Open letter to ABC managing director Mark Scott

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David Horton is alarmed by the ABC's relentless march to the Right and has written the following open letter to managing director Mark Scott demanding answers.

ABC managing director, Mark Scott — about this balance thing...

Dear Mark Scott,

About this “balance” thing...

I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

The IPA is infesting every ABC outlet with its Libertarian Free Market ideology in the service of secret Business business. What are they providing “balance” for? Have there been Marxist economists daily on the ABC I have somehow missed? Even Keynesian economists? Professor Sloan is on every week instead. Who is she “balancing”?

What about the appearance of Peter Reith every week? A full essay on The Drum plus other live appearances. Who is he balancing? Gerard Henderson, Piers Akerman, Nikki Sava? Has there been a rash of appearances by Trotskyists, Socialist Alliance, Left Wing unionists who have escaped my notice?

Do you really not see that the occasional appearance of, say, a Green MP, or someone from The Australia Institute, doesn’t actually match in weight the regular appearance of those mentioned above, so regular they might as well be on staff, and certainly gain the apparent credibility of being so.

On a number of occasions, you have run factual pieces or reports on climate change science and its findings. Are these “balanced” by the climate change denier opinion pieces you run, do you think, from those like the IPA who are both ideologically driven and represent vested interests?

Where do you in fact draw the line on “balance”? Would an astronomy program on the age of the universe and the Earth have to be balanced by an opinion piece from a Young Earth Creationist? If not, why not? There are small groups of nutters who believe the Earth is Flat, the Moon landings were fakes, the twin towers were demolished by the CIA. Do these people get to report on their beliefs on the ABC, gain credibility from its imprimatur? Why not?

Of course the ABC should be a place where political opinions can be debated. They aren’t on commercial networks or in print these days. The ABC should welcome and encourage differences of opinion on the future of the health system, how best to respond to global warming, the structure of the economy, the education system and its funding, environmental problems, and so on. There are two or more strands of thoughts on all of these, and people are entitled to hold them, express them, and have them represented on the national broadcaster. What they are not entitled to is their own facts. Venues such as Q&A and The Drum are ideal for such debates between protagonists with the leavening of actual experts in the fields concerned.

But this isn’t what is happening. On the ABC of 2012, facts are fungible. One of the ensconced culture warriors can simply declare something to be the case or not the case, and, “he said, she said”, that belief carries as much weight as the results of fifty years research work by a Nobel Laureate, or as much as the views of 100 per cent of the relevant academic association. In fact, more weight ― because not only are the ideologue and the researcher each just occupying one chair, but the chair the ABC regular ideologue occupies is much more weighty by virtue of being constantly occupied. The IPA chap, for example, feels at home, and is mates with, the ABC coordinator, has been seen by the viewers over and over again in that place. Is, in short, an authority figure ― an authority vested in him (or her) by the ABC.

As it is in those News Ltd columnists, former Lib ministers, right wing economists. None of them have, or speak about, an area of expertise. All of them are simply given a platform to blast the government in opinionated diatribes whose purported “facts” remain unchallenged by the comperes of your current affairs shows.

How on earth does this procession “balance” anything? And how has it come, by stealth, to be part of an ABC that was mercifully free of such crap up until a few years ago? Once the ABC presented facts you could rely on, now current affairs is a fact-free zone.

Speaking of comperes, how has it come to be that essentially all of your comperes, reporters, script and news writers, appear to be, how shall we say, leaning towards the Right? Prior to Kerry O’Brien being shunted sideways out of the action I had no idea what, if any, political leanings ABC staff had. Whether Kerry was left wing I don’t know, but he angered conservatives by trying to deal in facts.The others also carefully presented neutral faces and voices to the world.

Since his departure, there is no doubt at all about the political preference of reporters and presenters (with a few exceptions). And they are quite willing to make it obvious in a way that wouldn’t have been tolerated even five years ago. Sarcastic and snide comments about PM and ministers; ensuring the dilution of good news for government; constant use of “Tony Abbott says” to lead stories; other Libs used, quite inappropriately, to comment on Labor politics; the constant return to “Rudd Challenge” stories when the government is doing well; the overplaying of poor opinion polls for the government and the downplaying of  good ones; the lack of fact-checking of anything the Opposition says; the hunting with the pack, or leading it on stories apparently negative for the government (such as Thomson and Slipper); the lack of later follow-up to correct them; the refusal to follow stories negative to the Opposition; the constant use of News Ltd stories, unchecked, to lead news bulletins or provide topics for current affairs shows; the soft, ever-so-helpful interviews of shadow ministers (the recent Leigh Sales interview of Tony Abbott was a welcome, shocking, change, but remains unique), the barrage of repetitive questions, talking over the answers, in interviews of ministers. This perfect storm of anti-government reporting is quite unique for the ABC, with governments of both sides of politics, in my 60 years of watching and listening. How does it provide “balance”?

Look, I know that there are News Ltd columnists (not least the ones who have a constant platform on the ABC these days), shock jocks, and the odd Liberal Senator, who rant and rave about how “left-wing” the ABC is, and how this must be corrected, or, as your friends the IPA demand, the Corporation sold off. For these people, of course, the ABC either shouldn’t exist at all or, if it does, it should be the broadcast arm of Menzies House. To these people, the ABC can never be far enough to the Right, and they remain oblivious to the systematic rightward drift of recent years. Their “complaints” are not evidence that you have “got the balance right”, but evidence that you haven’t. They are trying to pull the ABC all the way over into Abetz Land, I would like to pull it back to the middle.

I wish myself luck.


David Horton

(Argonauts member, 1955)

[This story was originally published on David Horton's The Watermelon Blog and has been republished with permission. You can follow David Horton on Twitter @watermelon_man.]

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