There can be little doubt that things have improved at the ABC since the appointment of Mark Scott as Managing Director and the appointment of Maurice Newman as Chairman. A new broom has swept aside some of the egregiously obvious problems of bias and a more professional approach has supervened.
There have been new programs that increase debate, including the ill-fated, experimental Difference of Opinion to be replaced with a new Q and A program, based on the lively and controversial BBC Question Time. Media Watch is not as politically partisan to one side of politics. Paul Chadwick has been appointed as Director of Editorial Policies to try and ensure that the ABC fulfils its statutory obligations under the ABC Act to be accurate and impartial. In terms of balance and fairmindedness, Middle East correspondents Matt Brown and David Hardacre are marked improvements from the days of Tim Palmer and Peter Cave.
For anybody who believes that the taxpayer funded broadcaster needs to be impartial and accurate, balanced and fair, this is all to the good.
The two major issues for the ABC are those of bias and genuine diversity. The culture of the ABC is clearly left of centre. Bias has not been so much party political as cultural. It is often not deliberate but bespeaks taken-for-granted assumptions, mind-sets that are far from the concerns of the mainstream Australia that pays for the ABC and which in return the ABC is supposed to serve and be fair to in its range and content.
It is not the job of the taxpayer funded national broadcaster to act as a counterweight to other media or mainstream ideologies perceived to be too right wing by a staff whose centre of gravity is way to the left.
Why is it that the only intentionally liberal/conservative program on Radio National is titled Counterpoint? It is a counterpoint to a way of thinking that dominates the culture of the ABC in the taken-for-granted assumptions of the mentalities of the “people-like-us” who broadcast to other “people-like-us”. I think these recent observations by British journalist Nick Cohen about how things have changed in British cultural institutions is relevant to the ABC:
A contact at the BBC says that when the workers were the repository of radical liberal hopes in the Sixties, his predecessors encouraged working-class writers and directors. Now women and members of ethnic minorities have unparalleled opportunities, and that is a welcome advance, but the beneficiaries of the new order are always from the upper middle class. In the name of diversity, everyone is the same.
High cultural institutions that once dreamt of a proletarian uprising now treat the white working class as racists or squares. As Michael Collins, a rare modern example of a working-class intellectual, put it in The Likes of Us: “The vision of a multi-cultural Utopia needed its common enemy, and it was increasingly the tribe that played a major role in previous Utopian fantasies.” (The Observer, March 21, 2008.)
This noticeably homogenous class of inner city, tertiary educated social professionals, often referred to as the “chattering classes”, has an identity that developed together with mass tertiary education. While the old left emphasised economic reforms to help the working class, the new class focused on issues such as refugees, multiculturalism, reconciliation, civil liberties, and so on.
This new class of social professionals includes teachers, academics, public servants and welfare workers who adopt distinct ideological positions and values that serve as social markers for the new class. The “knowledge-class”, which includes ABC journalists, is an important segment within the new educated class who have more distinct values that increasingly set them apart from business and the general community.
I mention this not because I think that the ABC has no diversity at all, but because it’s a trend embedded within the institutional culture that will take a “long march” to reverse, this time in the opposite direction towards the centre. It’s a march that has begun from the top but needs to infuse its way to the bottom.
A recent Four Corners program, “Dangerous Ground”, broadcast on March 10, 2008, illustrates some of these issues. The program began with problems about setting up an Islamic school in Camden. Those against a Muslim school being set up are described in primarily racist terms. In the next suburb, according to the blurb, “Aussie-born sons of the Middle East bitterly complain of being treated like enemies in their own country. Now some community leaders”, the program blurb continues, “are warning of a nasty backlash due to the hostility that young men like these feel is aimed against them”.
The program is concerned that “counter-terrorism and security could actually be increasing the threat of breeding home grown terrorists. Erring on the side of aggression - just to be on the "safe" side - can radicalise and alienate the people who are targeted, analysts tell Four Corners."
This article is based on a speech given at The Sydney Institute on April 1, 2008.
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