Steering the ABC Titanic

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Every now and then, often enough that the phrase is probably encoded as a single keystroke on ABC keyboards, someone from the ABC (Australia’s national public broadcaster, very similar to the BBC) will say “We get allegations of bias from both the Left and the Right so we must be very well-balanced”.

This specious, self-serving narrative has been increasing in frequency over the last three years in parallel with the increasing observations, by those of us on the Left, of the undeniable lurch to the Right that the ABC has made.

Sometimes this narrative might be accompanied by the observation that both a Labor Prime Minister (Keating) and a Liberal (conservative) one (Howard) in recent years have complained about the ABC. And indeed this is a valid observation in the 1990s (and previously) and tells you something important about what was going on. In both cases the objection was that the ABC was a public broadcaster was, without fear or favour, willing to speak truth to power. And since prime ministers of both parties rely totally on fear and favours to govern, and have absolutely no interest in their power being challenged, both hated the scrutiny by the ABC. The commercial networks of course, also greatly interested in favours and power, had absolutely no interest in rocking a conservative government boat too much.

And what sin did ABC journalists and presenters commit in those far-off, almost mythical times? Why, they asked questions of prime ministers and government ministers, of whichever party was in power. Asked questions! And sometimes, and my younger readers will hardly credit this, they would ask a follow-up question when the minister evaded a question the first time! Sometimes even repeat a question, quote a fact or two. If there is anything governments hate it is having their evasions and secrets and fact-free actions exposed to all the world like an Emperor’s new clothes.

So that is the first point. In my observations over many years the only bias in ABC programming was daring to ask questions that governments didn’t want asked, and being so presumptuous as to not accept answers governments wanted accepted. It could be suggested that conservative governments, with their born-to-rule mentality, resent questioning even more than left-wing governments do, and are more likely to see the asking of a question itself as evidence of bias, but neither kind of government is fond of scrutiny.

And so to the second point. The actual actions by Keating and Howard in relation to their anger were quite different. Keating kept on muttering away about how outrageous it all was, or would front a journalist at a function (or in a late night phone call) and set them straight about the error of their ways. But he did this to commercial and ABC journalists alike. No fear or favour there. And no consequences either.

No such ineffective inaction for Howard, who knew the importance of stopping the questioning. “We will decide what questions are asked and the circumstances in which they are answered”, I guess. No mucking around. Appoint members of the ABC Board who were not merely right-wing but culture warriors certain to be sympathetic to Howard’s agenda – not just one or two, but the whole Board. Then appoint a Chairman who in addition to that ideological qualification was also a close personal friend of John Howard’s. Appoint Managing Directors who had the right stuff and then they in turn would appoint senior managers who were politically correct for the new conservative times, and they in turn would appoint reporters and presenters with the right attitudes (often, I understand, from commercial media networks in all three cases). In the meantime shift one presenter, a particularly persistent question asker sideways, and have the Board ensure that there were no mistakes. Pretty soon the thing runs itself, although if evidence of recalcitrance emerges or might emerge, issue instructions, and, if that fails, issue reprimands of staff and apologies to the offended conservatives.

As well as getting the right personnel in place, start playing with the way the organisation does news and current affairs, long its great strength and glory. Add new current affairsprograms designed to be venues on which opinionators can spout forth in prime time. They have to be opinionators, not the “experts” who once appeared on the ABC, because reality has a well-known left-wing bias. And they will be almost all from the far right of the political belief spectrum – preferably the worst former conservative ministers and political staffers and the members of far right thing tanks (see my earlier post here). You justify this by saying you have to get these people on to “balance” the ABC. But since these programs didn’t exist before, the presence of so many right-wing opinionators completely unbalances the ABC, since the rest of the organisation is largely uninvolved in anything to do with politics and current affairs. This torrent of right-wing ideology pouring out of talking heads day after day, all over radio and tv outlets and the new online venue, unchallenged by any fact-checking (because fact-checking has been successfully framed as “bias”), has in itself shifted the ABC a long way to the Right. But wait, there’s more.

ABC News was always the jewel in the crown, the most trusted source of independent objective news in the country. Can’t have that. With a Labor government elected in 2007 it wasn’t enough just to have conservatism rampant in current affairs, the news itself needed to be massaged so that the public would both get the “right” news in the right form, but know the right way to think about it. So, almost un-noticed, the style of ABC News began to change. Instead of just reporting, factually with some information about content, say a Cabinet reshuffle, a policy change, a Prime Ministerial speech, no news bulletin could proceed without a cross to “our political reporter in Canberra” who would massage the news with his or her own ideological prejudices. It would turn out, inevitably, that the reshuffle was a sign of chaos in the government, that the policy change was a backflip, that the speech was shrill or strained. All said with the kind of sorrowful air that precedes a beating from a Thwackum or a Squeers. I can’t remember a single major government action in the last three years presented as simple news without it being massaged to be a negative for the government by a clearly right-wing reporter. Once upon a time this kind of “news interpretation” was left to radio shock jocks or commercial tv breakfast shows and would have been thought outrageous on an ABC news bulletin. Now it is taken for granted as the way one “does news”.

