Open Letter to Mark Scott

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Dear Mr Scott – this “balance” thing. I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

The IPA is infesting every ABC outlet with its Libertarian Free Market ideology in the service of secret Business business. What are they providing “balance” for? Have there been Marxist economists daily on the ABC I have somehow missed? Even Keynesian economists? Er no, Professor Sloan is on every week instead. Who is she “balancing”?

What about the appearance of Peter Reith every week? A full essay on The Drum plus other live appearances. Who is he balancing? Gerard Henderson, Piers Ackermann, Nikki Savva? Has there been a rash of appearances by Trotskyists, Socialist Alliance, Left Wing unionists who have escaped my notice?

Do you really not see that the occasional appearance of, say, a Green MP, or someone from The Australia Institute, doesn’t actually match in weight the regular appearance of those mentioned above, so regular they might as well be on staff, and certainly gain the apparent credibility of being so.

On a number of occasions you have run factual pieces or reports on climate change science and its findings. Are these “balanced” by the climate change denier opinion pieces you run, do you think, from those like the IPA who are both ideologically driven and represent vested interests?

Where do you in fact draw the line on “balance”? Would an astronomy program on the age of the universe and the Earth have to be balanced by an opinion piece from a Young Earth Creationist? If not why not? There are small groups of nutters who believe the Earth is Flat, the Moon landings were fakes, the twin towers were demolished by the CIA. Do these people get to report on their beliefs on the ABC, gain credibility from its imprimatur? Why not?

Of course the ABC should be a place where political opinions can be debated. They aren’t on commercial networks or in print these days. The ABC should welcome and encourage differences of opinion on the future of the health system, how best to respond to global warming, the structure of the economy, the education system and its funding, environmental problems, and so on. There are two or more strands of thoughts on all of these, and people are entitled to hold them, express them, and have them represented on the national broadcaster. What they are not entitled to is their own facts. Venues such as Q&A and The Drum are ideal for such debates between protagonists with the leavening of actual experts in the fields concerned.

But this isn’t what is happening. On the ABC of 2012 facts are fungible. One of the ensconced culture warriors can simply declare something to be the case or not the case, and, “he said she said”, that belief carries as much weight as the results of fifty years research work by a Nobel Laureate, or as much as the views of 100% of the relevant academic association. In fact more weight because not only are the ideologue and the researcher each just occupying one chair, but the chair the ABC regular ideologue occupies is much more weighty by virtue of being constantly occupied. The IPA chap, for example, feels at home, is mates with, the ABC coordinator, has been seen by the viewers over and over again in that place. Is, in short, an authority figure, an authority vested in him (or her) by the ABC.

As it is in those News Ltd columnists, former Lib ministers, right wing economists. None of them have, or speak about, an area of expertise. All of them are simply given a platform to blast the government in opinionated diatribes whose purported “facts” remain unchallenged by the comperes of your current affairs shows. How on earth does this procession “balance” anything? And how has it come, by stealth, to be part of an ABC that was mercifully free of such crap up until a few years ago? Once the ABC presented facts you could rely on, now current affairs is a fact-free zone.

Speaking of comperes, how has it come to be that essentially all of your comperes, reporters, script and news writers, appear to be, how shall we say, leaning towards the Right? Prior to Kerry O’Brien being shunted sideways out of the action I had no idea what, if any, political leanings ABC staff had. Whether Kerry was left wing I don’t know, but he angered conservatives by trying to deal in facts. The others also carefully presented neutral faces and voices to the world.

Since his departure there is no doubt at all about the political preference of reporters and presenters (with a few exceptions). And they are quite willing to make it obvious in a way that wouldn’t have been tolerated even five years ago. Sarcastic and snide comments about PM and ministers; ensuring the dilution of good news for govt; constant use of “Tony Abbott says” to lead stories; other Libs used, quite inappropriately, to comment on Labor politics; the constant return to “Rudd Challenge” stories when govt doing well; the overplaying of poor opinion polls and the downplaying of  good ones for govt; the lack of fact-checking of anything the Opposition says; the hunting with the pack, or leading it on stories apparently negative for govt (eg Thomson, Slipper); the lack of later follow up to correct them; the refusal to follow stories negative to the Opposition; the constant use of News Ltd stories, unchecked, to lead news bulletins or provide topics for current affairs shows; the soft, ever-so-helpful interviews of shadow ministers (the recent Leigh Sales interview of Tony Abbott was a welcome, shocking, change, but remains unique), the barrage of repetitive questions, talking over the answers, in interviews of ministers. This perfect storm of anti-government reporting is quite unique for the ABC, with governments of both sides of politics, in my 60 years of watching and listening. How does it provide “balance”?

