Politics Analysis

ABC Right-wing programs caught up in round of closures

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

ABC's 'Counterpoint' and 'Between the Lines' programs, both platforms for right-wing activists and politicians to spread conservative rhetoric, have been at last cancelled, Dr Lee Duffield reports.

THE ABC HAS canned two shows on Radio National – that were unaccountably set up in the first place to provide outlets for right-wing opinion – on the false premise that its own checks and balances were no good.

These were Counterpoint – most recently hosted by former Liberal Minister for Immigration Amanda Vanstone – and Between the Lines, a swatch of air-time given to the Right-wing activist group Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), anchored by its director Tom Switzer.

Born out of threats

The two closures came in the context of a general revision of programs and scheduling, with none of the talk of partisan or government interventions that accompanied their beginnings. The restructuring of the organisation’s program divisions and schedules was announced last May as a new five-year plan, cutting off a previous plan two years early.

It proposes a rich array of new offerings and is promoting streaming as the prime medium for audience members to pick out items, like using entertainment on overseas flights. Several existing programs have been affected.

If Albanese covertly engineered the shutdown of the Right-wing shows, he has not been accused of it. The executioner’s face would be well-hidden beyond reasonable belief amid so many changes across the board.

Counterpoint began in 2004 during a season of very threatening attacks on the ABC, in the time of the Howard Government; Between the Lines started in 2015, two years into the term of Tony Abbott. The general line of attack had been in wounded tones — those wanting to hear a consistent and uninterrupted Liberal line felt deprived of that perceived entitlement.

Whether or not the management blunder involved in setting up these programs was a case of caving in to pressure from Right-wing governments or its intimate allies, the deal was generous. ABC air-time, staff support, resources, publicity and reputation let the outside presenters canvass their own interview talent, improvise little homilies and even play some music in line with their personal tastes.

Climate-denying, no-voting and China-baiting

The range of topics and generally competent style of argument on both these programs could be interesting, so that, where the bias emerged, it would be not only annoying but disappointing coming from the ABC.

Both drew on American conservative “expert” lists for sources — Counterpoint known for promoting climate change scepticism, Between the Lines participating in the "suspicious-of-China" lobby and latterly campaigning for “No” in the Referendum on the Voice to Parliament.

For the Referendum, the CIS managed the Indigenous duo Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nanpijinpa Price, and brought other no-sayers onto its ABC Radio show, such as Peta Credlin from Sky News and News Corp identity Paul Kelly. It was a supplementary operation – non-party – on an American model of parallel campaigns, which usually do the attack side and side-step any laws governing campaign spending.

Switzer had begun to refer to himself on occasion as a journalist and a member of Radio National but after that campaign was in an untenable position at the ABC.

Vanstone was in a better ethical position, having left her institutional bonds to a past Liberal government well behind, her program mostly more curiosity-driven than ideological, but saddled with memories of egregiously rightist predecessors from its early years.

Rules-based or a free-for-all?

Demanding not only access for your own side of politics, but actual control of some programs on the ABC, could set very disruptive precedents considering it is publicly funded and is bound by statutory rules requiring objectivity, impartiality and balance. Under such a regimen of public responsibility, it should not be turned into a caravanserai of competing camps, or handed over for partisan groups to turn it into "campaign central".

The published “rule book”, the ABC Act and Charter, also includes detailed 'Editorial Standards' and 'Staff Guidelines', mandating objectification and accuracy with facts and forbidding presenters from pushing their own views on air.

Right-wing zealots in any event should not miss their ABC outlets today — with the advent of Sky News and the development of one-eyed commentary on News Corp and commercial radio, plenty of places exist for them to go.

One other prominent guest presenter with his own show on ABC Radio – Philip Adams, compere of Late Night Live – was called radical-Left and by several accounts used as the grievance for getting Counterpoint to air, so as to “balance” him. He brings in leading intellectuals with independent reputations representing a sweep of ideas — several Left-wing, others not political.

He escapes censure by projecting good humour, sad resignation in the face of global bastardry and not engaging in advocacy. Unlike Switzer, but like Vanstone, his extensive institutional and public life is generally past tense not current — speaking for no organisation.

He appears to have so far survived the purge of programs of 2024 (although he has announced his retirement later this year).

Other programs

The recently closed television show, The Drum, operated as a specialist program in peak air-time to promote female leadership in media and society.

It would be a parlour game with friends to monitor this program over a long period, counting up to establish that it virtually always had a female majority on the panel. Enforced by the anchors mainly being women, sometimes it was 50-50 where they had a male presenter maybe once or twice, but hardly — it was “bloke’s day” with a bare majority.

It would be rare to find a statistical reckoning that did not show this was intentional.

One of the panel regulars, Jenna Price, saw the program’s demise as ditching,

'... a loyal audience of middle-aged women watching each night out of the corner of their eye as they went about the frantic daily business of 6 to 7 pm.'

The program did not worry too much about the “rules” of the ABC in other respects, outside the range of its take on “diversity” and women. It was credibly accused of political bias, for its policy of routinely loading former Coalition politicians onto the panel — Labor or union identities not there or too sparse to mention.

In the current review, some other long-standing specialist programs on radio, most prominently the Health Report, have been levered out of prime time in the mornings or early evenings.

It has been a long time coming, since concentrated lobbying by inside networks prevailed upon weak management, by then taking on non-broadcasters with no antennae for audiences, to move news and current affairs programs off-peak.

The idea was to let specialist programs have the biggest available audience, forgetting audiences in those hours were really not there to hear specialist programs. 

People at an active time – getting going in the morning or getting home from work at day’s end – would have to go elsewhere to catch up with overnight happenings around the globe, or events of the day in Australia.

Amongst Dr Lee Duffield’s vast journalistic experience, he has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic and member of the editorial advisory board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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