Flashback 1976: The ABC attacked over its political coverage
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Flashback 1976: The ABC attacked over its political coverage

It's 1976. Accusations of bias in the ABC’s political coverage are hotly debated in parliament. Morale is low at the public broadcaster as it defends its political leanings while responding to rumours of privatisation.

Sound familiar?

As the federal government launches the second inquiry this year into the ABC, The Age looks back at two articles from the archives that suggest history may be repeating itself.

A meeting of the ABC staff association held in the Sydney Town Hall in 1976.

A meeting of the ABC staff association held in the Sydney Town Hall in 1976.Credit:Kevin Berry

First Published in The Age on April 24, 1976

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ABC rates high on political coverage

The ABC’s television coverage of political news is considered fair by most Australians, the latest AGE POLL shows.

Sixty-seven percent think the political news and commentary on ABC television can be trusted and 66 percent say it is usually accurate.

The same number say it is balanced, while 52 percent say the ABC is politically not over-influential.

Against this, only 13 percent think the ABC’s political TV news cannot be trusted; 15 percent think it usually inaccurate; 17 percent think it biased; and 28 percent think the ANC wields too much influence on political matters.

The answers suggest that in the area of political news and commentary ABC television has a much higher level of credibility than the daily press.

The Age Poll from 1976

The Age Poll from 1976Credit:Fairfax Archives

Its credibility is also higher than commercial TV stations.

Separate questions on the political coverage of commercial stations showed 48 percent thought it trustworthy; 35 percent untrustworthy; 51 percent thought it usually accurate; 31 percent usually inaccurate; 52 percent thought it balanced as against 34 percent who found it biased.

Forty-seven percent thought commercial stations wield too much influence on political issues. Thirty-nine percent thought the reverse.

AGE POLL interviewed 2000 people of voting age in all six states and the ACT. The sample covered every Federal electorate except the Northern Territory. Interviewing was carried out on the weekend of April 3-4.

Men more inclined

The Age Poll from 1976

The Age Poll from 1976Credit:Fairfax Archives

Respondents were asked: “Thinking about the presentation of political news and political comment on ABC television, would you say the ABC in general: can be trusted or cannot be trusted; is usually accurate or usually not accurate; presents news in a balanced way or in a biased way; and has too much influence, or does not have too much influence.

Men generally were more inclined to see the ABC’s political coverage as trustworthy, accurate and balanced.

But whereas 15-18 percent of men gave a “don’t know” answer this increased to 21-24 percent of women.

White collar workers generally had more confidence in the ABC’s political coverage than blue collar workers. For example, 69 percent of white collar workers thought the coverage could be trusted; 72 percent considered it accurate and 67 percent considered it balanced.

ABC Headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney 2014.

ABC Headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney 2014.Credit:Peter Braig

Among blue collar workers, the equivalent figures were: trustworthy (65 percent), accurate (62 percent) and balanced (64 percent).

Liberal voters were generally happier than Labor voters with the ABC’s coverage. But 66 percent of Labor voters still found it trustworthy and balanced, while 64 percent found it generally accurate.

The equivalent figures among Liberal voters were: trustworthy (70 percent), accurate (71 percent) and balanced (66 percent).

Exterior view of the ABC building in Ultimo, 1991.

Exterior view of the ABC building in Ultimo, 1991.Credit:Kevin Berry

The same number of Liberal and Labor voters (27 percent) thought the ABC wielded too much influence.

Almost twice as many Labor voters (51 percent) and twice as many Liberal voters (54 percent) thought the reverse.

Of those who thought the ABC was politically biased, slightly more that it biased towards Labor (36 percent) than against Labor (35 percent).

Among Labor voters who thought the ABC was biased, 12 percent thought the bias was towards Labor and 62 percent, against Labor.

Commercial coverage

Among Liberal voters, the comparable figures were: biased towards Labor (55 percent), biased against Labor (18 percent).

Of the blue-collar workers who though the ABC was biased, 22 percent said the bias was pro-Labor and 49 percent anti-Labor. Among the comparable white-collar workers the figures were the exact reverse.

Sydney people, on the whole, had a better opinion of the ABC’s political coverage than Melburnians.

Thus 72 percent in Sydney thought the ABC politically trustworthy, as against 64 percent in Melbourne. And 69 percent in Sydney thought it balanced as against 63 percent in Melbourne.

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An analysis of the answers to the same set of questions on commercial TV shows that of those who thought its political coverage biased (34 percent) overall, 9 percent said the bias was pro-Labor and 61 percent against.

Of the Labor voters who thought commercial TV politically biased, four percent thought the bias was towards Labor and 77 percent against.

Among the comparable group of Liberal voters, 16 percent thought the bias was towards Labor and 41 percent against Labor.

(AGE POLL is conducted for “The Age” by Irving Saulwick and Associates in conjunction with the Beacon Research Company Pty. Ltd. And the Department of Political Science in the University of Melbourne)

First Published in The Age on April 29, 1976

Poll lifts ABC morale

The result of the AGE Poll on ABC credibility, published last Saturday, is seen inside and outside the Commission as a possible clincher in the debate on ABC autonomy.

It dispelled much of the gloom and feeling of uncertainty precipitated by accusations of political bias followed by the Government decision to hold an inquiry into broadcasting.

Dr. Earle Hackett, the acting chairman of the ABC in June, 1976.

Dr. Earle Hackett, the acting chairman of the ABC in June, 1976.Credit:Trevor Dallen

The acting chairman of the ABC, Dr. Earle Hackett, told TV-Radio Guide that the survey conducted as it was quite independently among a cross-section of 2000 people of differing beliefs and political persuasions, must be seen as a mirror of community attitudes.

“The finding that the ABC’s presentation of political news enjoys such a widespread high standing among Australians confirms the commission’s confidence in the overall professionalism and integrity of its news and public affairs staff.

“This view has been publicly stated by successive chairmen of the ABC. I am pleased to find further and scrupulously objective backing for this belief,” he concluded.

The Federal president of the ABC Staff Association, Mr. Ian Wynne, said the poll justified what the association had always claimed in answer to attacks upon the integrity of the ABC’s reporting.

“It will boost moral considerably because it will show ABC staff that no matter what individual politicians think of them the people who matter have got trust in them,” Mr. Wynne said.

Ian Wynne, the federal president of the ABC Staff Association, September 1976,

Ian Wynne, the federal president of the ABC Staff Association, September 1976,Credit:Kevin Berry

“The politicians had better worry about this poll because in the forthcoming inquiry many of those people will submit material and we believe it will justify the trust people have put in us.”

Mr. Wynne said he did not think that many ABC staff had ever thought that the public distrusted them “But the criticisms have been worrying because obviously the Government can affect the independence of the Commission.”

The elected staff member on the commission, Mr Marius Webb, said that the general reaction of ABC staff to the AGE POLL would be one of enthusiasm and relief.

“This relief stems from the fact that it is an independent survey which reflects what we always thought we were doing. It puts a lied to the many gross accusations against the impartiality of our reporting,” Mr Webb said.