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Greatest challenge for ABC is reform

04, February 2014

Much has been written recently regarding ABC coverage of current affairs with what is perceived by many to be biased or unbalanced reporting particularly of political issues. These concerns are heightened when one examines reporting on the environment, especially climate change.

The ABC does provide a differing perspective from most commercial media, the diversity of which should be welcome, provided that perspective is presented in a balanced and genuinely informative manner.

However, continuing failure to address systemic weaknesses exacerbates diminishing public support from taxpayers, bemused and despairing of management that gives the appearance of being intimidated by staff and an organisational culture.

Some commentators have even called for the privatisation of the ABC, which would be a retrograde step as the ABC occupies a unique position that should be driven primarily by public interest.

What is required is strong reform, starting with the board and management. The limp response so far to widespread ongoing public angst suggests those charged with guiding and directing the ABC are not willing to grasp the nettle.

The perception of the political values of ABC staff and "groupthink" attitudes as expounded by former chairman Maurice Newman are reinforced by a 2013 University of the Sunshine Coast survey of a cross section of Australian journalists, which found that 41 per cent of ABC journalists who stated a voting intention said they would vote for the Greens party. Clearly these values, while no doubt enthusiastically held, are grossly overrepresented in the ABC compared to the general community. With the added knowledge that the majority of staff inhabits the inner city studios of Ultimo and Southbank it is not drawing a long bow to suggest that the dominant staff grouping is of a particular societal sub-set with a particular world-view.

By comparison 46.5 per cent of News Ltd journalists surveyed stated they would vote Labor, 26.7 per cent for the Coalition and 19.8 per cent for the Greens. This is still not truly representative, but much closer to general community political values.

In politics and media the perception is the reality and the perception is that much of the ABC climate change coverage is influenced by a green left perspective. As Paul Keating once remarked the electorate is conservative. It is the electorate that funds the ABC for which they have no direct say, but they vote with their feet with the national broadcaster gaining only a minor share of the national radio and television audience.

Is it just possible that a largely conservative leaning electorate is looking for a more balanced presentation of important issues?

Former vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra Don Aitkin in a 2012 article recounted the climate paper authored by Dr Joelle Gergis and Professor David Karoly which claimed that recent temperatures in Australia were the hottest for 1000 years, with the implication being this was due to anthropogenic influences. The paper's release received very extensive ABC coverage until its withdrawal in disgrace because of egregious errors exposed by prominent Canadian sceptic Steve McIntyre. Apart from a small online correction, the ABC made no attempt to inform their audience of the paper's flaws when these quickly became obvious, despite the broad coverage given to the paper by the ABC on its release.

Last October the7.30 Report focused on the effect of climate change and the Sydney area bushfires. The program featured multiple comments from four high profile climate alarmists who left no doubt in the mind of the audience there was a 'proven link' between climate change and bushfires. In attempting balance, the environment minister Greg Hunt was allowed just 45 words of dissent during the entire segment. For information on such a highly contentious topic to be presented in such an unbalanced manner does not serve well the integrity of the ABC or the public interest.

By far the most damaging exposé of fraudulent manipulation of climate data and process – the Climategate emails – was very widely reported around the world in the lead-up to the 2009 Copenhagen conference severely damaging the integrity of leading IPCC scientists involved. After initially ignoring the media frenzy, the ABC reluctantly began reporting on the issue three weeks after the rest of the world media. The lack of enthusiasm to report the issue was perceived as reticence on the part of the ABC to challenge the so-called climate consensus.

Space does not permit recounting the many other instances of unbalanced and misleading reports on forestry, fishing and irrigated agriculture that clash with the ABC editorial policies.

Part of this often ignored policy states "Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC." Indeed. The policy statement is first class; the adherence to it is third class.

Having been the subject of a Media Watch segment I might perhaps be entitled to a jaundiced view of the ABC, however the ABC is my favoured media platform, with Q&A, despite some flaws my pick of the most entertaining television in Australia.

What grieves me with the ABC is that its potential for much broader appeal is undermined by its unwillingness to adhere with the spirit of its own editorial policies.

Max Rheese is executive director of the Australian Environment Foundation

Published in OnLine Opinion

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