOOKS: Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

BOOKS: American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally

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Can the ABC be saved from itself?

by Bill James

News Weekly, August 24, 2002
The ABC's seventieth birthday has produced an outpouring of adulation, not only from admirers such as the broadsheets, but also from the new septuagenarian herself.

Had almost any other one of our society's entrenched institutions reached such a milestone, there might conceivably have been a feeling of responsibility on the part of the media (particularly the ABC) to critique its performance, and perhaps even raise questions about its continuing usefulness. Not, apparently, in the case of the national broadcaster.

My own associations with the ABC go back some way, if not to 1932. In early childhood I used to wake to the sound of my father clattering around in the kitchen putting the kettle on, with 3LO playing Peter Dawson or Kathleen Ferrier in the background. Yes, I was an Argonaut, and no, I can't remember my number or the name of my ship.

I still listen to the ABC almost exclusively, and still get immense pleasure from the variety of its coverage.

Where else could you hope to find, driving between jobs in the middle of the day, anything like last week's Radio National discussion of 18th century literature between Peter Porter and Clive James?

But for all the benefits which it offers, the fact remains that public broadcasting is an aberration and anomaly in a liberal democracy such as Australia, with all our emphasis on safeguards such as accountability and the separation of powers.

It is scandalous, on the face of it, that any organisation should be handed the money and freedom to say practically anything that it likes.

Such a scenario must inevitably lead to the emergence of a self-perpetuating coterie propagating a single worldview. The stock justification advanced for this arrangement is independence, but it is difficult to see how the recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars, the employment of which is virtually unrestricted under the corporation's charter, are likely to maintain an independent stance on, for example, the limits of taxation, the scope of government in general, or government media involvement in particular.

The only antidote to clique-archy is a public broadcaster's consciousness of its precarious and ambivalent constitutional propriety, and a corresponding determination to justify its right to existence through a professional commitment to objectivity and/or presentation of a broad spectrum of opinion.

Does the ABC do this? Does it want to? Does it try? At times its efforts descend into caricature, as when it ostentatiously whips out the stop watches during election campaigns. For the most part, however, it not only appears to make little attempt at balance or impartiality, but displays no self-awareness of its own limited, idiosyncratic and very intrusive weltanschauung.

This mentality is illustrated in a concatenation of events which occurred only a few months ago. On March 7, Radio National's Vivian Schenker interviewed Anne Henderson, author of the just published The Killing Of Sister McCormack, which deals with the murder of an Australian nun by Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. One week later, Henderson was again interviewed by John Faine and Terry Lane on Melbourne's ABC station 774.

The most extraordinary feature of the Schenker interview was the complete absence of any mention of the terms "communist", "left-wing" or "Maoist" in describing Sister McCormack's killers. Even more extraordinary was the fact that the same terms were missing from the Faine/Lane interview. The words used instead were of a general nature, and included "terrorists" and "revolutionaries".

This was in some ways analogous to someone describing the Taliban without uttering the adjective "Muslim", but was actually even more remarkable. It could be safely assumed that most listeners know of the Taliban, but many listeners would know about as much about the Shining Path as the garden path (up which the credulous are led).

Does anyone not from another planet seriously imagine that the Shining Path's political complexion would have been ignored in not one, but two, ABC discussions, had it been one of Latin America's all too prevalent right-wing death squads?

Let's be clear here: no-one in his or her right mind believes that the omissions represented ABC policy, or were a deliberate ploy on the part of the presenters. Ms Schenker, Mr Faine and Mr Lane are, whatever their ideological ideosyncrasies, obviously decent and reasonable people.

So why their lack of interest in terminological precision in this particular instance? One has to ask whether for people from their milieu, left-wing atrocities, at a cerebral level, are just as culpable as those committed by the right, but at a visceral level do not carry the same resonance as right-wing atrocities, and therefore do not touch off the same compulsion to reprehend and expose them.

The particular episode described here is not all that intrinsically important, but can be seen as an indicator of broad, underlying thought ruts and blind spots.

Reference was made earlier to 18th century literature. Perhaps, just to be on the safe side, the ABC could consider adopting Alexander Pope's reminder "Know Thyself" as an antidote to complacency for its next seventy years.

  • Bill James is a Melbourne writer

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