THE WATCHER: Apr 05, AU Edition

One last gasp of hope for the ABC
If you happened to be around in 1938 and were tuning into America’s Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) one autumn night you would have heard the following ‘announcement’: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt
our program… to bring you a special bulletin… Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports… explosions of incandescent gas… on the planet Mars… moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity. And later, near the end of the broadcast,I’m speaking from the roof of broadcasting building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach…
By then, some panic-stricken listeners were either hiding in their basements – loaded shotgun at the ready – or had packed up and left town, no doubt wondering why the government hadn’t taken pre-emptive action.
It was all the doing of the brilliant if mischievous Orson Welles and CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air radio production of HG Wells’ science fiction thriller, War of the Worlds.
In the broadcast’s aftermath, the US Congress bellowed many pieties about responsible broadcasting and called for better regulation of the airwaves to protect the community’s more credulous souls. The New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson wrote that with no more than a few voices on the radio Welles had scared and demoralized thousands. Welles issued an apology and the issue faded into broadcast folklore.

Today, news broadcast audiences, perhaps less gullible, are fed information more plausible but not necessarily more truthful. Across the globe once-venerated news organisations like the ABC, the BBC, and America’s CBS are under fire from better-informed and more skeptical news consumers and, in the latter two cases, from taxpayers and their governments.
While few institutions have escaped criticism in recent times, the media, particularly the news end of it, seems to have been caught by surprise. Working in their cloistered enclaves, protected from critical scrutiny, much of the journalistic profession believed things could continue on as they had in the past, in splendid isolation.
Such is the case with the ABC, which has had a grilling over balance and impartiality, or more precisely, its lack of it in its news broadcasts. At the heart of the matter appears to be a lack of understanding by its senior management, staff and supporters, of the difference between the legislatively mandated role of the ABC and its commercial news counterparts.
“News,” former Australian Broadcasting Authority Chairman (ABA) David Flint says, “must be presented objectively, and opinion be clearly distinguishable from news… the Sydney Morning Herald is absolutely entitled, if it wishes, to take a left of centre position… A public broadcaster is not because of the way in which it is funded and established.”
Ex-ABC “Media Watch” host and Sydney Morning Herald kvetch David Marr contends such standards represent a “kindergarten notion of balance”. Perhaps. But the ABC exists at the sufferance of the grownup Australian taxpayers, and is expected to live up to its charter, prescribed by law.
Childish or not, that code demands, that ABC’s news programs be “balanced and impartial”. Although the code requires that editorial staff present a wide range of views, it does not expect them to view all sides of an issue equally. Adult editorial supervision is required. Saddam Hussein’s views, for example, are not to be accorded equal weight to those of the US government.
In the view of former communications minister Richard Alston, both of those prerequisites – balance and impartiality and effective editorial control – were found wanting at the ABC during the Iraq war. According to Alston, the AM program had repeatedly made comments that were highly subjective and not factually based, and suggested a lack of regard for editorial oversight.
To back up his point, Alston provided the ABC’s MD, Richard Balding, with 68 examples where AM had breached the ABC’s code of practice over a three week period, in March and April 2003 (during major hostilities in Iraq). Alston made these charges in the context of remarks made by ABC’s news director Max Uechtritiz that “the military are lying bastards”.
After an 18-month review process by the ABC and then by the ABA, 21 – nearly a third – of Alston’s original examples were upheld as breaches of the ABC’s code of practice. Twelve of them were considered to constitute serious breaches of the code. The ABA’s acting chairman Lyn Maddock said that AM’s use of “tendentious language” in its Iraq war coverage would have given its listeners the clear impression that the program was pre-disposed to a particular view. And this was just one particular program.
Yet the reaction to the breaches from much of the media has ranged from indifference to claims of vindication, in the latter case most notably and worryingly from the ABC’s own MD. A CPA by training, Balding apparently couldn’t count how many breaches have been sustained but nonetheless appears to have mastered the idiom of tendentiousness.
