The captive ABC and the tyranny of balance

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On popular panel show Q&A tonight, the ABC will present a largely recycled bunch of ideological warriors — with only one, Tim Costello, not having appeared on the panel before; shareholder activist Stephen Mayne makes his third appearance; ultra-conservative economist Judith Sloan her fourth; Finance Minister Penny Wong her eighth and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey makes an almost unbelievable eleventh appearance on a show that has only been in production since 2008.

[Read more of Independent Australia's original research and analysis into Q&A.]

According to Peter Johnstone, this show represents a sickness at the heart of the ABC — created by the tyranny of balance and the public broadcaster's capture by right-wing think tanks.

‘Balance’ and the ABC

In the late 1990’s, there was a strong campaign by conservative groups and some members of the Howard Government to portray the ABC as ‘left-leaning’ and captive to socialist journalists.

As a consequence, prominent conservatives were appointed to the board of the ABC and the ABC was rigorous in adopting a policy of presenting ‘balance’ in their programming. Programs such as ‘Late Night Live’ were supposedly counterbalanced by ‘Counterpoint’ presented by Michael Duffy. The ABC ensured there was seen to be ‘balance’ on all programs with a panel (such as Insiders).

Of course, this issue of ‘balance’ in the media became a contested zone in the U.S.A. 40 years ago.

Whenever there was a media report on the dangers of cigarette smoking, the well-organized tobacco industry persuaded politicians and the media to provide ‘balance’ in reporting.

Doubt is crucial to science, but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation. The tobacco industry exploited this situation and ran effective campaigns to mislead the public, to sow doubt, and to deny well-established scientific knowledge for over four decades. The ‘merchants of doubt’ were successful because the mainstream media gave air time and credibility to scientifically flawed views.

The media could, and should, act as gatekeepers — ignoring charlatans and snake oil salesmen. When it comes to science, the media has failed, particularly when it comes to issues like climate science or the River Murray. It has failed because it has succumbed to notion of ‘balance’, rather than accuracy.

Providing ‘balance’ has become an ideal to strive for in the ABC, but it carries within it some significant flaws.

To have a ‘balance’, you require a fulcrum/centre point. How do we know whether the fulcrum/centre has moved ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ over time? Or, does it depend on the ideological stance of the current government or the management policy of the media outlet? Where is the ‘fulcrum’ in the debate on climate change, on same sex marriage, or increasing the population of Australia?

How many times have any of the following appeared as a commentator on an ABC program in the last 3 months: a genuine climate scientist, a spokesperson from the Occupy movement, a pacifist, an atheist, a passionate humanist, or a Marxist? Yet it is not difficult to list the many appearances of Peter Reith, people from the Institute of Public Affairs, Judith Sloan (who appears on Q&A tonight for the fourth time) , Mark Textor, Clive Palmer and so on. On some program panels, debate often appears to be between a conservative and an ultra-conservative commentator, and quite often between men.

‘Balance’? Where the hell is the fulcrum?

‘Balance’ in the ABC has also become a kind of tyranny. The ideal of ‘balance’ leads journalists to give minority, sometimes inaccurate and often ultra-conservative views more credence than they deserve. We are in desperate need of transparency about the ABC’s use of think tanks for commentary and the use of their spokespersons on panel programs (The Drum, Q&A, 7.30, RN Breakfast and so on).

Some frequent examples are: Centre for Independent Studies, Institute of Public Affairs, Sydney Institute and the Australian Environment Foundation — all of them seeming to push a similar pro-big business, free market, ideology.

Who are their corporate sponsors? Is it the Tobacco Industry? If not, why won’t they tell us who the corporate sponsors are? Does the ABC find out who their sponsors are before they put these people on air?

Surely we, the audience/public, deserve some declaration about who is supporting and sponsoring the think tank if they are appearing on our public broadcaster’s programs. We need to know which politicians are advising them or which corporate identities are on their board. Clive Palmer?

What are the think tank’s agendas? Certainly some of the think tanks mentioned above have a clear agenda of market fundamentalism/free market economy, climate denial (climate change is a fabrication of alarmist scientists!) and opposition to government taxes. If their declared goals are neo or ultra conservative, what then is their hidden agenda? Their agenda is to shape and influence public policy but is it also to undermine any progressive ‘left-leaning’ thinking? To get control of the media message?

If it is, then they are surely succeeding.

Who in the ABC decides that the think tanks appear on their programs? How frequently have they participated in ABC programs in the last 3 months? What is the agenda of those who make these decisions in the ABC?

Don’t tell me it is to provide ‘balance’ — we, the public, are not stupid.

If Wayne Swan is concerned about a few wealthy individuals undermining the national interest, then he needs to be concerned about the role of think tanks on our public broadcaster and their engineering of public policy.

Do we need ‘balance’ on climate change? We may as well ask, do we need ‘balance’ on the issue of whether the earth orbits the sun? Because the question of whether anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is happening is settled — IT IS! Studies show that 97 out of every 100 climate scientists agree on this point (with 2 undecided and one denier). That is as close to consensus as is possible in science. We ignore its message at our peril and yet the ABC continues to present another view upon the altar of ‘balance’.

Once non-scientific and fundamentally inaccurate ideas become established in the community through ongoing affirmation and reinforcement by think tanks and commentators with a political agenda, they become values and beliefs that become widespread and well-nigh impossible to shift. In our fast moving, complex world, superstitious beliefs, pseudoscience and, in some cases, nasty myths, can give people a sense of control and certainty.
‘Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan undertook a study that found that when people were shown information that proved that their beliefs were wrong they actually became more entrenched in their original beliefs. This is known in the business as 'backfire'. And what's more, highly intelligent people tend to suffer backfire more than less intelligent people do, making us immune to any facts that are counter to our strongly held beliefs.

So what about providing the public with more ‘balanced’ and factual information? Well that can be a problem too when you present the public with both sides of a story, the arguments for and against (as research shows) that people with an existing attitude tend to become more entrenched in their original viewpoint too and are less likely to see the merit of any other viewpoints.’ (Dr Craig Cormick, Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National. 23/10/2011)

In many cases, as was the case with the tobacco industry, maintaining and reinforcing those inaccurate beliefs and myths is part of a deliberate political agenda. The ABC appears to be having a love affair with some similar conservative and well funded ‘think tanks’ in Australia that have a definite political agenda.

Unfortunately, for the likes of Tony Jones (Q&A) maintaining some controversy and entertaining non-scientific ideas, no matter how whacky the participants, is part of his bread and butter.

As a community, we need to be worried.
‘You can’t just take democracy for granted, you’ve got to look after it like it’s a garden – you’ve got to cherish it a bit. Because if you don’t look after it, weeds will grow and you won’t be able to function in it anymore’ (William McInnes).

Widespread support for non-scientific beliefs can serve to undermine democracy and impede a society's ability to function or to compete in an ever more complicated and science and technology driven world. And, if there is a concern about the ABC’s role — what about the rest of the mainstream media?

What should happen?

The ABC should abandon its ideal of ‘balance’ and concentrate on providing the public with accurate information. This should extend to social issues like asylum seekers and gambling.

The ABC should ignore the charlatans and confront the ‘merchants of doubt’ and the people who have an investment in spreading unfounded and harmful myths. Isn’t it time for some transparency and perhaps (god forbid!) some regulation of think tanks?

Something needs to happen soon or the weeds will grow out of control.

The ABC should front up about the sponsors, the links and the political agenda of the minority commentariat and of the think tanks used on their panel programs.

Do this and we can proudly reclaim our public broadcaster as “OUR ABC”.

(Follow Peter Johnstone on Twitter: @sem4peter)

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