Look, I know that there are News Ltd columnists (not least the ones who have a constant platform on the ABC these days), shock jocks, and the odd Liberal Senator, who rant and rave about how “left-wing” the ABC is, and how this must be corrected, or, as your friends the IPA demand, the Corporation sold off. For these people of course the ABC either shouldn’t exist at all, or if it does, it should be the broadcast arm of Menzies House. To these people the ABC can never be far enough to the Right, and they remain oblivious to the systematic rightward drift of recent years. Their “complaints” are not evidence that you have “got the balance right”, but evidence that you haven’t. They are trying to pull the ABC all the way over into Abetz Land, I am trying to pull it back to the middle.

I wish myself luck.

Yours
David Horton
Argonauts member, 1955

Note to readers outside Australia: my apologies for a somewhat more parochial post than usual. The ABC is Australia’s equivalent of (and modelled on) the BBC. There is no equivalent in the US of course, although my understanding is that PBS and NPR represent a kind of embryo public broadcaster. Interestingly the rightward drift I argue here for the ABC has also been of concern by some in relation to the BBC, and, I understand, similar concerns have been raised about NPR. If you have no interest in the detail of my diatribe, you might still ponder how subtle bias (as distinct from the obvious bias of, say channel 9 or the Fox Network) can be exercised by a media outlet.

16 comments on “Open Letter to Mark Scott

  1. Keith Woolsey says:

    Maybe the ABC are having trouble finding content for their 24 hours news cycle and are hence scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to guests and presenters on their shows.

    If you were a reputable commentator would you really want to “mix it” with some of the scripted fools they have on their panels ?

    Q and A was a case in point this week. An other wise educated, informative and in some cases idealistic panel was irritated by the scripted, party line type rubbish of a “rising star” Liberal back bencher.

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  2. fred says:

    After some years of extremely patient tolerance I have finally given up on ABC RN Breakfast.
    The straw was Fran and Michelle and some hack from “The Australian” spouting no less than 6 anti-government snide and false comments within 1 minute.

    My favourite example of partisan bias from the ABC is this one.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-05-05/acropolis-stormed-as-mining-tax-hits-global-markets/422246

    Total absurdity.

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  3. Mindy says:

    I was shocked last night when the Abbott statement that Gillard should be in Indonesia talking to SBY was followed by Swan saying that SBY was in New York too. That would not have happened a few months ago. Sadly I think it is just a jab at Abbott, not evidence that the ABC is getting back in balance.

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  4. The Australian news economy has been dominated by New Ltd outlets for a long time now, to the extent of over 70%, which has resulted in a GENERAL drift to the Right as the News Ltd line becomes the default norm. The ABC has merely followed this trend. I fear also that ABC management has been spooked by the right-wing complainers who parrott the view that the ABC is left-wing, as those views always get plenty of play by Murdoch’s lieutenants, and so become the “norm”.

    The IPA especially is ubiquitous on ABC TV news and current affairs as the young, well-presented IPA stooges give good camera and are always ready to appear at the drop of a hat. It would be great if the ABC could balance out the ubiquity of Reith with someone from the other side, like, say, Gareth Evans. Surely there are people who can be found. And good point about the complete absence of the Left press from the ABC, David. Including the Soclaist Alliance regularly to balance out the ideologues from the IPA would help Mr Scott to salvage some credibility from the dismal status quo which you catalogue so accurately.

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  5. Richard Ure says:

    You seem to be selective in your consumption of ABC output. Tony Abbot is reluctant to submit to longer iABC interviews but Leigh Sales and Emma Alberici have recently been very effective in disclosing how shallow are LCP thinking and policies. Tony Jones presses the point fairly. And David Meagher has had a pretty good go too.

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    • David Horton says:

      Ok Richard. The Albericie and Sales (which I noted) interviews were noteworthy because they were so unusual in recent times. I don’t remember Tony Jones “pressing” but maybe I missed it. David Marr doesn’t work for the ABC, but does occasionally appear and presents a left-leaning view.

