Can our ABC resuscitate our political media?

Opinion within the Fifth Estate about the state of the political media in the Fourth Estate is virtually unanimous. There is an almost undivided view that in this country, and in many others, much of the print media is incompetent and malevolent in the way it reports political events, that in places it is corrupt, and in the case of the Murdoch media, subjugated to the will of the proprietor. The previous piece: The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us argued this case; the responses highlighted not just agreement, but also the deep dismay that those who commented felt at this state of affairs.

Perhaps even more dismay was expressed about the way in which the ABC had often followed the commercial media line, even at times echoing its headlines and stories, virtually word for word, and too often devoid of any serious analysis of the newsworthiness of the stories, their veracity and their meaning. Some who commented felt affronted by the apparent acquiescence of the ABC to the commercial line, when it is supposed to be an independent public broadcaster, funded from the public purse. There was consternation that it resembled a Murdoch clone, that it had lost its identity, and with it much of its independence.

Only the sightless could believe that the commercial media, and in particular the News Limited media, would be likely to change their tune and adopt a more balanced approached to politics. Only the sightless would be unable to see that News Limited media are running an explicit political agenda, one that is unlikely to change unless something radical occurs.

News Limited is intent on the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacing of it with a Coalition one, and to ‘the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box’. No objective analysis of News Limited’s behaviour could lead to any other conclusion. And it’s no recent thing. Right back to some of the radical measures Labor took to counter the ill effects of the GFC: the HIP and the BER, News Limited, and particularly its flagship The Australian, has run a virulent and disingenuous campaign of denigration against these measures. It has ridiculed almost everything Labor has enacted; has labelled it incompetent and fiscally reckless; has rebuked, mocked and vilified its leaders, particularly its first female leader; and has misrepresented Labor’s intentions and actions with strident and at times vicious headlines, uncomplimentary photographs and disgusting cartoons. We know the Murdoch agenda, we know compliance with that agenda is required of Murdoch’s men, and we see the result day after day in the writings of Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Dennis Shanahan, Peter van Onselen, Chris Kenny, even Paul Kelly, and many others.

We have looked to Fairfax to counterbalance News Limited, but with the likes of Michelle Grattan, Peter Hartcher, and at times the more moderate Phillip Coorey replicating News Limited’s line, we have largely lost confidence there too. Fortunately, Fairfax still has Peter Martin, Ross Gittins, Brian Toohey and of course Laura Tingle, but with Michael Stutchbury, ex The Australian now at the helm of The Australian Financial Review, it must be hard for writers there to buck his anti-Gillard, anti-Labor orientation.

While we in the Fifth Estate ought never to give up, even on an outfit as recalcitrant as News Limited, with the limited resources we have we need to direct our energies in more promising directions, and the most promising of those seems to be our ABC. It may be the counter to the tsunami of commentary adverse to the Government that comes from the commercial media day after day.

It is worth pausing to ask what it is that we ought to expect from the political media. In my view, political reporters and commentators, and particularly the Canberra Press Gallery that is so close to the action, has a particular responsibility, an onerous one, to inform the electorate about what is happening politically, what the issues are, and what they mean for us. They ought to be comparing and contrasting opposing policies and costings. Their offerings should be fact-based, well argued, balanced, and free of bias, and if an opinion is offered, it ought to be similarly based. But what do we get?

We get political ‘news’ dressed up in sensational clothes; we get scoops and exclusives, ’gotchas’, ‘rule in rule out’ games, he/she was ‘forced to defend’ rhetoric, and of course a plethora of ‘scandals’, so long as they are on the Labor side. Whatever else it is, this ‘news’ must be controversial, conflict-driven, lurid, entertaining, and of course short and to the point, even if inaccurate, so as not to overrun the perceived short attention span of the consumers. The default position is triviality; thoughtful analysis is relegated to less popular time slots, or less read newspaper sections.

The purpose of this piece is to suggest that we direct our attention to our ABC, with the intent of stiffening its spine, rebalancing its coverage, and re-focussing its vision. My question is: Can the ABC resuscitate our moribund and feckless media? Can it bring about changes in its commercial competitors by the sheer force of its professionalism and the strength of its determination to promulgate to the electorate accurate facts and figures, well reasoned analysis, sound guidance and helpful insights?

If the ABC were to assume a dominant, rather than a submissive role hanging onto the coattails of the commercial side, if it were to exhibit outstanding professionalism, if it were to set the standard for political reporting we deserve, if it were to divorce itself from the Canberra Press Gallery echo chamber where groupthink reigns supreme, might it not put pressure on its commercial rivals? Might that not shame them into performing better? Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.

