The only tenable answer is ‘sometimes’. This Sunday’s Insiders was balanced, many other editions, not. I expect most political tragics take a look at this programme on ABC TV each week. In recent times there have been complaints on this blog site and elsewhere about the lack of balance in the comments of the panel. Some lament that the programme has become so tabloid that they no longer bother viewing it. This short piece canvasses the issue of balance and seeks feedback from visitors.
By balance, let’s agree that in a political context it means giving all sides of a debate and all parties to the debate comparable opportunities to express a view so that the viewing audience has before it sufficient information and opinion for it to reach a considered judgement, a conclusion.
The approach to ‘balance’ by news and current affairs programs seems to take several forms that differ not so much by degree, as they do by underlying philosophy.
Some outlets seem to believe that you achieve balance by having roughly equal representation of conflicting views. To give an example, if the debate is about climate change, they believe in the quantitative approach - that having equal numbers of climate change believers and deniers or sceptics, and giving then equal time, will result in balance. But if there is no qualitative assessment of the credentials of the opponents, or the scientific plausibility of their arguments, balance will likely not be achieved. If soundly advanced scientific facts and arguments are pitted against questionable facts and faulty reasoning, there will be no balance if both are given equal credence; in science some opinions are simply not worth as much as others. Yet we have seen them given equal weight time and again. This is especially dangerous when the audience does not have the scientific background to differentiate between fact and falsehood.
In the context of Insiders having panellists with diametrically opposed views does not produce balance. To begin with there is no Labor-leaning, anti-Coalition journalist that could match the Coalition-leaning anti-Government bearing of, for example, Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne. Even David Marr, who might be seen as pro-Labor, cannot and never does match the ferocity of Akerman’s and Bolt’s anti-Labor attacks. Marr can be as critical of the Government as of the Coalition. I have heard Akerman only once agree with Kevin Rudd, and that was when he condemned Bill Henson’s photos of adolescent girls. Otherwise, according to Akerman everything Rudd has done is bad or incompetent, going right back to the 20 year old Heiner affair in Queensland that he is still trying to pin on Rudd. Bolt is able occasionally to utter words that are not anti-Rudd, but that is uncommon. Milne is more subtle, but he takes frequent sneering sideswipes at Rudd and his Government. There is no way that these partisan advocates can be balanced by anyone on the opposite side – they don’t exist among the journalists on the Insiders’ panel. Even if they could be found, what sort of debate would result? Would viewers want from both sides the ranting that appears day after day in Akerman’s and Bolt’s columns replicated during their appearances on Insiders? The simple fact is that whoever else appears with them, when Ackerman and Co are on the Insiders panel, balance is not possible.
I have several times emailed the benign host of Insiders, Barrie Cassidy, about the inclusion of these three, but the response is always that their presence is to achieve balance. It seems not to be apparent to Cassidy that their very presence precludes balance.
Balance may be possible when the panel comprises journalists from the various sides of the political spectrum but only if they are capable of acknowledging the validity of positions on the several sides to the debate. Gerard Henderson is an example of a conservative columnist who can take a positive view of non-conservative positions, and offer balanced views on a variety of topics. So panellists from one side of the political spectrum can be balanced although selecting such people runs the risk of imbalance.
The best balance seems to result from selecting panellists who have no obvious political leanings and can make comments that are for or against the Government, and for or against the Coalition or the Greens or the Independents, with equal facility and feeling.
We came close to balance in early March when Chris Uhlmann was the moderator and the panel comprised Laura Tingle, Brain Toohey and Phillip Coorey. While Brian Toohey seems often to be anti-Government in his views, he can and does offer pro-Government opinions. The other two seemed to be neutral. We saw balance at its best last Sunday when Misha Schubert, Phillip Coorey and Lenore Taylor were panellists. They all seemed to be neutral in their views and balanced in their comments. It was a delight to watch this episode of Insiders. Whether or not one agreed with the views expressed, it was gratifying to observe a balanced debate.
In my view, if Insiders wishes to retain its viewing audience and enhance its credibility as a current affairs programme that give viewers a balanced appraisal of the political landscape, party policies, projects and programmes, political manoeuvres, politicians and their actions, the views of the people, opinion polling, and possible election outcomes, it is essential that the moderator select panellists who are capable of giving a balanced opinion, preferably those with no apparent political leaning, and rigorously exclude those incapable of taking a balanced view, particularly if they are overflowing with venom towards one party.
What do you think?