Media Opinion

Politicised attacks are damaging the ABC’s editorial independence

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Australians deserve an independent ABC. Not one that purposely mirrors other often politically compromised reporting, like Murdoch media, to avoid "left-wing" labels, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

A RECENT ACADEMIC study by Cambridge researcher Ayala Panievsky, published in the prestigious International Journal of Press/Politics, suggests that accusations of left-wing bias lead journalists to self-censor and bias their coverage Rightward. These findings raise alarm bells about the impact of Rupert Murdoch and Liberal Party attacks on the ABC.

The Murdoch media has a long history of waging war against ABC journalists. As well as resenting the ABC as a key competitor, Murdoch outlets have a strategic political and cultural motive for criticising the broadcaster, accusing it of being biased to the Left and behaving as a progressive activist.

A handful of examples illustrate the tenor of such attacks. The Australian’s Gerard Henderson called ABC’s Patricia Karvelas 'Comrade Karvelas'. He suggested she should run for The Greens because she was too tough on Labor’s Health Minister Mark Butler when interrogating him about the Government’s COVID-19 response.

Henderson, along with others, has also characterised the ABC's Louise Milligan as an "activist journalist" for reporting accusations of paedophilia against George Pell. He claims 'activist staff' run the ABC.

The Australian’s Chris Mitchell criticised so-called “activist journalists” at the ABC for reporting 'climate catastrophist news' and promoting a 'disaster narrative'. He also called the ABC's Indigenous Affairs editor Bridget Brennan a 'progressive' for – in his words – 'arguing for a much more powerful voice' in the Constitutional referendum.

In the same newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen claimed the 'taxpayer-funded ABC' is not impartial but rather behaves as 'an activist lobby group for the trans community'. She wrote that female journalists help to 'explain what’s gone wrong with the public broadcaster', naming the "left-wing” squad as Louise Milligan, Sally Neighbour, Laura Tingle, Annabel Crabb, Fran Kelly, Sarah Ferguson and Patricia Karvelas.

There is a pattern here of not only criticising ABC journalists for being left-wing activists but also concentrating that criticism on female journalists.

Not to be outdone by their right-wing media mates, Liberal politicians have also run a long-term campaign of complaints about the ABC's left-wing bias. Writing for The Monthly, Josh Bornstein describes how Liberal leaders have 'cowed' the ABC with constant funding cuts and threats of more cuts while also complaining about their coverage and swamping them 'with government complaints of bias'.

Former PM Malcolm Turnbull was accused of intervening in ABC editorial reporting. He apparently complained to his mate, then ABC chairman Justin Milne, who pressured ABC executives about reporting what the government was unhappy about.

Milne was accused by sacked ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie of asking her to 'shoot' ABC political editor Andrew Probyn because 'Turnbull hated him'.

And to 'get rid of' Emma Alberici after she wrote, factually:

'There is no compelling evidence that giving the country’s biggest companies a tax cut sees that money passed on to workers in the form of higher wages.'

More recently, Rick Morton, writing for The Saturday Paper has described the hostile way Scott Morrison’s Government shunned the ABC, including refusing to engage in an ABC election debate. Senator James McGrath on 'Sky After Dark', labelled the ABC "a left-wing blob of boring, woke views".

These constant attacks by powerful media commentators and politicians put ABC staff on the defensive by making the public broadcaster’s editors and journalists self-conscious about being biased towards the Left.

In her study, Panievsky interviewed 45 Israeli journalists who have been publicly attacked by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over their reporting of Israel’s control over Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu is described as publicly accusing public and commercial journalists of siding with Israel’s enemies, of being 'fans of terrorists', and 'conducting a Bolshevik brainwash'. This is despite other research finding Netanyahu receives a greater share of political coverage and more favourable coverage than his political opponents.

Panievsky found that although journalists defend their coverage as objective, they also assert that the best way to respond to Netanyahu criticisms is to strategically bias their coverage towards the Right.

In interviews, journalists reported they carefully avoided using the word “occupation” when discussing conflict in the West Bank and Gaza because they were worried this would lead them to be criticised as a “radical Lefty”.

This study has worrying implications for subtle yet powerful biases in news reporting and the audience’s perception of reality. It raises concerning questions about the impact of Murdoch media and Liberal Party attacks on ABC reporters.

The impacts of these attacks on ABC news reporting are evident in an opinion piece by outgoing editorial director Craig McMurtrie. McMurtrie is adamant that the ABC’s "harshest critics” are wrong about the ABC being 'hopelessly biased and captured by Green-Left elites'.

McMurtrie argues that ABC complaints processes have identified very few impartiality breaches and that there is a lack of evidence that 'the ABC pursues a biased editorial agenda'. In his justification, he cites the ABC’s 2018 review of the diversity of broadcast news stories.

Alarmingly, this review proudly finds:

'In those cases where the ABC and the commercial networks did cover the same stories (most often the big, federal political stories on the evening TV bulletins each day), there was nothing obviously different in the editorial approach of the ABC from the other services.'

That the ABC is gratified it doesn’t cover stories differently from “other services” when those other services include the likes of Murdoch’s 'Sky News', 'Nine News', '7News' and '10 News First' – not well-known bastions of quality, independent, impartial, objective and balanced journalism – you really have to worry about the priorities and motives of ABC editors and reporters.

Australians expect, deserve and rely on an independent ABC. Not one that purposely tries to mirror the same low-quality and often politically compromised reporting by "the others" in an attempt to avoid accusations of being "left-wing". We certainly don’t need the ABC to bias its reporting to the Right in order to respond to unfounded accusations by its political and commercial enemies.

The ABC is meant to be better than that. A quality public broadcaster should be just as worried about right-wing bias as about left-wing bias. Murdoch and Liberal Party ABC-attackers must be very pleased with the results of their anti-ABC work.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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