Why not all the Right is against the ABC

According to Robert Manne in today’s Age

THE right in Australia is greedy. Even though it now dominates political commentary on commercial radio and television and throughout the Murdoch press, for the past decade it has been conducting a concerted campaign to root out the pitiful remnants of left-wing thinking still found inside the ABC. The long campaign has been conducted by Quadrant and The Australian; by think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies (emphasis added)

In fact, the CIS has been rather more interested in appearing on the ABC than rooting out the ‘pitiful remnants of left-wing thinking’ still to be found wandering its corridors. When I put ‘ABC bias’ in in the CIS‘s search engine it turned up only three passing references. When I put ‘centre for independent studies’ in the ABC search engine I get 520 documents, and there are more that just refer to the ‘CIS’.

As I explained in a Catallaxy post last year, I’m not a fan of the ‘ABC bias’ argument. It’s not that I think ABC staff don’t lean to the left; left-wing causes do get more coverage there than elsewhere (though this mainly shows in issue selection; they do try to provide balance once they have picked a topic). But I doubt this greatly increases the total of leftist broadcasting in Australia compared to what we would have without the ABC. There’s a market for leftist ideas, as The Age shows in making money out of a soft left broadsheet and book publishers show by making money out of selling books denouncing capitalism, US foreign policy etc etc. So if it wasn’t the ABC it would be some other institution.

I think this makes the preoccupation with ‘ABC bias’ a strategic mistake by the political right. Even if the ABC’s ‘pitiful remnants’ were left to wander the streets of Ultimo and Southbank (and wherever their studios are in other cities) nothing much would change in the overall political complexion of Australian debate. Devoting significant energy to achieving a reform that would make little practical difference is a mistake the CIS has avoided making.

Aside from strategy, the ABC actually has many virtues to go with its few vices – it gives far more time to explain complex ideas than other radio stations, most of the news programmes are pretty good, and best of all it schedules lots of excellent English television. Yes, I know, ‘middle class welfare’, but one of the few federal government services I actually use for all the taxes I pay.

27 thoughts on “Why not all the Right is against the ABC

  1. There’s no reason why those excellent UK shows couldn’t be on pay-TV. Opps – they are. But I do take your point – shows like ‘Angels in America’ would never be shown on commercial TV. From memory that particular show was HBO and commissioned and televised by the private sector.

    More generally, Manne’s argument about the CIS and IPA (and Quadrant) was silly. The rest of his article, however, should be widely read and tough questions asked. Why is it okay for Media Watch to be biased as long as its biased to the ‘left’? In any event, why should state sponsored TV be ‘monitoring’ the private sector. A tad fascist for my liking.

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  2. ABC is good because it actually provides regular, indepth analysis of news and current affairs – Something the commercial TV stations just don’t provide (except perhaps for one hour early on Sunday mornings when I am still asleep, and once a week is just not enough for me). And they also show The Chaser War On Everything…

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  3. A senior Radio National broadcaster once said to me that Radio National IS the kind of thing that could be privatised. Not that I’m recommending it. But as he pointed out – it’s very cheap to run, and one could build some advertising ‘chinese walls’ or perhaps even subscription service that would raise the money needed to run it – I think he said $30 mil though it would probably have risen by now – this is quite a few years ago.

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  4. Andrew points out that there is a demand for left-wing content, while Christian likes auntie’s “regular, indepth analysis”. They’re both fair points, but the problem is that the ABC crowds out commercial alternatives, which might provide more balanced “regular, in depth analysis”. Naturally enough, the commercials can’t compete against a fully-subsidised public broadcaster in the sector of the market in which it operates. The result is that if you want quality you have to take it with a left wing slant, while if you want more mainstream entertainment you also get Alan Jones.

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  5. Australia is now decades behind Korea in terms of television, telephony and internet services. In 1980 there were about 100 people per phone in Korea. Australia still has considerably more GDP although the gap is narrowing.

    Whilst matters relating to content in relation to quality and political bias are important, the communications infrastructure is prolapsed downunder.
    The ABC could be something like the BBC of the Southern hemisphere in terms of sheer bulk of content, and if combined with SBS at times and given requisite government funding, it could exceed the BBC in ways as yet unknown.

    On the other hand, I wouldnt care if the whole communications infrastructure of the world was closed indefinately tomorrow. I have seen and heard enough electronic noise for three lifetimes already.

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  6. Sinc, Nicholas: to see what would happen in the commercial market if we scrapped the ABC, we only have to look at NPR in the US. Great programs, but it relies heavily on donations, so it feels like you spend about 25% of your listening time sitting through requests to send them money.

