Accusations of bias and groupthink at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are not new.
What is new is the intensity and ferocity of the attacks being mounted in the national broadsheet.
The Weekend Australian‘s double-barrel blast across the bows of the ABC is a good example. That it was followed up with an editorial is either overkill or hubris.
All this from a news organisation that in 2003 successfully resisted groupthink in its line on the Iraq invasion. Only 175 of Murdoch’s newspapers world-wide backed the invasion editorially. It would be churlish to mention that this was 100 per cent of his mastheads at the time.
The latest complaint about the ABC also throws into stark relief the lack of self-reflection within the national broadsheet.
The Australian has been at war with the ABC for many years and a quick search of the paper’s own database shows a remarkable tendency to launch broadsides at the ABC and its staff for perceived bias or alleged breaches of some unwritten code of balance.
(I’m not talking about breaches of the ABC’s editorial guidelines which are rare; but an unwritten code set by The Australian in a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”.)
A more cynical person might wonder if this is not just a little bit pots calling kettles.
“Oho!’ said the pot to the kettle; “You are dirty and ugly and black! Sure no one would think you were metal, Except when you’re given a crack.”
“Not so! not so! kettle said to the pot; “‘Tis your own dirty image you see; For I am so clean -without blemish or blot- That your blackness is mirrored in me” [Wikipedia]
At the moment the fixation of the national broadsheet is focused on the Media Watch program and the ABC’s coverage of climate change.
Accusations of misreporting (deliberate or otherwise) have been flying between the two for weeks now and frankly, despite my intense interest, I find it hard to pick a winner.
It has become a “he said, she said” war of words that has seen both sides try to overwhelm their opponent with tactics of attrition and endless arcane paper trails involving emails, an exchange of unanswered questions and perhaps deliberate distortion of timelines and events.
At a more general level, it seems to me, the issue is really one of who do you believe.
It is often said, with some justification, that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Sports nuts are often “one-eyed” about their team and every small mistake by a referee or umpire is regarded as a deliberate favour to the other team. Most of us are not that fanatical about sport, or for that matter politics. So why then does The Australian appear to have a fanatical fetish for accusing the ABC of bias and groupthink?
There are two reasons: one is what I would call politico-ideological and the other is just straight out economics.
Economic self-interest is not justification
The economic issue is easily dealt with and both Rupert and James Murdoch are on the record about this, which means that News Limited might find it difficult to refute.
The News Corporation empire spans the globe and it operates in two significant markets that have tax-payer funded national broadcasters. In the UK it is the BBC and it’s the ABC in Australia.
In 2009 James Murdoch said that the BBC’s “state-sponsored journalism” was undercutting the market position of private media companies such as News International. There have been similar arguments made here, including that the ABC should be privatised.
So we can dismiss this type of criticism as self-interest. The Murdochs are great believers in private enterprise and competition, but not, it seems, when it affects their company’s bottom line.
It is slightly hypocritical of News Limited to criticise the ABC on the grounds of unfair competition; after all, the Murdoch presses control a vast chunk of the Australian media market. News disputes the figure of 70 percent, but it is never-the-less a significant share. It might be hypocritical, but that doesn’t stop Murdoch’s staff, with guidance from the top, from consistently attacking the national broadcaster.
One of the consistent themes in attacks is that the ABC is a waste of taxpayer money.
“Why should we all pay for a broadcasting service that is really only for elites?” is the line trotted out time and time again in The Australian. This ignores the national and public interest argument that is at the core of public service broadcasting. It also ignores the elite status of the broadsheet’s own roster of commentators.
In fact, in a May 2012 editorial defending itself and Rupert from critics, The Australian seemed oblivious to this point.
In Australia, where critics complain about the News Limited share of the newspaper market, we are left to ponder the landscape without it – perhaps Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart would have no daily paper or Melbourne and Sydney would lament the dominance of a Fairfax press that seems introverted and oblivious to the interests of readers who live more than 10km from the CBD. And this newspaper – a pet Murdoch project devoted to serious debate of national affairs – would simply not exist.