But the ABC is certainly not without fault, and it is not yet homogenous. Some sectors perform well, others poorly; some are balanced, some imperceptibly so. There is hope though that if all its sections could perform well, if balance could be restored, it might be the agent to give mouth to mouth to a moribund commercial political media. It is not an exaggeration to view the commercial media as moribund, but still susceptible to well placed resuscitation.

Balance is a particular concern of ABC users. Writing on Independent Australia, David Horton pens a must-read: Open letter to ABC managing director Mark Scott. It begins:

”Dear Mark Scott,

“About 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 Akerman, Nikki Sava? 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.

There is more here that you would enjoy reading.

Remember, it was Mark Scott who took notice of Greg Jericho, when he wrote a piece on Grog’s Gamut complaining about the poor quality of reporting of the 2010 election campaign. Scott discussed Greg’s concern with his executives and brought it to a conference for discussion. As we don’t have inside access to the ABC, we can’t know what changes Greg’s piece brought about, but Scott certainly did notice it.

Why do I see the ABC as a potential remedy to the widespread problem of incompetent political commentary by a moribund media?

Mark Scott’s seeming willingness to listen and learn encourages optimism, and we all know that the ABC can and does produce informative and incisive political programs.

Let’s recall some exemplary events in the ABC’s political life. Shall we ever forget that classic interview in May 2010 by Kerry O’Brien of Tony Abbott about Abbott’s approach to the truth? Refresh your memory by revisiting this YouTube clip. Remember Leigh Sales’ interview with Abbott on 22 August of this year over BHP Billiton’s announcement about its postponement of its Olympic Dam project. These were two occasions when the Opposition Leader was pinned down over statements that were shown to be disingenuous and deceitful. Abbott looked embarrassed, harassed and angry, and showed how pitifully inadequate he was as Leader of the Opposition.

We have to go back only to yesterday’s Insiders to see how Barrie Cassidy handled Joe Hockey and his extravagant utterances about the devastating effects of the mining tax on the miners; his criticism of monthly payments of company tax; his likening of the reduction of the baby bonus to $3000 for the second and subsequent children to the Chinese birth control system, calling the bonus ‘a penalty’; and his use of the term ‘flat-lining’ to describe Australia’s 3% per annum growth rate. Hockey blustered and bumbled his way through the interview, appeared outmaneuvered, was at times rambling, and looked foolish throughout. Hockey would be wise to watch his words more carefully, in lieu of shooting off his mouth.

In case you are thinking that I’m focussing only on interviews with Opposition members, let’s not forget the many times PM Gillard, Treasurer Swan, and many other Government ministers have been put under the hammer by Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann on ABC TV, and Jon Faine, Rafael Epstein, Sabra Lane, Samantha Hawley and Alexandra Kirk on radio. There have been so many that we can’t keep count.

What I’m saying is that ABC interviewers can be incisive and insistent; they can dig out the truth and expose disingenuousness. But this is not consistently the case.

As an example of inconsistency, let’s look at interviews by Chris Uhlmann. Recall his impertinent interview of PM Gillard on 9 May that was caustically critiqued by Paul Keating in The Drum Opinion, which because it was published without vetting, evoked an angry rebuttal by Bruce Belsham, Head of ABC Current Affairs, who felt the need to come out in robust defence of “one of this country's best political journalists and interviewers”. Read it here.

Contrast that tough interview with his soft interview of Tony Abbott about the NT intervention where all the questions were easy and facilitatory. Now look at how Uhlmann treated Bob Brown, or should I say assailed him? Uhlmann needs to reflect on his evenhandedness in interviews and not let what appear to be partisan biases influence them.

Balance in the ABC is essential. After all the sprays that Julia Gillard has been given by the likes of Piers Akerman, Michael Stutchbury and Nikki Sava on Insiders, it was a salutary example of balance yesterday to hear Mike Seccombe giving Tony Abbott the biggest spray I have ever heard on that program. Listen to it here.

Another example of balanced discourse is the fora that are conducted regularly on The World Today. Just last Friday, Ashley Hall moderated a discussion between three experts on natural disaster management titled: Debate asks whether Australia can manage natural disasters better. You can read the transcript and listen to it here. Such debates are informative, balanced and absorbing.

This is what we want in our political debates – reliable and verifiable evidence, honestly and completely presented, reasoned argument, logical conclusions, sound advice and comparison of the policy options being offered. Instead, what we usually get is biased rhetoric, flawed and incomplete information, loud argument, talking over each other, and inconclusive outcomes. The regular Lateline Friday ‘debates’ between opposing politicians are a gross example of this. They are intellectually valueless; all they provide is coarse ‘entertainment’ for those with the stomach. They ought to be scrapped and proper debate between experts substituted.