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  6. David Donovan says:

    Nice one mate. Do you mind if we republish, with full attribution of course and a link back to the original.

    Cheers,

    Dave

    David Donovan | Managing Editor

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    ‘The journal of democracy and independent thought’

    PO Box 260, Isle of Capri, Qld, 4217 Mobile: +61 403 237 880 | Fax: +61 7 5526 8217 Email: editor@independentaustralia.net | Website: http://www.independentaustralia.net

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  7. Last night you gave me Tweet envy and tonight you’ve given me blog post envy.

    Spot on

    Cheers
    @Vic_Rollison

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  8. Geoff Andrews says:

    …………moving forward in terms of contributing MY rant against the ABC (my radio/TV stations of preference, I hasten to add) could Mr Scott educate his young bright-eyed editors / presenters that there is a difference between “their” and “there” and that saying “these kind of ANYTHING” is incorrect and,for gods’ sakes know how to pronounce words such as “zoology” without prompting me to throw my foam rubber house brick (an Xmas present from my son) at the bloody screen.
    Oh, and I forgot…. please ,,, yes, PLEASE, DEMAND that they don’t ask an obviously distraught mother, “And how did you feel when you saw your toddler savaged by the bull terrier ( or taken by the shark or fall from the tenth floor)”. in the new ABC example of a “human interest” story.
    Another problem with the ABC and older dumbed down broadcasters, is their inability to spot a tabbott when they see one.
    I mean, they stand out like dogs’ balls!
    No doubt, all of you who have read this far have have come across the word “tabbott” (pronounced “tab_oh”)?
    For those of you younger than 40 it’s an Indian word for those little candle boats they push out into the Ganges in the hope that some “god” will look kindly upon their hopes and aspirations; apparently derived from the French “sabot” (a small shoe/boat).
    In the modern context, of course, it refers to an unsubstantiated statement that people like Tony Abbott launch on an unquestioning media.It gets picked up by News Corp, promulgated by the ABC (without checking, of course) and finishes up as a thinly disguised sneer on Media Watch, having achieved it’s purpose.of causing 47% of the electorate to believe that 2+2=5.
    In a previous blog of yours, David, (“Vote Early Vote Often”), we were assailed with a classic tabbott: (in arguing against compulsory voting) where it was asserted that “More people voted in elections when they were voluntary than when they became compulsory” (or words to that effect).
    Congratulations, dear Reader! You have experienced your first tabbott. Now, see how many you can spot before the next election.
    Report them to David ….I have the impression he can probably count over a 1000.

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  9. David Horton says:

    Somewhat disappointed that no ABC personnel turned up to either show me the error of my ways or to say “Right on, brother”.

    I should have said in the post, but didn’t, perhaps because it seems so obvious, that what I said about reporters applies to the local ones, not the foreign correspondents. All of them (not least Sally Sara before she came in from the cold) are excellent. They seek stories, report them objectively, use no sarcasm or snark, no editorialising. I have no idea what the political leanings of any of them are. They are, in short, a shining example of what all ABC Reporters were once like.

    Finally I note that this post is a cri de cour. I take no pleasure in writing it. I have been (as I subtly indicated above) a lifelong ABC supporter for nearly 60 years. I would like to be, whole-heartedly, again.

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  10. fairlycirrus says:

    My partner watches ABC News 24. I leave the room whenever it’s on. I’ve abandoned all my RN podcasts, disenchanted. If there were, indeed, to be a ‘left’ bias on the ABC it would be doing its job by providing at least SOME balance against the rest of the rabidly, foaming-at-the-microphone right-wingers.
    And of course the abandonment of the ABC by those of us who look for left-wing commentary seems likely to have been the goal of those steering the ship.
    I just don’t want to fight them anymore … I’ve only enough energy to remain loosely interested in the struggle to keep my rural township/home free of the scourge of CSG.
    Being a political activist takes its toll … the bastards seem to be winning.

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  11. [...] story was originally published on David Horton's The Watermelon Blog and has been republished with [...]

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  12. [...] conservative ministers and political staffers and the members of far right “think tanks” (see my earlier post here). You justify this by saying you have to get these people on to “balance” the ABC. But [...]

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