    Andrew: a propos your final line (“one of the few federal government services I actually use for all the taxes I pay”), isn’t it true that the federal government has paid your salary for most of your working life? 😉

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  7. Andrew – I’d say at most 5 years: 2 years with Kemp, 3 years as an APA holder and tutor at ADFA. I spent 6 student years working for Myer, 11 years working for the CIS (7 p/t), and 7 working for the U of M (also p/t). 41% of the U of M’s income comes in federal government grants, mostly for activities that have to be cross-subsidised from the university’s other income streams. So in practice my salary is paid by overseas students. The only sense in which I can feel grateful to the federal government for my U of M job is that I am profiting from their bad policies, as my position would be largely redundant if we had a well-designed higher education system.

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  8. Andrew L – do academics work for the federal government? I would have thought that the Commonwealth is a consumer of university services (via funded research or as financier of student places). In that sense we all work for the consumers – as do all other business organisations. (OT, I know – but I suspect ABC employees work for the Commonwealth).

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  9. How exactly is criticism of US foreign policy a leftist issue?

    I would have thought most liberals (classical or otherwise) would be critical of (for example) the dodgy legality of the Hicks case but apparently only soft leftists give a damn about due process. What will liberal party boosters think of US foreign policy once the AWB investigations in the US start in earnest? Will it suddenly be OK to be critical of US foreign policy then?

    To dismiss the ABC as a bastion of “left wing causes” does not add any weight to your argument – there are already plenty of outlets devoted to the uncritical coverage of business and religious issues or are there other “right wing causes” that I’m missing?

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  10. David, Robert Manne has admitted the was/is ABC left-biased. By his own admission “Left-wing bias has been successfully removed from the programs discussed by Mark Scott last October. So has anything that might stir the nation’s pulse. Does this represent the kind of ABC the nation wants?”

    The ABC Charter requires it to be unbiased and balanced. There is nothing wrong with having a left-wing news and entertainment organisation, and if people want that organisation to be the ABC they should campaign to change the charter to reflect this perspective.

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  11. David – Fair enough, I should have said something about anti-American tracts or something like that. There are critics of US foreign policy from right and left, but most on the right are basically pro-US and their criticisms are strategic rather than based in opposition to the US per se.

    I can’t see that the fact that other media outlets are right wing detracts from the point that the ABC tends to the left.

    Commercial left-wing media has been crowded out by the ABC, but that has not happened on the right.

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  12. “Commercial left-wing media has been crowded out by the ABC, but that has not happened on the right”

    Not exactly – there’s Arena magazine, Australian Prospect, New Matilda website, Green Left weekly etc, and then there are others like Eureka Street, Social Alternatives, The Monthly etc which you might see as left-wing …. I guess they demonstrate an audience for those views which won’t be met by commercial media since they’re critical of the nature of ‘commerce’ and don’t lend themselves to advertising. Thus a role for a publicly funded broadcaster.

    Also the aims of the two are different – one to make money, the other to offer quality programming. I’ve given up on ABC TV current affairs just because the quality of the journalism is so low.

    On an everyday level, isn’t it true that the electronic media are mostly picking up on issues raised by the newspapers? It’s probably still newspapers that are determining the news agenda.

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  13. Russell – There may not be a commercial audience for the radical left views of Green Left Weekly or Arena, but there is for the kind of soft left stuff found on the ABC. The Monthly loses money not because there are too few people with the worldview it represents, but because too few of them want to read multi-thousand word essays. So far as I am aware, nobody in Australia has made money from that type of journalism in Australia in decades, if ever, no matter what their political perspective. More intellectually inclined media in Australia survives on subsidies and volunteer and/or under-priced labour.

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  14. Early new labour arguments in the UK relating to media seemed to take the approach that all content that was not advertising was inherently left and social. The infrastructure on the other hand was establishment, privatised and right wing particularly in terms of the growth of networks.
    The acceptance of unmonopolised privatised growth has allowed multiple companies to expand the communications infrastructure there. In addition, the government argued that this would enable more content in addition to better service.
    To some extent this has worked, the UK has 6 or 7 times the bandwidth of Australia (many free wireless networks with no download limit), genuine choices in terms of cheap phone connections and loads of home grown global tv and radio content. However, there are an amazing number of television shows about the history of television (comedy for example), probably for the benefit of the boomer television generation.
    There are also government vans covered in attenae which patrol the streets detecting who is watching television and whether or not they have paid their license fee.
    Rudd cold take a look at this model of service provision and increase the number of Australian couch potatoes in time for the London olympics.

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  15. I have to admit that I don’t understand all the preoccupation with the biases of various media organisations. If one thinks that a certain organisation is biased (eg against unions or towards the left) then one can read or watch that media organisation’s products through the respective prisms.

    Having said that, I agree with Andrew N that any focus on the supposed ABC left-bias is misplaced energy by those on the political right – (a grotesque example of this misplaced focus was shown by former Senator Santoro’s preoccupation with the ABC). I can’t see how the political landscape would change much if, somehow, this supposed bias was removed: “left” ideas would exist quite happily in Australia without any supposed ABC bias – just talk to any sample of people and you’ll hear a range of ideas on economics. Strategically, it is much better to fight “left ideas” themselves rather than fighting media organisations.