As is the more subtle manipulations involved in the choice of film clip or photo to illustrate a piece, the headlines and captions used, the terminology used (eg “carbon tax”) as derived from the conservative framing, the way the Prime Minister is referred to, the choice of which bits of an event to broadcast, the constant promotion of Opposition stunts, the carefully framed pictures of crowds and their reactions. There is the ubiquitous, apparently obligatory use of the phrase “Tony Abbott says”, “The Opposition said today” to begin items about something the government has done or announced, with or without a later brief comment from the minister concerned. There is even a constant use of Opposition members to comment on some internal Labor Party matter – a promotion, a retirement, a policy debate – which they could not possibly know anything about (the reverse process doesn’t happen). And there is the complete failure of ABC journalists to think or act in any independent matter at all. They no longer it seems do any research or work on their own questions, they simply ask a question that has been framed by the Opposition. Or, even more insidiously, as it has been framed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd publications. Members of whom also regular appear on the ABC to offer spin and interpretations, with any sense that there should be a line drawn between the ABC and its rivals totally gone.

Which brings us back to the proposition we began with about “criticism from left and right = Balance QED”. In spite of all that I have outlined above, the ABC still gets hammered by shock jock columnists and politicians of the stripe of Eric Abetz. In their eyes though the ABC can never be far right enough. If the totality of ABC programming consisted of someone from a Right Wing think tank reading press releases from Menzies House all day they would complain that the sound wasn’t turned up loud enough, or the set was the wrong shade of blue. They get outraged when the ABC dares to mention climate change for example (the stacked Board having insisted that the ABC run, in prime time, the appalling “Great Global Warming Swindle”), or might be perceived as doing something positive about refugees or same-sex marriage. No matter how many right-wing commentators spout their ideology, no matter how the news is massaged, it will never be enough for Eric and friends, in fact they won’t notice.

Conversely when I complain about right-wing bias it is because of what I have outlined above. I am not suggesting that every right-wing opinionator be replaced by a member of Socialist Alliance or Greenpeace, or that news bulletins be vetted by the prime minister’s office. I am suggesting that the obvious sources of bias be removed. That experts once again replace ideologues, that news bulletins contain, well, simply news, that unflattering photos and headlines are not deliberately chosen. The former board members and chairman have now been replaced by a much more neutral group, and this is a good start (although we need a mechanism to ensure that the blatant Howard Board stacking can never occur again). But it is going to take as long to turn the ABC Titanic around as it took to steer it towards the ice pack in the first place. Most of the young people on the staff now have had no experience of what a neutral, professional, objective ABC would actually be like. If I am asking for neutrality, and the Right is asking for even further movement right, it suggests not that the ship is balanced but that it is listing a long way to the right already.

With an Abbott government installed by the media the ABC is going to hit an iceberg and sink totally. We need to change its course before it is too late.

[Once again, apologies to my international readers for parochialism, but I suspect many of the points raised here will ring a bell with concerns about media in other countries]

The Burning Bush

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As climate change effects in Australia (and elsewhere) begin to intensify, one of the most notable, and deadly, is the increase in frequency and intensity of bushfires.

It’s important to say that more subtle effects will have been underway for sometime. Local populations of species will have become extinct in some places, will have expanded into others. There will be, as a result, species ranges slowly moving south, moving up mountains, moving towards coasts. There will be acceleration of losses and shifts when disasters like droughts, floods, fires, strike particular habitats.

Some populations will achieve more speed than others – larger birds and marsupials for example, some invertebrates that can float in water or air, plants that have very effective seed dispersal, micro-organisms that can travel via water or dust clouds, and so on. But the great majority of organisms will struggle to move quickly enough, and many whole species are going to rapidly become extinct.

Important to note that we are not talking evolutionary adaptation here. That takes thousands of years, climate change is happening over decades. Consequently, even species that can readily move are soon going to find themselves trapped, unable to move further south over water perhaps, or running out of altitude on mountains. They don’t have time to adapt.

Which brings us to fire. Following the recent horrifying bushfire in southern Tasmania there were yet again complaints about the “lack of fuel reduction” nearby. Look, I get this, really I do. Fire is my greatest fear every Summer. I dread the sight of a column of smoke nearby. I imagine, all too graphically, what a fire would do to us.

But this “fuel reduction” thing is nonsense of course. Either someone would need to have predicted 6 months earlier exactly where the fire was going to strike and burnt accordingly. Or, every square inch of forest in Australia would have to be burnt constantly.

Indeed the latter is essentially the demand of “fire managers” and their populist politician friends. Their alibi, when challenged by conservationists, is supplied by a small string of writers. Bill Gammage has done an illustrated Flannery, Tim Flannery popularised Jones, Rhys Jones publicised Norman Tindale. All four writers promoted the view that the Australian environment was not only “adapted to fire” but actually needed it, and that consequently the Aborigines had regularly burnt the whole country and we should copy them.