Alluding only to the four additional breaches found by the ABA, Balding said he welcomed the ABA’s finding that “AM was balanced” in its coverage of the war in Iraq, and concluded with a swipe at the authority for its “flawed” review. That should send a strong signal to the ABC journalists found to be in breach of the code and other staff seeking guidance.
Contrary to the more paranoid of the ABC’s ‘friends’, such
criticism is not the result of any right-wing plot; rather, it is the bias exhibited in the ABC’s news programming and lack of adherence to its charter and code of practice by its staff that has invited
the adverse attention. Over time, if unchecked such code and
charter breaches will erode the legitimacy of the ABC, until, one day,
political support for its existence and special status will
become tenuous.
Tapped by communications minister Helen Coonan to sit on the ABC board, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen now finds herself front and centre in this debate.
Judging by the response of the ABC collective – variously, the CPSU, which represents ABC staff, the Friends of the ABC and the ALP – you’d think Albrechtsen’s appointment was equivalent to another science fiction classic, Attack of the 50-foot Woman.
The public sector union’s Graeme Thomson claimed “many” were against someone such as Albrechtsen who “consistently displayed antagonism towards the work that ABC staff perform”.
As Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson pointed out in the Herald, “critics of the Government’s appointments fail to appreciate there is no inconsistency between being a thoughtful critic of the contemporary ABC and being a supporter of public broadcasting”. But Henderson is skeptical that much can be done to the ABC at the board level.
So I asked Albrechtsen what she hoped to accomplish as an ABC director. She is realistic but more optimistic than Henderson and believes the board can bring about positive change.
Albrechtsen prefaces her answer by stating that she is a consumer and fan of the ABC, and agrees that the public broadcaster’s legitimacy is on the line. One of her top priorities will be to address news bias.
“A good place to begin is to ensure that, over time, management recruits staff that are able to serve the interests of all of the broadcaster’s shareholders – the Australian community – not just a narrow band of it,” she says.
In the shorter term, Albrechtsen will want to see the broadcaster’s charter and code of practice adhered to. Does she believe the broadcaster’s charter and code of practice are adequate – especially during wartime?
“So long as the board is satisfied that ABC management and staff is seeing that the broadcaster is abiding by its charter and code of practice, then I see no reason why there should be any changes”.
And if the board is unable to ensure that the public broadcaster remains faithful to its mandate? Control of the Senate will pass to the Government in July. That will provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take corrective measures. After the Jonathan Shier debacle, it’s a bet the Government will not let that opportunity pass unexploited if need be.
Balding is a numbers man who, in defence of his management of the ABC, likes to refer to public opinion surveys commissioned with your tax dollars. I would not quibble that the majority of those who watch the ABC think everything is tickety-boo. But most people don’t watch the ABC. And the only choice that counts is the one viewers make each night with their thumb. Balding will also want to keep in mind the Government’s own increased numbers come July.
If Mars did attack Earth someday, how should the ABC report it?
As the death-ray-emitting saucers hurtled toward Earth and – one would hope – are engaged by a coalition of willing nations (while the UN fretted and muttered platitudes about the peaceful uses of space) how would the ABC interpret its code of conduct? Would it give a fair and balanced account of the grievances motivating the little green men?
Will AM’s Linda Mottram proclaim that ‘Coalition commanders are finding the public relations war may have slipped from their grasp, attacks by the height-challenged red planet dwellers are causing confusion and sapping morale’?
Will Kerry O’Brien demand to know why Australia’s immigration minister – ‘fixated on asylum-seekers’ – has dropped the ball?
Presuming an interpreter could be found who spoke the appropriate interstellar dialect, would an aggrieved space invader be permitted to give his side of things to Lateline’s Tony Jones? (e.g., Martian air waves polluted with reality TV, regular invasions and occupation by robot explorers not to mention always the wisecracks about their diminutive stature.)
It would be more interesting than 60 Minutes’ cash-for-questions-not-answered Mamdouh Habib interview. And ABC shareholders would wish to be able to trust the editorial judgment of the news editors in each case. At present, there is little reason why
they should.
However, the ABC has a chance to win that trust and, if it wants to be around to cover the biggest story of all time, it should embrace its critics. Most of them mean it well.