It is the second part of my rhetorical question that is at the heart of the dispute between The Australian and the ABC; though I must add it is a one-sided dispute. Apart from legitimate interest from Media Watch, the ABC’s many journalists and program makers do not seem obsessed with the Murdoch empire.
I was able to find one Background Briefing episode (October 2010) that dealt with Murdoch at all. (No doubt there will be more once the Leveson inquiry is concluded and so there should be; criminal corruption in the heart of the Fourth Estate is of immense public interest)
Leftist and elitist – contradictions not apparent
The Australian‘s army of columnists and critics, who write about the national broadcaster, is overwhelmingly of the view that the ABC displays a form of corporate bias that is “Leftist” and “elitist” at the same time.
The News Limited discourse – used constantly without a shred of introspection – is that as a media company it alone is on the side of ordinary Australians. All of the News Limited titles are there to represent the mums and dads who inhabit the mythical land of “middle Australia”.
The enemies of these naive but trusting souls – according to the the News mantra – are the elites who have a “Left” or liberal political agenda, usually associated with the nanny state, socialistic ideas (never explained, always an insult), “do-gooders” and those who wish to deny freedom of choice, freedom of expression and just plain every day freedom.
A serial offender in this regard is the imported columnist Brendan O’Neill. His most egregious offering in this genre was a November 2011 piece defending the rights of tobacco companies against plain packaging legislation on the grounds it infringed their freedom of speech.
O’Neill claims to speak for ordinary Australians, which must be hard to do living the high life in London. He is the editor of an online magazine, Spiked, and is often touted in the Murdoch press as being something of a lefty himself. He is in fact an extreme right-wing libertarian; a political position close to that of Rupert Murdoch. He is also an “anti-warmist” in the climate science wars (another position close to the Chairman’s own thinking).
In another prominent column for The Australian, O’Neill defends the poker machine industry by attacking its opponents as the “cultural elite” who look down on ordinary people with “nasty snobbish moralism”. A familiar theme emerges:
Indeed, if anything, the modern-day leftish wars on smoking, boozing and gambling are worse than the antics of the prohibitionists and anti-gamblers of the 19th century.
Arrant nonsense, yet O’Neill continues to write in this vein with predictable monotony and a surprising level of vitriol. In fact, one could suggest his tone is “nasty snobbish moralism”.
In a column dismissing the Leveson inquiry as “PC Vichy“, O’Neill sneers at the “liberal elite” who make up the “cliquish opinion-forming classes” and contrasts them with “normal human beings” who vote in Britain.
In another it is “liberal snobs” and in another it is “left-wingers” who are “bin Laden pitiers”. Assertions and smear designed to create a sense of outrage; unfortunately none of it is supported by evidence, just rhetoric.
This is a libertarian fairytale; it is not journalism.
However, it does reflect the political direction set by Rupert Murdoch and adhered to by all of his senior lieutenants around the world. It is perhaps best exemplified by Fox News where it is rabidly enforced; but it is in in evidence everywhere, including throughout News Limited in Australia.
If you work for the ABC, you must be a secret sympathiser
The News argument argument against the national broadcaster can be summarised as follows:
The ABC is a nest of radicals bent on bending the minds of Australians to its left-liberal views on climate change, refugees, or whatever the hot topic of the day might be. Further, the rhetoric goes, the ABC is pro-Labor and hates the coalition. Therefore it downplays anything positive about Tony Abbott and the Opposition and ignores negative news about the Government.
Ipso facto, anyone who works for the ABC must conform to the stereotype of a liberal-lefty as endlessly caricatured by Brendan O’Neill and others on the News rosters.
This charge is proved, say The Australian‘s columnists and the fellow-travellers, because programs like Q&A, Lateline and The Insiders favour left-leaning panelists over conservatives.
It is actually quite easy to empirically disprove this charge. The regular presence of coalition members Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Chris Pyne on Q&A, alongside senior figures from the Institute of Public Affairs; and a bevy of News Limited journalists, alongside Gerard Henderson, on the Insiders‘ couch should satisfy most. But this is not enough balance for the ABC’s harshest critics – most of whom get acres of space in The Australian to put their case.
