MEDIA: by John StylesNews Weekly
ABC's left-liberal Twilight Zone
, June 15, 2002
In the week following the Coalition election victory last November, a distressed ABC listener phoned in with a warning for Sandy McCutcheon, the presenter of Radio National's Australia Talks Back.
"Now that the Government, the Howard Government, has been returned for a third term, I have more fears now that you, Phillip Adams, Terry Lane and Kerry O'Brien could be facing dismissals," the caller said.
"Why on earth would we [sic] do that?" McCutcheon asked. "I thought that we were a perfect example of ABC balance. You've got Phillip Adams there on the Left, and me way over here on the Right, I mean surely this is some sort of balance?"
"And what about Kerry O'Brien?" the concerned talkback caller wanted to know.
"Oh, he's in the middle," McCutcheon said.
At first, it occurred that McCutcheon was making a little joke. But, when you think about it, Sandy was right. They are
"a perfect example of ABC balance".
In the world of the ABC, a kind of left-liberal Twilight Zone, there is a warped political spectrum that, one senses, only the inhabitants of that little world can recognise and understand. As Terry Lane expressed it last year in the wake of the Howard election win: "We come from the world of the ABC ... To me it's as though there are two worlds. There's my precious little world and then there's the real world."
In that zany left wing zone, the real-world right-of-centre is a place few ABC journalists and presenters enjoy going for expert opinion, political perspectives, commentary and analysis. At a seminar on the ABC run last year by the Institute of Public Affairs, Keith Mackriell, Federal Head of ABC Radio from 1974 to 1984, provided an example of this ABC insularity.
Mackriell told how a supervisor in the ABC's Religious Department once queried a program maker about a story package that contained only left wing views. When asked why no conservative speakers were represented, the program maker said that there weren't any. When pressed, the program maker explained, "I mean, none worth listening to."
Keith Mackriell concluded, "[T]he program maker's opposition to people with views he had no time for was used as a reason for denying his audience access to alternative views. His intent, in leaving them out, was based, not on professional consideration for the audience, but on his own personal preferences and prejudices."
George Negus, presenter of Australia Talks
on ABC television last year, provided an insight into his style of journalism when he described how he wrote his most recent book. In the Sydney Morning Herald
, Negus was reported to have said that he approached the task as a "journalistic exercise ... I looked for people to back up my views and then attributed them." Is that journalism - or propaganda? Whatever it is, it's a technique that is very popular at the ABC.
The absence of right-of-centre commentators on ABC panel discussions and debates is often explained away with an excuse like: we tried to get them but they weren't available. The idea of trying someone else never seems to occur to ABC producers. As former ALP MP Gary Johns, now a senior fellow with the IPA, put it to Sandy McCutcheon on the 16 April edition of ATB.
"Sandy, two weeks ago you did a little piece on the Great Barrier Reef. Now, you started out with an environmental scientist who had an extreme view ... said the Great Barrier Reef would be ruined within 30 years. We hope he's wrong of course. Then you went to an environmentalist, and then you went to an environmental journalist and it took 30 minutes before you got to someone else with another view."
McCutcheon protested that the show was to have had the Minister on, but that he had pulled out "at the last minute, leaving us with an unbalanced panel".
"I know, I know," Johns replied, "but you had to re-balance it by knocking a Green out, you see." As Johns explained, "So often it's an agenda and it's how often it's run and it's how many people get to speak to it."
Frequently, when the ABC's defenders come charging forth in support of the corporation and its culture against charges of imbalance and bias, they merely succeed in confirming it.
Take, for example, the effort of Jonathan Holmes, executive producer of ABC TV's The 7.30 Report,
last October. Holmes launched into a range of ABC critics via an opinion piece in The Australian.
The ABC journalist railed against "senior members of the Liberal Party", "the chattering claque of right-wing ideologues who clutter the opinion pages of our leading newspapers", "a small (and diminishing) section of the ABC's board of directors" and "a flock of commercial radio shock jocks".
It is interesting that the workers Holmes chose to deride are in private companies operating in a competitive media environment. Their salaries do not derive from taxation.
Another thing. When ABC journalists talk about "shock jocks" they ought to remember that the liberal-left social agenda pumped out by the ABC is also shocking to a substantially larger audience.
Russell Balding, recently confirmed as ABC Managing Director, has given no indication that he will change the Corporation's culture.
When John Howard, Michael Kroger and Peter Costello spoke out recently about the imbalance of news and current affairs journalism on the ABC, many Australians would have agreed wholeheartedly. What must puzzle and disappoint them is that the situation persists after six years of Coalition rule.