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Winter 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Editorial Comment

Is the A.B.C. Any Longer Necessary?

The reporting by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on the recent war in Iraq has raised again serious accusations of bias. There has been a perception that A.B.C. presenters and supporters evidenced a strong prejudice against Coalition forces, and attempted to exaggerate any apparent Coalition reverses and set-backs and to create an anti-Coalition attitude amongst listeners and viewers. As usual, the A.B.C. itself and its supporters in the political Left have denied charges of bias.

It may hardly be denied that the A.B.C. has had an unfortunate history in recent years. Charges of bias have been brought again and again, only to be rejected by the very people against whom the charges are directed.

The A.B.C. is publicly funded and must be politically neutral. One would expect in such a large organisation that employees would be from a reasonable range of backgrounds and political views. On this basis, and in the case of a balanced and conscientious body, it would not be relevant that individual employees favoured one political party or another.

But in fact the composition of the A.B.C. does not follow a normal pattern. On the contrary, staff members are almost exclusively Labor Party supporters, and the few dissenting Liberal Party supporters are marginalised, denied senior positions and where possible frozen out so as to feel obliged to resign. In addition, the personal standards of employees are generally lower on average than the personal standards of the wider community. So for example the proportion of homosexuals and lesbians and divorced persons is inexplicably high. Again, there would be no objection to employing such people if the proportions in question mirrored general proportions in the community, but the surprisingly high levels in question justify the perception that the A.B.C. is not only politically biased but also to a significant degree affected by a species of decadence.

In view of entrenched and organised staff, the A.B.C. Board has shown itself to be incapable of correcting this position. Some hope was felt that the appointments of Mr. Donald McDonald as chairman and of Mr. Jonathon Shier as managing director would lead to greater balance. But the appointment of Mr. McDonald has been regarded as very unsuccessful, with the perception that he has been captured by militant staff. When Mr. Shier attempted to overcome some of the Corporation's deficiencies, he was carefully targeted by an organised group of staff, and finally he departed. There is the perception that Mr. McDonald did not give appropriate support to Mr. Shier and that Mr. McDonald assisted elements in the A.B.C. staff who saw Mr. Shier as a threat to their control and wished him to be removed.

The pervasiveness and degree of organisation of Left control of the A.B.C. presents a major difficulty for reform. Whenever criticisms are made, however clearly justified, there is a process of stone-walling by staff who are in fact supporters of the Labor Party, the Greens, the Australian Democrats or other radical groups.

In the first place, it would be helpful if Mr. McDonald (and likewise Mr. Russell Balding, the current managing director) were replaced as soon as practicable by persons more likely to address the problems that the A.B.C. has long raised.

But it is by no means clear that the appointment of a new chairman would lead to a sufficient improvement, in view of the entrenched position of the Left. Instead serious consideration should be given to reducing the role of the A.B.C. or, indeed, to terminating its existence in its present form. For the choice now is not between a national broadcaster and alternatives, but between an irredeemably biased national broadcaster and alternatives.

Little net public benefit is provided by an essentially biased public broadcaster. Further, on a winding up of the A.B.C. listeners and viewers would not be left without adequate news sources. Not only are there three free-to-air independent commercial tele-vision stations in each State, and many more various radio stations, but cable television now provides a wide range of information, with some stations providing high quality news services. Further, it would be expected that the news content of the commercial television stations would increase to make up for any loss on the winding up of the A.B.C.

A cultural advantage of the A.B.C. has been the broadcasting of classical music. To have a station in each state continuing to perform this function would perhaps be advantageous, and a new statutory corporation could appropriately be formed to carry out this function. In other respects, a winding up of the A.B.C. would not give rise to any need for a government controlled or funded successor.

It may be noted that problems with a publicly funded broadcaster are not unique to Australia. In many countries such broadcasters have been a cause for scandal, as more or less successful sources of government propaganda. Many other countries do not have government funded broadcasters at all. An exception, the United Kingdom, has persevered with the B.B.C. as a disseminator of reasonably high quality information. However the B.B.C. has had an advantage in operating in a country with higher standards of public integrity in the media than Australia. The A.B.C. operates at a much lower level, and for reasons indicated here, and especially in view of its lack of integrity, its continuance is not justified.

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003