And I would defy anyone to prove that the ABC’s agenda in its daily news programs is vastly different to that offered on the commercial networks. Perhaps there’s more fluff and ambulance chasing on Seven, Nine and Ten, but on the big stories of the day and international news the differences are minute. Often the same bought-in overseas footage will be used; the angle and the tone of the coverage is pretty consistent across all the networks.
All of the mainstream media, SBS and ABC included, suffer from the “bias of convenience” syndrome. The low-hanging fruit, the easy story and the one with the most blood or guts will get their attention every time.
Actually, there is remarkably little evidence to prove the point that the ABC has a leftist bias. Over the past decade there has really only been a handful of instances where any form of bias has been proved and even these are dubious.
The most significant is perhaps the frontal assault against the ABC over its coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq launched (on behalf of the pro-Israel lobby) by the Howard government communications minister, Richard Alston.
Out of the 60-plus accusations leveled against the ABC only 20 minor infractions were found to be proven; and this was after an exhaustive series of internal and external inquiries. Alston’s attack was politically-motivated and linked to threats that the ABC would lose funding. So it is today, with the constant shells lobbed over the ABC’s Ultimo ramparts by conservative critics, including those writing for The Australian.
Groupthink? Look in the mirror first
In the recent fusillade of criticism the ABC has been accused of “groupthink” by The Australian. This rather Orwellian-sounding portmanteau has found its way into The Australian‘s discourse about the ABC over recent months. It was first used about the ABC by the corporation’s then chairman, Maurice Newman in a 2010 speech to ABC staff.
Newman is an avowed conservative appointed to the ABC board by the Howard government in 2007 for a recently expired five-year term at the same time as the board was stacked with like-minded supporters of the coalition. Newman’s comments were widely reported at the time and applauded by The Australian in an editorial.
In an echo of the current accusations, Newman used the “groupthink” charge as a shot across the bows and to convey his displeasure at the ABC’s coverage of climate change. But, again like now, Newman himself was not neutral on this issue. He was what we politely call a “sceptic”, or what is more accurately someone who opposes the idea of human causes of climate change. This is overwhelmingly the view put in The Australian today.
It is the same dynamic that informs The Australian‘s continuing attacks on the ABC. In The Weekend Australian (26 May), Chris Kenny gives a detailed definition of what “groupthink” has come to mean within News Limited.
When a collection of like-minded people engages in a common pursuit for extended periods, a form of consensus can take hold. If it leads to a form of self-censorship, then it acts against instincts for questioning or dissent, and this is at odds with an open-minded sense of inquiry fundamental to journalism.
That may be so, it is not a bad start, but it does not just describe an ABC mindset. Organisational cultures tend to favour groupthink.
The Australian‘s Chris Kenny dismisses the paper’s own groupthink on the grounds that News Limited is a private company. This mindset can be described in another of Orwell’s neologisms “doublethink” – simultaneous denial and acceptance of an unpalatable truth about oneself.
The national broadsheet’s reporters and editor-in-chief refuse to hold up a mirror to their own actions and ideas.There is a great sense of self-belief among the favoured senior reporters at The Australian and it is fostered from the top by editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. It is he who sets the tone and according to the famous profile of Mitchell in The Monthly, he takes no prisoners in his approach to getting his own way.
Chris Mitchell once told a colleague, “You have to understand – this is a dictatorship and I am the dictator.”
“There is no doubt on the Australian who runs the place,” says [Deputy Editor Michelle] Gunn. “Chris is a very strong editor-in-chief and a very strong leader. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
“It is Chris’s newspaper,” agrees editor Clive Mathieson, who took the role in April  when Paul Whittaker moved to the Daily Telegraph. “Chris quite clearly sets the direction of the paper. There’s very little ambiguity in what he expects. A suggestion from Chris is not really a suggestion, a suggestion from Chris is really an instruction.”
Groupthink is alive and well inside News Limited.