Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A 'balanced' ABC, or a better ABC?

ABC logoNot many people are happy with our ABC at the moment. ALP supporters think Aunty is leaning to the right and giving Tony Abbott an easy ride. Conservative commentators continue to, as they always will, bang on about the national broadcaster being a mouthpiece of the left.

Mark Scott probably feels comfortable that the criticism from both sides places them nicely in the middle; that it's an indicator of a job well done. Well it's not.

Some of the concerns are valid but many of the party-political calling for a "fairer", "more balanced" ABC seem more interested in seeing their political team get a better run than promoting quality independent journalism.

I'm not sure why this feels like a radical notion, but I'd rather see the ABC forget the left-right divide altogether if they're going to be properly able to report without fear or favour.

Doesn't forcing the national broadcaster to operate in the middle of that one-dimensional spectrum - rather than above it - just restrict independence and the ability to pursue the public interest? Is measuring the coverage of left and right, Coalition vs ALP (and partners) really a meaningful indicator of quality journalism? It's important to be unbiased, but that's not necessarily the same as balanced.

It's like judging the performance of AFL umpires based on the free kick count at the end of a match - it completely ignores the quality and discipline of the competing teams, and (most importantly) the umpires themselves. Unbiased isn't necessarily the same as balanced.

The ABC is meant to provide balance to the media landscape as an alternative to the commercial media, not by walking a careful, inoffensive and tedious line down the middle of politics. Ok, the Charter may disagree with me there, and "the public interest" is probably a little too subjective to measure and report on. *Sigh*.

The role of a public broadcaster is to present a diverse and thoughtful voice that speaks to the public interest rather than the ratings figures. That's why they shouldn’t be afraid to broadcast a documentary like shouldn't be afraid to broadcast an important, insightful documentary like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, for fear of the appearance of bias. Especially given the current discourse on asylum seekers, which is why a commercial station wouldn't touch it.

In politics, they should be asking policy questions and applying pressure where others will not and fleshing out the issues, informing and challenging us - those of us who wish to be informed and challenged anyway. Not everybody wants to engage politically, and that is totally fine. But they have to vote, so some independent analysis is pretty vital, and the ABC goes to extremes to ensure fair coverage during an election - the one time I'd probably agree with the onerous task.

Perhaps being driven by public interest rather than profit is inherently "progressive". So be it (yes, it suits me - maybe I'm biased too, only human). That doesn't preclude critical analysis of all sides of politics and presentation of a diverse range of views, most importantly views that contribute substance and/or don't get their voice heard in the mainstream media.

Even if that's the case, the cranky conservatives have enough profit-driven media outlets, with a lot more influence, to play with. We need Aunty. We all need her. As much as they may be loathe to admit it, their taxes provide vital diversity and accountability - you need only spend 15 minutes a week watching the ABC's MediaWatch to see how pathetic profit-driven media can be and why a strong ABC is so important. How often does a story on a program like Four Corners end up sparking discussion across the media the following day? (Rhetorical - quite often)

Should they report both sides of the climate change debate equally? Of course not, no one expects tobacco companies to get a right of reply every time cigarettes are discussed. But it should be reported and questioned objectively, with the facts.

But yes, I agree the Aunty's political coverage hasn't been the best of late.

Mr Abbott's gotten away with a lot of BS for much of the last two years, while Prime Minister Gillard has copped excessive criticism - from the ABC and mainstream media. But it's not bias, it's lazy, pack journalism combined with an undisciplined government who don't communicate well. Abbott's deficiencies are mostly policy (or lack of) based, whereas Gillard has faced a stream of scandals and chaos, too often caused by mischievous colleagues. Going after Gillard has offered a better story for attracting and entertaining the audience.

The criticism of the ABC shouldn't be "Hey, attack their guy!", it should be "You're meant to be better than this!"

The tide actually seems to be starting to turn on Abbott now, with the introduction of the Carbon Tax providing a background of reality to scrutinise him against, and allowing for broader critique of a few dodgy (sometimes harmful) lines. With the polls turning slowly on him too, it will probably continue. But a government will - and should - always receive a little more scrutiny than the opposition throughout it's term.

However, it's not about left and right. It doesn't matter how many ABC journalists have joined either major political party. Why should Insiders feel the need to give up a seat to rambling and stubborn people like Piers Ackerman and Gerard Henderson to balance the thoughtfulness of George Megalogenis and Annabelle Crabb? I know there's a lot of complain about the extent of Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) presence, but at least some of the IPA representatives listen and engage in productive discussion.
We (I'm talking on your behalf, you're welcome) just want some real policy discussion, without so many polls and unfounded leadership speculation!

I still love you Aunty - we're very lucky to have you - but you aren't without fault. Just don't listen to the shouters.

Declaration: I begrudgingly accept the label "progressive", provided it is preceded by "open-minded". I do not pledge support to any party and think the left-right spectrum is dumb.

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