Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald
If the ABC didn’t exist, conservatives would have to invent it. It provides two vital functions to the right side of politics: it is the foe which unites the army, as well as a decoy which distracts progressives from the main game.
The ABC once again stands accused of bias. This is a familiar pantomime. A new incident sparks conservatives to condemn ABC bias and roll out a well-worn script insisting it is time to defund the national broadcaster. The ABC denies all charges and periodically appoints a fellow traveller to conduct a review. Naturally, the review finds the ABC to be largely impartial, to the satisfaction of the ABC management and no one else.
This is more or less how events have panned out again this time, with only slight variation: in a review of 2019 election coverage, journalist and political advisor Kerry Blackburn found there was an appreciable tilt to some episodes of panel shows The Drum and Insiders, and the ABC chair made the tactical error of displaying her reluctance to publicly release the internal review, putting the ABC on the back foot. Adding weight to claims of bias is the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which found that a Four Corners investigation into the Murray Darling Basin Plan “unduly favoured one perspective”. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher looks likely to refer a more recent episode of Four Corners, alleging bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff by Liberal ministers, to ACMA. The Coalition, however, would be wise to consider how far it should go in pressing this advantage and what the consequences would be if its efforts to change the ABC succeed.
The ABC management will never publicly admit to systematic bias within the broadcaster, but actions speak louder than words. In the wake of the 2019 election, the ABC launched its Australia Talks project to understand Australians – by which they of course meant, to understand how the ABC and other media outlets could have missed the mood of the electorate that ultimately voted for Scott Morrison.
When they called me, I suggested that one of the reasons the ABC had fooled itself was its own Vote Compass tool. If you recall, in the lead up to the election, the ABC invited Australians to complete the Vote Compass survey, to find out how their views aligned with the candidates and tell the ABC about their voting priorities. Hundreds of thousands of ABC-viewing Australians plugged their preferences into the online tool over the course of the election campaign. Which meant that the ABC received a majestic sample of ABC viewer priorities and very little insight into the issues that moved the wider electorate.
For instance, on May 15, 2019, just days out from the election, the ABC reported that, of half a million voters who had completed the Vote Compass survey, a “majority of Coalition, Labor and Greens voters all want more government action on climate change”. Triple J Hack reported that “climate change and the environment are among the top concerns for voters heading into the federal election”. The more it was repeated, the more it became gospel that Bill Shorten’s massive and uncosted package of climate mitigation policies was a likely winner.
We now know that to be untrue. In echoes of the 2016 US run-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it looks like a case of media reporting their preferred outcome rather than seeking to understand the public. (Following that election, The New York Times also turned inward, asking “how did the media – how did we – get this wrong?”.)
Both in the US and Australia, this widespread media consensus led to the party of the left becoming complacent about its chances of winning, contributing to the success of the right. If you’re a progressive Friend of the ABC, do you still need enemies?
Conservative politics, meanwhile, thrives off the perceived bias of the taxpayer-funded broadcaster. Disgust with the predictability of the presented topics and perspectives has driven many to eschew the ABC altogether. Many Australians simply switch over to commercial television or tune out of mainstream media, but the politically engaged subscribe to pay TV and right-leaning newspapers, where they are treated to recaps of ABC programming without ever having to bother tuning in. Outrage over “woke” preoccupations at the ABC rallies the conservative troops and energises new recruits.
Eventually this echo chamber could cause problems for the conservative side of politics, but only if progressives begin to better understand and appeal to the cautious centrism of the electorate, and its disdain for the high dudgeon of the cultural elite at both ends of the political spectrum.
Now, you can do with that information what you will. Were I providing professional advice to any of the participants, it would be to consider the unintended consequences of winning this war. For the time being though, conservatives can thank their lucky stars – or more accurately, prime minister Joseph Lyons of the United Australia Party from which the Australian Liberal Party grew – for the existence of “Their ABC”. If he hadn’t presided over its invention, they’d have to do so now.