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Despite biases, the ABC will not be shuttered up

The ABC has got off very lightly, so far, for the claims it aired about the navy torturing asylum seekers. Well done to Defence Minister David Johnston for his passionate defence of the men and women of the Australian navy. The ABC can dish it out but it's not so good at taking criticism, including from its own Media Watch.

The ABC gave me a much harder time on the 2001 ''children overboard'' issue, when claims were made that adult refugees on boats heading for Australia were throwing their children overboard to force the navy to pick them up. The issue started with the immigration minister Phillip Ruddock, then prime minister John Howard.

By the third day the media were pressing me, as Defence Minister, to comment. I told Howard I would speak but only after I had first been briefed by the chief of the Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie. While I was Defence Minister, Barrie never changed his initial advice. I did not initiate the claim and I relied on his advice. I was a lot more careful then than the ABC has been now in dealing with a more serious claim.

Even though I retired at the 2001 election, Labor paid me the faux compliment of saying I won the election because of the children overboard affair. This was not true, but I became the punching bag for all those who were disappointed Howard won the election. I believed the children overboard story to be true at the time, although it was later found to be untrue by a Senate Select Committee.

I believed it was just one of a series of attempts by refugees to force the navy to pick up boat people. In the context of more than a thousand people drowning at sea and billions of dollars being spent as a result of Labor's diabolical policy, it's a wonder the ABC should now try to undermine the efforts of the new government to stop the boats. It is a classic case of bias.

The ABC has long had its pet subjects such as asylum seekers and climate change. The ABC's recent problems started with the running of the Edward Snowden revelations of Australia's spying activities during Labor's time in government. The story had a sense of journalistic ''gotcha''. It was badly managed. And reporting into Indonesia under the Australia Network contract is problematic. That story and now the torture story have left the public wondering about the ABC.

The ABC's bias is cultural, deeply ingrained and not about to stop. I do not say the ABC is politically wedded to Labor's fortunes. But it does not understand the Coalition's perspective, as exemplified recently by ABC chairman Jim Spigelman. On the topic of bias, he said the ABC would commission a report by someone from the BBC.

Having lived for six years in Britain, I can say the BBC today is no better than the ABC. BBC founder Lord Reith would roll over in his grave if he could see it today. I am amazed Spigelman cannot see a BBC person will most likely have the same view as someone from the ABC.

But a cultural war is not about to erupt, even if the ABC refuses to offer the apology being sought. There is no appetite in the government to go after the ABC.

The most likely outcome of this melee will be found in the May budget. The ABC will be cut hard but in much the same way as everything else. Its efficiency review will be the extent of the cuts. Later, there may be some changes to the ABC board. Additionally, the ABC will probably lose its small contract for the Australia Network, which is not a core business anyway.

Of course, there is a strong argument that government should not be running a TV business. But I would not sell the ABC simply because of its bias. Bias is always a problem for media outlets, not just the ABC. There is no such thing as unbiased opinion. Everyone has a different view; different media outlets have their own cultures. The objective of public policy is to encourage diversity of outlets and hence opinion. Then it is for the public to make their assessments. If the audience doesn't like what it sees, it will switch.

Australia should not be taxing consumers for a government service that can be provided by free enterprise. We don't need the government to supply viewers with quiz shows and constantly repeating news programs that can all be delivered commercially and probably at a lower cost.

The world has changed; convergence of internet, TV and other devices is broadening the information and entertainment businesses. The recent independent tender process for the Australian Network demonstrates the obvious reality that the private sector is able to provide a better service than the ABC.

But to all the ABC fans, don't worry; Australian politics is far too conservative for that sort of free enterprise approach.

Peter Reith was a Howard government minister.

166 comments

  • Even if the ABC has some bias, it is still much less biased than most of the commercial media in Australia.

    Commenter
    DC
    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 5:44AM
    • Really how about the coverage on the recent federal by election. Not one comment that it was a failure for Labour. An actual swing against them, whilst the ABC has be touting an electoral backlash against the LNP.

      Has anyone else noticed that the ABC is showing much more female presenters and weatherwomen's exposed legs than the commercial channels these days. Cover up please ABC such cheap tactics do not deserve the taxpayers money.. This has actually been an executive decision for more sex appeal. Yet not one of the leftie jurnos has complained.