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  16. Russell said:
    I’ve given up on ABC TV current affairs just because the quality of the journalism is so low.

    They are still in the stratosphere compared to channel nine. TV doesn’t lend itself to thoughtful analyis but the ABC still make a good showing when given the chance.

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  17. David – the first time I turned on the 7.30 Report this year was for the interview with Brian Burke’s partner Julian Grill – last Tuesday. We had pointless ‘dramatisations’, shots of the outside of the CCC building, people walking past etc, the interview with Grill was broken up into bits which makes it much harder to see if it was edited or how the interview went, and the questions were pathetic. Grill says he did nothing wrong in contacting people he knew … wouldn’t the next question be “but your partner is active in arranging preselections, he arranges for developers to pay money into election campaigns for politicians who the developer tries to influence, documents that were confidential were obtained, etc do you think this is ethical?”
    But we didn’t get those questions – it looked like the interviewer wasn’t really familiar with what came out at the CCC hearings. A very bad interview.

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  18. Russell wrote:
    it looked like the interviewer wasn’t really familiar with what came out at the CCC hearings. A very bad interview.

    I’ve noted myself that the 7:30 report isn’t what it used to be – they are still finding their feet after the witch hunt last year about “fair and balanced” reporting. What I want to see is a return to critical stories of government (*any* government) that have been purged in the tentative approaches now adopted by an organisation cowed by baseless criticism.

    The Burke and Grill story is an interesting one – there’s basically little evidence of anything other than normal government at work (which is objectionable when you find out about it, but hardly novel, new or even exciting). There is no evidence of actual corruption in their post-criminal careers. Keating was no fan of the ABC when it was chasing his government, I get the impression that the current lot are rather thin skinned or have something to hide (or worse, are too stupid to have anything to hide i.e. AWB, children overboard). The whole “ABC bias” is a weird sideshow with no winners.

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  19. I find programs like The Insiders frustrating. Cassidy does not seem to exercise much control over Piers and Bolt who talk over the others, finger point and Cassidy seems to always look towards Bolt first. The others arn’t so anti-Howard as Bolt is antiLabour. Perhaps Marr should appear more often. I like seeing the venom in Bolt’s eyes when Marr is talking. If this show does not improve, I’ll be spending more time online.

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  20. Read “Recollections of a bleeding heart”, byDonWatson, which shows that Labor thought the media were against them (particularly the ABC) throughout. I’ve long thought the ABC’s problem is less that it is left wing, but that it’s assiduously anti the government of the day and excessively idealistic.

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  21. Andrew, was your UoM position really only created when overseas student numbers boomed? I would’ve thought it would’ve existed regardless. In a similar sense, I would’ve regarded the new accountancy department hires as 100% private money, and the old philosophy deparment staff as 100% government money.

    Sinc, you’re quite right that my own position is 100% taxpayer funded.

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  22. Sorry, I read Sinclair’s comment too hastily. I guess I’d give it the same answer as Andrew Norton’s: unless the removal of fee-paying students would abolish your job, I’d regard you as government-funded.

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  23. unless the removal of fee-paying students would abolish your job

    I think I understand the argument, but it’s still not clear how this differs from other jobs in other industries. Up until I took on an Admin role last year (ending in June this year) I taught fee-paying students only (who tended to be foreign). Last year I taught some honours students (two of whom had HECS places). If the OS market had collapsed (to zero, say) 99 percent of my students would be gone. My employer would have to lay off staff. How they choose to do so would have an impact of whether my job per se was abolished. (Personally, I suspect some sort of last-in-first-out, or no-PhD, or no publications rule would be applied). The point here is that revenue is fungible within the organisation. (So while I may be employed to earn the marginal dollar, I might not be the marginal employee – and I’m sticking to that story 🙂 )

    But consider the general point. The federal government is a large consumer/financier of education services. It contributes between 30 – 40 percent of my employers Income Statement (from memory). If any organisation lost its single largest customer jobs would be lost. Ultimately, in most organisation employees are paid for by the consumer.

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  24. Andrew – My position did not exist prior to my taking the job in early 2000 (well into the o/s student boom), and indeed me-equivalents are still quite rare around the higher ed sector. Universities tend to use the AVCC or distribute government relations activities among senior executives. I am there because the U of M is one of the less compliant institutions, and wanted someone like me to advice on optimising our situation and challenging the (dysfunctional) policy status quo.

    If overseas students disappeared, the University of Melbourne, like almost every other university around the country, would face massive and unsustainable deficits. All staff not essential to core operations would have to be sacked, me included. Indeed, it is doubtful that the institution could survive at all in its current form, so there would be no point staying anyway.

    I agree with Sinclair – the view you have about universities, one that seems shared within the government, is wrong in law and in practice. Universities are independent institutions created by state statute (except the ANU). No government appoints a majority of members of the governing council. Apart from the ANU, the federal government appoints no members. It is merely the largest client, and has abused the power that position has given them (assisted by incompetent political strategies adopted by universities).

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