For some reason media and therefore the public love this nonsense, and there is never any mention of the fact that this flimsy hypothesis has been challenged over and over again in last 50 years.

When the most recent of the four, Bill Gammage, began working on his much awarded book, he sent me a paper which formed the core of his book. I wrote to him (in 2003) as follows:

“Hi Bill
Thank you for sending a reprint, that was thoughtful of you. You argue your case like a lawyer. Trouble is lawyers are obliged to present all the evidence in favour of their client, not look at it in all possible ways. You seem not to have read my book yet. You would find it interesting I think.

The problems with your case, as I see it are in summary: 1. There is no question that Aborigines knew their own patch intimately. How could they not? I know my patch pretty intimately after a few years, and I am not relying on it for food. But knowing where kangaroos are likely to be, or when the yams are ripe, is not the same as causing the kangaroos to be there or the yams to ripen.
2. You must assume that natural features have natural causes until you can prove otherwise. To revert to the legal metaphor it should be a question of innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. Rhys Jones deliberately turned the burden of proof on its head for a very good reason – it is much harder to prove a negative than a positive. That is, apparently ‘anomalous’ patches occur for all sorts of natural reasons (of soil type, topography, rain, evaporation, biogeography, natural fire history etc). Eliminate all those and what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. But you do have to eliminate them first.
3. Vegetation doesn’t depend on fire so much as fire depends upon vegetation.
4. You can’t rely on nineteenth century theories about ecology and anthropology. You also can’t rely totally on apparent observations, and certainly not on the context of observations. Not only were observers prisoners of their prejudices (as are we all) but they were prisoners of the political agenda of the day and of the lack of knowledge of Australia’s people and biology.

Does it matter, other than as a fascinating debating point? Yes it does, because people of ill will use theories about the past to justify actions they want to carry out anyway. The attack on the environment of Australia is now so serious that letting people who want to put cattle in the high country, and burn every inch of Australia every year, and get rid of national parks and wilderness areas, support their demands with notions about what Aborigines did, is really very dangerous.
Best Regards
David”

So there you are, alibi destroyed. But does that matter, I hear you ask? Whatever Aborigines did, if the bush is “adapted to fire” shouldn’t we burn it?

Yesterday tv coverage of one of the recent nasty local fires ended with the obligatory comment about the bush recovering, a comment illustrated by the obligatory shot of some shoots emerging from the blackened trunk of a gum tree. But the ability to recover has nothing to do with being “adapted” or “needing to be burnt”. All species of plant can recover after disasters – if they couldn’t then long before now the planet would be as lifeless and empty as Mars. There can’t be a square metre of land that hasn’t at some stage been affected by the fast or slow disasters of fire, flood, glacier, tsunami, landslide, drought, tornado, volcanic eruption.

After the disaster some plants, not actually killed, begin regenerating. Others, surviving as seeds, begin germinating if not buried too deeply. Others, unable to survive the catastrophe themselves, will gradually return to the area via wind or birds or flowing water, or just by gradually expanding back onto the ground from surrounding areas. Different species have different abilities to do all these things, and, in addition, some can grow on bare or disturbed ground, some can not. So we have what is called a “succession” – some species arrive early (often the ones we call weed species, or those which have the capacity to become weeds), their growth modifies the environment and others begin to colonise, then finally, after the passage of a lesser or greater number of years, depending on the nature of the disaster and that of the original ecosystem, the plant community will look much as it did before it was destroyed. Although it is worth pointing out that it is very unlikely to be identical either in the totality of species present, or in their relative proportions.

Fine, good, comforting to know that however bad things look good old Mother Nature will recover. But note that I haven’t distinguished between any of the natural disasters in this regard, and that’s because there is nothing special about fire – plants are no more adapted to fire than they are to flood or tsunami. No one (I assume) in their right mind would call for the forests to be regularly flooded, or landslides triggered, nor welcome tsunamis or cyclones, just because later recovery is eventually possible? Also, and this is very important, no matter how fast and complete recovery might be after a single event, a repetition of the event in a short time would snuff out recovery and will certainly alter the composition of the new ecosystem. If you germinate all the seeds of a species, and then kill them all off before they can mature enough to set new seed, the species is gone. Again, it doesn’t matter what kind of a disaster, if it is repeated at short intervals (like, for example the recent massive floods in Queensland, just 2 years after the previous ones) the environment will be irreversibly damaged.

So we come full circle. If you want to strategically burn small areas to (possibly) help provide protection for particular places, then go right ahead. If you regularly burn all the bush any time in Australia you will change the ecosystems for the worse. If you do it when climate change is already impacting on the bush through fire, drought, flood, heat, then the damage you inflict will be infinitely greater. This is not a good thing.

PS – for other writing about fire on this blog click on the “Fire” and “History” tabs above.