So my proposition is that as the ABC is capable of conducting demanding and balanced interviews of politicians across the political spectrum, although it does not universally do so, and as it is able to provide valid and reliable information and balanced commentary when it chooses, the idea that the ABC might assume a more dominant role becomes compelling as the rest of the media deteriorates.

This idea was captured in The ABC Plays Monopoly by Bernard Lagan on October 24 in The Global Mail the link to which was provided by regular blogger 2353.

It begins: “Australian news consumers are confronting new paywalls all over the place – but it’s all free at the ABC, where the national broadcaster is quietly combining the full force of its television, radio and digital news teams for one hugely ambitious online market grab.

“With Australia’s high-brow newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media, heading for its knees, commercial broadcaster Network Ten about to shed one third of its journalists and the Nine Network now in the hands of unforgiving US hedge funds, who is going to emerge as the titan of influence and reach in the Australian media?

“The likely answer is your ABC.”

Lagan continues: “There is a news revolution going on within Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, likely to reveal itself early next year when the ABC re-launches its unloved digital news arm, seeking the online audience share ABC bosses believe it should command. The organisation has rich resources; some 1,000 people work directly for the ABC’s television, radio and online news – about 20 per cent of the corporation’s employees. And many more will soon be contributing to the ABC’s online news sites, under the corporation’s plan to follow the BBC, CNN and to some extent America’s public radio network NPR, and have its journalists working across multiple platforms.

“Not only do the changes herald renewed efforts by the ABC to garner mass audiences for its online news sites – they come at the worst possible time for Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age broadsheet newspapers. Now the online news competition for Fairfax – and for News Ltd’s The Australian, which moved to a pay-for-access system in October 2011 – will be increasingly from the ABC, as it puts more resources into online news and produces a re-designed more user-friendly website. Unhappily for Fairfax and News Ltd, all of the ABC’s expanded content will continue to be free.”

Lagan continues: ”While the ABC is coy about its ambitions on the ratings tables, its newly appointed head of news content, Gaven Morris, the creator of the ABC’s highly successful around-the-clock TV news channel ABC News 24, wants a visit to ABC online to become a daily habit for news followers. “There is a real opportunity for us [online ABC news] to be much more of a habit for people than we have been,” says Morris in an interview with The Global Mail.”

“Says Kate Torney, the ABC’s director of news: “The ABC has always evolved to meet audience needs, whether it be through the introduction of television or more recently with online. I see enormous opportunities to improve the ABC’s digital news service and to make sure audiences can access their news on devices of their choice.”

“Head of ABC News 24 and News Online Gaven Morris says that aside from the redesign of the ABC’s online news sites, they will also provide more content, and it will be more varied and more rapidly produced…the ABC plans to increase the number of reporters working on stories of national impact, that can be run in all states on radio, television and especially online.

“The ABC will establish…a central production desk, staffed around the clock. It will package national and international stories from both the ABC’s staff and external news agencies for television and radio, and produce text-based stories for the ABC’s online news sites, as well as for social-media sites.”

The article continues: "So has the ABC calculated that early next year – when users can expect the arrival of the Fairfax paywalls – offers the best moment for the public broadcaster to capture the online audience and lure it away from Fairfax online? While Fairfax, thus far, has been relatively subdued in its response to the ABC’s expansion into further online territory, News Ltd’s Australian CEO Kim Williams – once an ABC executive himself – has not held back." He expressed the same aggressive antagonism to the ABC as did Rupert and James Murdoch towards the BBC!

Citing the changed habits of Australians whereby 23 per cent of Australians now name online as their main source of news, and 88 per cent of all Australian Internet users access news online, and more than half of Australian smart phone users regularly use their phone to stay informed of news updates, the ABC believes it is merely following its audience online and maintains that ‘its overriding obligation is to provide news, information and entertainment to all Australians’.

This absorbing article concludes: "ABC executives say the broadcaster’s experience with the two-year-old rolling news channel ABC24 has exposed to it a much pacier news culture – ideal for online. The digital television channel changed the ABC's slow-moving schedule with an energy they now aim to translate to online…" We wish them every success.

So there it is. As the commercial media wilt, as they carry out their role as political commentators less and less professionally, it seems an ideal time for our ABC to set a new standard for political reporting, to show how it should be done, to do it in a balanced way, to take the initiative.

This would elevate political commentary to its proper level, would furnish the electorate with a reliable source of information and guidance, and at the same time might resuscitate the seemingly moribund commercial media, might energize it to begin reporting politics as it always should have done.

What to you think?