Media Analysis

The ABC subtly and systematically pushes a Liberal Party agenda

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Typified by a recent article on Gladys Berejiklian's corrupt conduct, the ABC newsroom uses deceptive and nuanced tricks to advance the Liberal Party. Alan Austin reports.

ABC News ran a prominent story last July that was extremely damaging to one major political party. Titled ‘The “heavy punishment” Gladys Berejiklian faces despite legal charges being ruled out’, the report used this pull-quote just below the headline: ‘Berejiklian 'Engaged in Serious Corrupt Conduct', But Won't Be Criminally Prosecuted’.

Pretty grim. The report detailed embarrassing misconduct and named five senior political figures.

But here’s the intriguing thing. The 953-word report did not mention the Liberal Party or the Coalition at any point. Not once. The political affiliation of the miscreants remained a total mystery.

That contrasted dramatically with a damning ABC News story one year earlier about then Victorian Premier Dan Andrews headed ‘As “Teflon Dan” manages another Victorian Labor crisis, the latest scandal might stick’. This 956-word analysis named the Labor Party once in the heading and ten times in the text.

This didn’t report corruption. It reported “Labor corruption”. It wasn’t a Victorian crisis. It was “a Victorian Labor crisis”.

It turns out this is standard procedure with ABC News.

The following seven damaging news stories regarding the Coalition never identified the party name in any of the headings and only once mentioned “the Coalition” in the text:

  1. It's been a bad week for the government's messaging —and shocking for accountability, 20 March 2021. Words: 1,210. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.
  2. Full report into so-called 'sports rorts scandal' released years after Bridget McKenzie quit, 8 November 2022. Words: 477. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 1.
  3. Robodebt is dead, but welfare recipients say Centrelink debt notices still cause stress and confusion, 19 July 2023. Words: 1,027. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.
  4. Bruce Lehrmann's defamation case wraps up in the Federal Court following testimony from former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach, 5 April 2024. Words: 3,549. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.
  5. Five key takeaways from Bruce Lehrmann's failed defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson in Federal Court, 15 April 2024. Words: 1,587. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.
  6. Cost of Bruce Lehrmann's failed defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson set to be astronomically high, 17 April 2024. Words: 750. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.
  7. The Bruce Lehrmann defamation verdict is in, but Brittany Higgins and Linda Reynolds are still fighting, 24 April 2024. Words: 1,262. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 0.

The opposite protocols apply to reports embarrassing to Labor, as these seven show:

  1. Chris Bowen and Chris Minns in spotlight over six-figure donation from Beijing-linked association, 12 June 2019. Words: 2,204. Party mentions in heading: 0. Party mentions in text: 39.
  2. NSW Labor donation scandal unlikely to get same scrutiny at federal level, barrister Geoffrey Watson says, 3 September 2019. Words: 473. Party mentions in heading: 1. Party mentions in text: 6.
  3. ICAC hears suspended NSW Labor secretary Kaila Murnain came forward to do the right thing', 5 September 2019. Words: 508. Party mentions in heading: 1. Party mentions in text: 8.
  4. Blain MLA Mark Turner exiled from NT Labor caucus as staffer resigns over scandal, 18 February 2021. Words: 612. Party mentions in heading: 1. Party mentions in text: 7.
  5. NT Chief Minister 'extremely angry' at exiled Labor colleagues in wake of Labor scandal, 21 February 2021. Words: 1,146. Party mentions in heading: 2. Party mentions in text: 8.
  6. Former Victorian Labor minister Adem Somyurek tells IBAC the Premier ignored red-shirts rort warning, 8 November 2021. Words: 1,009. Party mentions in heading: 1. Party mentions in text: 11.
  7. Victorian Ombudsman releases report on Labor Party's 'red shirts rorts', won't refer case to IBAC, 28 July 2022. Words: 1,151. Party mentions in heading: 1. Party mentions in text: 9.

In summary, the above eight news reports harmful to the Liberal Party total 10,815 words and mention the party name – Liberal, Liberal National Party, Coalition – once in the text but never in the headings.

In contrast, the above eight critical Labor Party stories total 8,059 words and name the party – Labor, ALP – 98 times in the text and eight times in the headings.

IA sent this evidence to incoming chair of the ABC Kim Williams in an email on 1 May this year and in subsequent requests, asking these questions:

‘Are you aware of the differences in the way the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are reported by ABC News staff, seemingly to protect the former and smear the latter? Is this a situation you have sought to correct, or intend to correct henceforward? What action, if any, have you taken or do you propose to take?’

The ABC’s head of communications Sally Jackson replied last Thursday:

‘ABC News is not, as you assert, reporting on the Liberal Party and the Labor Party differently in order to protect the former and smear the latter. We don't have any further comment to make.’

Readers can decide if that is true.

IA asked Labor’s Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland these questions:

‘Are you aware of the routine practice among ABC News staff to delete references to the name of the political party from negative news reports regarding the Liberal Party and multiply them in negative news reports regarding the Labor Party? Have you discussed this with the chairman or other senior executives? Why do you tolerate this?’

A spokesperson replied:

‘The ABC has operational and editorial independence. Questions about editorial decisions made by the ABC should be directed to management.'

IA posed similar questions to the four Labor members of the Federal Parliament’s communications committee but received no replies.

Can the new ABC chairman fix this? There’s no indication yet that he will.

Will Labor do anything about it? No sign of that either.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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