Not the 7 o’clock news – brought to you by ‘their’ ABC
Is the nation getting good value for the mountains of public money heaped on the ABC annually for its news and current affairs programmes? The logical, albeit unexciting, starting point for anyone interested in forming an opinion on that burning question is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (the Act).
The Act, which was passed to continue in existence the Australian Broadcasting Commission created in 1932, requires the ABC board of directors to maintain the independence and integrity of the ABC, to ensure that the gathering and presentation by it of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism, and to develop appropriate programming codes of practice.
The Act contains a Charter for the ABC. It is a thoroughly modern invocation of the quest for the best for all in the best of all possible broadcasting worlds. It would do Dr Pangloss proud. The functions of the ABC are expressed in categorical terms which, reflecting the modern curse of abstractionitis, include ‘innovative and comprehensive’, ‘national identity’, ‘cultural diversity’, ‘cultural enrichment’, ‘the multicultural character of the Australian community’, and so on.
If that is not enough froth, the latest ABC Annual Report adds more buzzwords from the lexicon of modern conformity, ‘Our vision is to be the independent source of Australian conversations, culture, and stories.’ In this wonderland, there is precious little full-blooded clash of ideas.
Nevertheless, the fundamental nature of the ABC’s statutory role is clear enough. It is to be independent and impartial. It makes sense to this observer that the Commonwealth Parliament has expressly provided that the Act was not to be taken to impose on the ABC a duty that was enforceable by court proceedings. The ABC makes the opaque acknowledgment in its Editorial Policies that it broadcasts ‘a broad and engaging mix of fact, opinion and analysis every day, sometimes within the one piece of content [which] results in rich programming, but can also risk confusion around our purpose, both among audiences and staff.’
In responding to the opening question above, any avid follower of ‘ABC News’ could first ponder the latest manifestation of the national broadcaster’s addiction to self-praise. In the case of the nightly TV news, the ABC’s self-absorption and incessant boasting about the superiority of its programmes has culminated in the broadcasting of a ‘promo’ by two leading newsreaders (at least in Melbourne) who vouchsafe the following self-appraisal (by statutory definition, the opinion of the ABC managing director) to their audience: ‘We don’t just tell the stories that matter! We tell you why they matter to you!’. Thus does opinion-drenched ‘news’ reporting masquerade as ‘ABC News’, which claims to be ‘Australia’s most trusted news source’.
The frankness of the promo is one manifestation of the sad truth that at least in relation to news and current affairs the national broadcaster has gone off its legislative rails. Or has it? The deliberate fudging of the line between fact and comment accords with what appears to have become journalistic practice in the Australian media. Journalists routinely fall for the trap of larding their reporting of the news with adjectives and adverbs as if a reported fact does not speak for itself. In many situations, the qualifier converts what would otherwise be something presented as a statement of fact into a mixed statement of fact and opinion/comment/analysis.
The volume of editorial policies promulgated by the ABC and the labyrinthine way they are set out on the ABC website present a challenge to anyone wondering why the national broadcaster considers it is necessary for the nightly TV news to speak down to its avid viewers. The ABC clearly has a role in broadcasting news commentary. Apart from anything else, such material is ‘information’.
However, the end result, a general transformation of news into undifferentiated opinionated news commentary is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Act.
Similarly, if independence and impartiality are the root operating principles, the true mark of a successful, (ie informative) news commentary involving an interview is that by its end listeners/viewers are better informed about the subject matter and yet are no wiser about the personal attitude or ideas of the ABC staff presenter/interviewer. Now, however, the ABC through its staff pushes an editorial line on selected controversial issues of our time. Australians are entitled to ask why any public money should be spent pandering to the pet loves/hates of self-selected ABC staff. Perhaps the national broadcaster’s position is that, nowadays, the ‘recognised standards of objective journalism’ extend that far. An ABC promo which skites that it is the role of the national broadcaster to tell Australians how to think is the stuff of self-parody. At the forefront of the ABC’s flouting of its charter is its visceral hostility to the election of US President Trump and everything to do with him and his administration.
Here are two concrete suggestions for the statutory ABC Advisory Council. First, the ABC should announce before every ‘News commentary’ programme that it includes comment, opinion or analysis of the presenter and/or of third parties, as the case may be. This should apply to all formats and to the widespread opinionated use of Twitter, etc. by ABC presenters.
Secondly, the ABC, which has been known to boast about its commitment to the number one Panglossian ‘D’ buzzword ‘diversity’, by using it four times in one sentence of its editorial guidelines, should be informing its audiences of the central role in any self-respecting democracy of a no less important ‘D’ word – Dissent. Specifically, the ABC should allocate an hour each week on prime time radio and television for a programme (The Week in Dissent would serve both as name and trigger warning) whose presenters and guests would sing the praises of non-conformism past and present.
The author is a Melbourne barrister.