      Commenter
      abc
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 6:00AM
    • Peter Reith strangely thinks that private enterprise has the interest of the people at heart, when all they have is an interest in their money, and as much as they can get. But then Peter is right, every service to the community can be supplied by private enterprise, but the question is, with what quality and at what "real" cost. Government services ask for zero profit, where private enterprise demands the maximum they can get. Ideal scenario is public owned services run by private entities that bid for operation on the basis of delivering the best service at the lowest price.

      Commenter
      Martin
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 6:12AM
    • Please explain why the taxpayer should be forced to pay for a news outlet to balance out the bias of other privately funded news outlets.

      This has never been the job of the ABC. Their job is to simply tell the truth and present the facts.

      But at least you admit there is obvious bias at the ABC.

      Commenter
      Notch
      Location
      Alexandria
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 6:20AM
    • It amazes me that a collection of people could be so biased against the ABC !

      Commenter
      Bendou
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 6:25AM
    • A word of caution here.
      It appears there is an increasing 'balkanisation' of the media - and its audience.
      Of course, people will make choices regarding the newspaper they want to read or the TV station they prefer to watch - and thank goodness for that opportunity.
      To varying degrees, we have our likes and dislikes regarding journalists and presenters who work with the various organs - and their opinions.
      However, has this reached the stage of tribalism and entrenched antagonism - turning off to any offerings from the alternative media outlets (or differing voices in these organisations)?
      We read the news to confirm our prejudices and political preferences - and may be scathing or dismissive of views contrary to our own.
      Most of us are not open to changing our views - we don't want to.
      "There they go again, the biased ABC - mouthpiece of the Green/Labor cheer squad" and
      "Look at fascist News Corp - Murdoch and the Coalition hand in glove to destroy the workers and protect big business".
      Views contrary to own nurtured precious 'truths' are seen as biased rubbish.
      So it's..
      "I only watch the ABC or read the SMH" ...or …"I only watch SKY or read The Australian".
      We may not see ourselves as being closed to alternative perspectives or narratives - but, it is just people being people. I can't see it changing - but I don't think it is necessarily a thing to celebrate.
      In government, Labor was critical of News Corp (Murdoch) and now the Coalition is critical of the ABC.

      Commenter
      Howe Synnott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 7:07AM
    • Really? That is your opinion, not mine nor many many others. My opinion is the ABC is far more biased than the commercial outlets. At the ABC the bias is blatant and overwhelming. Even at Murdoch there are Left Wing types like Philip Adams or Mike Steketee (who I note has now taken refuge back at ABC's drum). Even Paul Kelly was decribing those in the Coalition ranks who opposed Kevin Rudd's ETS as "Dinosaurs".

      Anyhow, as has been pointed out time and time again the commercial media is not funded by the taxpayer so that is not a valid argument. Neither should the ABC be deliberately biased to the left to even out any percieved bias to the right in commercial media. Its job is the present facts and allow the Australian public formulate their own opinion.

      My opinion of the ABC changed in the waterfront dispute of the late 90's. The ABC portrayed the selfish economic vandals of the waterfront as heroes when in fact they were holding all hard working Australians to randsom for their outageously cushy and unsustainable work practises that were making Australia internationally uncompetitive for the beenfit of a handful.

      Commenter
      Jason
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 7:17AM
    • In my experience most academics teaching journalism in Australia are dedicated to indoctrinating their students in luvvie theology so its no surprise that the publicly funded
      broadcaster is dominated by the left. Free enterprise media outlets don't have the luxury of
      the public trough and have to pay more attention to realities of commercial life
      this creates a less amicable environment for dedicated lefties.

      Its all pretty simple really.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 7:21AM
    • It speaks volumes that Reith, an ex minister, would suggest the ABC "got off lightly". Volumes as to his view of the ABC's independence from government interference or censure. The ABC is and must remain free if government interference.
      The allegations it aired were just that, allegations, and it aired them as any news organisation should. To do otherwise would be to demonstrate a fear of government intervention and its credibility cannot allow such to occur. It isn't perfect and, as admitted, it may have worded parts of the story more carefully, however this does equate to any greater sin than any other news outlet.
      I was surprised and am disgusted at the attitudes of those such as Reith who bleat 'freedom' on the one hand, well, when it suits their agenda, yet advocate censorship, self or otherwise, on our national broadcaster. A free press is a free press Peter, even when it doesn't suit your beliefs.

      Commenter
      Warwick
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 7:32AM
    • notch - "But at least you admit there is obvious bias at the ABC."

      hi notch - two words - ''even if' - that is not an acknowledgement.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 7:40AM

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