The problem of partisan bias in ABC programs

The Australia Defence Association is widely acknowledged as a genuinely non-partisan public-interest watchdog. As an organisation whose public-interest advocay also necessarily requires extensively interaction with the media, the ADA notes that discussion of partisan bias in ABC programs seems to be missing several of the key points actually involved. This includes the continuing decline of professional standards within journalism overall and the inability of journalism as a purported profession to arrest or reverse the decline by self-regulating such standards.


Letter to The Australian 

Friday, 14 December 2012
(published with significant deletions and misleading editing on Saturday, 15 December 2012)

As a non-partisan national public-interest watchdog, the Australia Defence Association has considerable experience in working objectively with politicians of all parties and with the parliamentary press gallery.

We also strongly support the principle that any taxpayer-funded organisation, be it the ADF or the ABC, must always be absolutely non-partisan.

Therefore the political biases of other media are surely irrelevant to the role of the ABC and a complete red herring morally and intellectually.

But while left-leaning biases clearly pervade parts of the ABC institutionally, three points are worth noting.

  • First, journalism is now not a profession because it no longer self-regulates professional standards.
  • Second, an entrenched institutional culture means some ABC staff are now simply unable to distinguish or eradicate partisan bias or reason through the professional need to do so.
  • Third, the ABC is not an amorphous mass.

Our experience is that partisan bias is least evident in ABC local radio — perhaps due to more direct audience accountability.

It is generally not a serious problem in News-24, TV news, and radio news and current affairs — in that order of increasing vulnerability.

Current affairs television, however, is often the most partisan in both fact and perception.

This could best be eradicated by not using producers and presenters who have worked for, or strongly identify with, either side of politics.

But surely the elephant in the room is the mistaken belief that journalists specialising in politics are, can or should be “insiders”, rather than professional reporters of unbiased fact.

For example, respected party elders from both sides (and the Greens) often scoff privately at much of the discussion on “Insiders”.

Our experience in the ADA’s particular area of responsibility backs up such scepticism.

Discussion of defence issues is more often than not factually incorrect or conceptually flawed, even ignoring the real or apparent political views being espoused.

 

What The Australian actually edited and published (and by doing so substantially changed the import of the whole letter, reversed the meaning of our fourth-last sentence and omitted our key conclusion in the final four sentences):

As a non-partisan watchdog, the Australia Defence Association has considerable experience in working objectively with politicians of all parties and with the parliamentary press gallery.

We also strongly support the principle that any taxpayer-funded organisation, such as the ABC, must always be non-partisan.

The political positions of other media are irrelevant to the role of the ABC.

But left-leaning biases clearly pervade parts of the ABC.

An entrenched institutional culture means some ABC staff are now simply unable to distinguish or eradicate partisan bias or reason through the professional need to do so.

But the ABC is not an amorphous mass.

My experience is that bias is least evident in local radio.

It is not a serious problem in radio news.

Current affairs television, however, is often the most partisan.

This could best be eradicated by not using producers and presenters who have worked for, or strongly identify with, either side of politics.

But it's a mistake to believe journalists specialising in politics are insiders rather than professional reporters of unbiased facts.

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