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Richard Alston's complaints against the ABC can never be resolved

By N E Hanratty - posted Thursday, 16 October 2003

Richard Alston is right to be dissatisfied with some of the ABC reporting but he gets the reasons wrong, or at least partly wrong. He contends generally that the reporting on the AM program during the Iraq war demonstrated an anti-US or anti-Coalition bias (a double entendre if ever there was one). He argues that this bias was conveyed by features such as: (1) the overall tone of the presenter and/or reporter (e.g., John Shovelan's "dripping sarcasm", Linda Mottram's "remorseless negativism"), (2) selective discussion of events (e.g., minimal coverage of Australian troops, interrogating US "propaganda" with gusto while taking Iraqi propaganda at "face value"), (3) the use of charged or "emotional" language (e.g., Linda Mottram's use of the word "invasion"), and (4) the practice of editorialising (e.g., John Shovelan's characterisation of George Bush as feeling "sensitive" to launching a campaign in such a "heavily populated" area).

All of these complaints may be upheld or not. Indeed, last Friday, the Independent Complaints Review Panel (pdf, 411Kb) upheld 17 of the original 68 and I have sympathy with many of them. However, the issue is much broader than both the question of political bias and the minute adjudication of words and nuances. It turns on three things: (1) declining standards of rigour and care in the media generally; (2) the degree to which any news or current affairs program is, or can be, a "journal of record"; and (3) the fact it is part of a philosophical problem of immense provenance: i.e., the problem of representation.

Back in June, Gerald Stone, former executive producer of 60 Minutes, in an inelegant article for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, argued that Mr Alston was right to be upset about the ABC coverage of the war but not because it was biased (though he didn't discount this) but rather, "plain bad journalism". And this is my view as well. The problem is a declining lack of rigour and care in journalism, which, among other things, can end up looking like bias. As such, the question of bias is one of effect rather than cause.


Not surprisingly, it's easier to see the point when one considers ABC coverage in normal times rather than wartime. Take, for example, the ABC radio news report just this last Sunday evening about the death of Dr Jim Cairns. The reporter, after noting the key point of his passing, then went on, inevitably, to raise the issue of his affair with Junie Morosi. The reporter commented that Dr Cairns had "fessed up" - I kid you not - to the affair last year. The use of the vernacular in this context, and a particularly jocular instance of it at that, would surely have had even the most devoted Friend of the ABC squirming in their seats.

Similarly, back in April, a few weeks before Mr Alston lodged his complaints, I too complained to the ABC about the AM program. I complained that Linda Mottram used the word "losers" to describe the people who did not have their claims honoured as a result of the collapse of HIH. This was only more piquant because it came immediately after a discussion on Radio National in which Peter Thompson interviewed the sociologist, Richard Sennett and the author, Tariq Ali about society's division of people into "winners" and "losers" and how the use of the terms sanctions contempt towards the latter. In both of these cases, the chief offence is one of inappropriateness, or, to use an old-fashioned concept, one of taste. It is not one of bias, though tellingly, even in these small cases, one could argue that bias results.

The point is that there are many different types of unsatisfactory reporting and those you seize on will say as much about your own predilections as the ABC's. Nevertheless, I argue that all such unsatisfactory reporting, including inappropriateness and apparent political bias, arise in least in part because journalists and editors do not seem to have either the time, regard, or even perhaps the knowledge (for example, in the case of junior staff with as yet limited experience) to pre-empt mistakes. David Burgess, the executive producer of the AM program, when rebutting in Gerald Stone's article, seems to allude to the time pressure himself. He notes, "During the course of the war, AM broadcast more than 80 programs and nearly 500 stories. Stone's criticisms [...] seem to be based on taking Alston's criticisms at face value, rather than on a study of the transcripts and an analysis of the entire AM output."

There are at least two ways to read this (which is only fitting of course). Burgess may be suggesting that unless Stone has waded through the transcript of every program, he is not qualified to comment. If that's what he's suggesting, this seems beside the point. Alternatively, he may be implying that given the pressure to produce such a high number of programs, some mistakes will naturally arise and therefore one needs to consider the overall effort. And this seems to me to be the real issue: that the drive to quantity inevitably reduces quality.

A second issue raised by Mr Alston's complaints is one of expectation. Implicit in his complaints is the notion that there is an "objective" truth and it is the brief of the AM program to capture it. Leaving aside the issue of objective truth, Mr Alston seems to be implying that the AM program should represent what used to be called a "journal of record". A journal of record was supposed to report only "facts" and as I understand it, like the idea of a copyright library (such as the British Library) which contains a copy of every book published, it also aspired to cover everything. It had, in short, presumptions of exhaustiveness. Of course, both concepts - facts and exhaustiveness - are polite fictions, and with access to countless stories through the internet and other technologies, become only more fictional as each day passes. Yet the concept lingers on.

Indeed, both the initial review of the complaints by the ABC's Complaints Review Executive, and the second review by the Independent Complaints Review Panel, make much of it. They insist on the distinction between "straight or spot news reporting" and "programs of analysis and interpretation" (i.e., the distinction between news and current affairs). They suggest that Mr Alston's expectations of the AM program were of news, when they should have been of current affairs. Yet both review bodies leave intact the chief fiction: that even the "straightest" news is still, as it were, crooked, still, as it were, skewed.


Which brings me to the third issue arising from Mr Alston's complaints. To view the content of any program from the limited vantage point of political bias is to ignore the fact that the problem of bias, of spin, of propaganda, of inappropriateness, is part of one of the most vexed "problems" in the philosophical canon - i.e., the problem of representation - and as such it's not going away in a hurry. Not only is it not going away in a hurry, but to look at just this aspect or that aspect is rather like trying to see an elephant with a magnifying glass.

The problem of representation - literally, re-presentation - concerns the relation between what's called "originary" experience (e.g., the event covered in the news), and its re-presentation either to ourselves or to others or to the world. As a problem, it's been around since at least Plato's time (indeed, many of the philosophers who despise Plato hold that it's all his fault). But it's probably fair to say that in the 20th century, with the work of many of the French and German philosophers (most notably, Jacques Derrida), it came to be seen as the problem.

In Derrida's terms, before speech, before thought, there is writing; i.e., writing in his special sense of the word, meaning something like "construction". That is, before something is said, before something is thought, it is "always already" written, always already inscribed, always already skewed. The slate, in short, is never blank. To put it another way, there is no originary or objective experience, no "facts" as it were, outside or before language. All is pre-written: by culture, by gender, by race, by memory, by any and every bias you care to name.

Thus, while to complain about bias in ABC reporting is both necessary and legitimate, we will never ultimately fix or prevent the problem because all is bias. Bias, in fact, is us.

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About the Author

N. E. Hanratty has recently completed a thesis with Monash University on the topic of ontology, the branch of philosophy concerned with what it means for something to be. In the world we take to be real, she is also Managing Director of the consultancy, Plain English Publications Pty Ltd.

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