Claims of a left-wing bias at the ABC are seldom absent from public discussion. These claims quickly lead to suggestions that the ABC should privatised.
Of course, bias and impartiality are notoriously elastic and subjective concepts. The only arbiter that can make sense of this tangle of subjectivity is the Australian public. The ABC’s impartiality can only be judged by its perceived alignment with the views of the Australian public as judged by the Australian public.
But how are we going to determine what the Australian public thinks is biased or impartial?
Why not just ask them?
Why not conduct regular ABC impartiality polls? Why not create a statistically accurate reading of what the stakeholders that fund the ABC think of its performance?
While it is easy to be sympathetic to arguments that public broadcasting is antiquated and irrelevant in an era when news and information is a simple finger-tap away, our expanded media-verse is characterised by weakened credentials and authority, and diminished responsibility accompanied by associated risks of wilful misinformation and manipulation.
Given these risks, it is relatively straightforward to articulate a renewed and refreshed case for public broadcasting that is founded on reliable, responsible and impartial reporting transparently founded on research and facts. But without radical impartiality this renewed argument for public broadcasting collapses.
An ABC impartiality poll could be conducted every six months by independent parties under competitive contracts and funded directly by Government. Survey and sample design would need to be sophisticated, but this is well within the science and art of modern survey techniques. Much has been made of the inaccuracy of polls in relation to the recent Federal election, but these errors amounted to less than a few percent. The survey data, methodologies and results would be open for academic and journalistic review and an orientation to continuous improvement would be a core goal.
Reliable survey data would enable us to identify the public’s impressions of overall bias and also provide public feedback on lower level questions: for example, an assessment of the impartiality of leading current affairs programs, and even ratings of the perceived balance of reportage on specific issues.
This data could be used to provide the ABC with strong and specific direction for improving the public’s perception of its impartiality. ABC management would be expected to act on these findings and new incentives could be implemented to encourage them to do so. Critically, the ABC’s funding could be indexed to its measured ‘impartiality performance’. Impartially would become an organisation-wide KPI.
There would be numerous technical survey design issues. Should the surveys be anonymous? Should they be linked to individuals say via a tax file number? Of course, there will be those who attempt to game the system and that needs to be a design consideration. Everything important gets gamed to some extent. That is the very thing that we are trying to deal with.
In the era of elevated political correctness, virtue signalling, social media echo chambers and political polarisation it is all too easy for unrepresentative ideological enclaves to form within our critical institutions and they are difficult to dislodge. Creating real, immediate and pecuniary incentives is likely to be the only effective solution.
We depend on the public having access to accurate information and a range of views and analysis that, taken together, represent a balanced perspective. Our collective investment in the institution that is the ABC needs to be protected against the corrosive influence of ideological capture.
Improving our institutions is an arduous process that can only be achieved wilfully via a degree of political consensus that appears increasingly difficult to assemble. Intuitional innovation as a national competitive differentiator is something that needs greater recognition in Australian politics.
In a world where trust and truth have become scarcer, they have also become more valuable. The need to address a growing market failure in the production of trustworthy public information suggests a pressing rationale for public broadcasting. But it is a role completely contingent on radical impartiality.