As an executive journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation I was concerned on a daily basis with balance and fairness in news and current affairs coverage. I often heard it said, ‘if both sides of politics are criticising us, we’re probably doing a good job’, though I never embraced this mantra. In journalism, as in diplomacy, one does not ensure neutrality by being equally offensive to everyone. Similarly the counting of lines of copy and broadcast minutes, which is standard practice at the ABC during election campaigns to give ‘equal time’ to the opposing political parties, to me smacked of tokenism.
The tone, language and angle of a story, together with its running order within a bulletin or positioning on a web page, are more important factors in determining fairness and balance. The quality of the editorial conversation that accompanies a story’s preparation – its relative freedom from preconceived ideas – and what might be termed the ‘ideological culture’ of the newsroom are also crucial. Indeed, since both these aspects elude easy measurement and sit out of sight of the final audience, it may be they have the greatest significance.
I do not intend to offer an opinion here on how well the ABC discharges its responsibility to achieve fairness and balance, though I know for a fact there exists a corporate consciousness of the need to do so and surveys suggest most consumers of ABC programs believe it is being achieved. I withhold my opinion not because I am complacent about the current state of affairs but because the subject deserves more than a few hundred words.
What I wish to do is to highlight some aspects of the media environment in which the current election is being fought. Prime Minister Rudd has made it an agenda item by accusing News Corporation outlets of running a campaign to unseat Labor. Rudd has implied that News’ critical reporting of over-runs in spending and under-performance in delivery of the NBN is motivated by a desire to protect its investment in Foxtel. Under the previous Labor administration, Julia Gillard effectively boycotted certain commercial radio presenters because of their hostility to her and her government. On the other hand, in my opinion, the Fairfax press has generally tended to portray Tony Abbott in a negative light.
Partisanship is nothing new in the media business. Those who remember opinions being confined to the editorial pages of newspapers ‘once upon a time’ are kidding themselves. I refer back to what I said earlier about the less obvious determinants of fairness and balance in news presentation. What seems to have changed lately is the intensity and relentlessness of news ‘campaigns’ – by which I mean one-sided criticism of a policy or action or personality with the predetermined aim of having it (or him or her) overturned. A corollary of this is the recourse to more extreme partisanship in opinion pieces.
ABC managing director Mark Scott has described the corporation’s role as filling gaps, in programming terms, which result from ‘market failure’. In one sense he is restating the obvious: the ABC has always offered a place for high culture, in-depth analysis and coverage of non-mainstream Australia. A newer manifestation of this role, however, is the appearance of opinion forums, such as The Drum, which seem to operate on the principle that two extreme and opposite views equal balance and fairness. Even if this were the case – and I contend that it isn’t – encouraging a form of debate whose medium is half-truths is not a sound way of informing the public or cultivating an intellectual climate of tolerance and fair-mindedness. Take a look at the online feedback to this and similar forums elsewhere and you may understand what I mean.
On ABC News 24, as well, lobbyists are filling the airwaves with so-called informed comment that in currency trading rooms and racetrack betting rings – poor company for news programs to keep – is commonly referred to as ‘talking your book’.
Another worrying aspect of Mark Scott’s ‘market failure’ concept is that it might signal to staff that their journalism should seek to counteract some perceived bias in the commercial media. In other words, if the ABC is to compete in an increasingly shrill and partisan news environment then absolute balance and fairness could represent a ‘market failure’, i.e. a failure to ‘balance’ the market.
The Insiders program is an earlier ABC venture into what some in the television industry call the ‘Sabbatical rant’. Each Sunday morning a panel of journalists discusses the week’s political affairs. In the interests of a good argument, journalists of known opposing political persuasions are pitted against each other. (As such, it might be argued, they cannot be much use as journalists – but, for the moment, let’s put this consideration to one side). In my last ABC role I had direct management responsibility for Insiders, even though I admit I was never completely comfortable with the program concept. I worried that by relying on the same ‘proven performers’ it did not tap into a sufficiently wide range of opinion. I have never thought journalists should put themselves in the position of articulating political party lines, and, as already stated, I do not accept that journalistic balance is equivalent to a zero-sum game.
The ABC is a vital institution for our democracy, and yet it has powerful enemies. Rupert Murdoch, for one, sees no place for a public broadcaster in a free market economy. It is forever open season on the ABC at The Australian newspaper. Election campaigns are a challenging time for the corporation, needing to deliver quality journalism and be seen to be doing so. There is no better time, therefore, to contemplate the true meaning of balance and fairness. They are the professional values that will sustain the ABC, while other media players rush to mount the barricades of partisanship.
Walter Hamilton worked at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 32 years.