In Saturday’s Australian, Rebecca Weisser argues that the ABC is biased. To fix the problem she suggests creating "a commission of inquiry to rework the charter so that it stipulates that balance in programming is fundamental to the operation of the ABC".
For political elites, media bias is coverage or programming that unfairly favours their opponents. But ensuring that a media outlet is unbiased in that way is not the same as ensuring that it reflects the values and concerns of the broader Australian public.
Each political party has issues it owns. Where a party has a reputation for being sincere and committed on issue voters are more likely to tell pollsters that the party is better able to handle that issue. Understandably, party elites want the media to focus on issues they own and to spend less time on issues owned by their opponents.
When the media talk about asylum seekers arriving by boat, this tends to advantage the Coalition. When they talk about policies designed to protect worker rights, this tends to advantage Labor. Stories about the environment and climate change tend to advantage the Greens (and to a lesser extent Labor). If a media outlet spends a lot of time talking about issues like climate change, Liberal Party elites may suspect a bias towards its opponents.
While all owned issues matter to voters, not all issues that matter to voters are owned. And when the media ignores these non-owned issues, political elites are unlikely to complain about a lack of balance.
There are times when it suits both major parties to keep an issue off the media agenda. For example, during much of the 1980s and 90s political elites of both major parties favored trade liberalisation and more open immigration. However among the broader public there was latent opposition to these policies.
Part of the reason that Pauline Hanson enjoyed a surge of support was that she discussed issues political elites and the media had ignored. People who were unhappy with immigration policy, competition policy and economic reform were finally able to express their frustration.
One way to look at media bias is to ask how it balances the concerns of insiders with those of outsiders. Is coverage skewed towards problems and solutions that political elites and those who advise them want to discuss?
Rebecca Weisser’s suggestions for reforming the ABC include recruiting ex-Liberal Party staffers to co-host the Insiders program and having both left wing and a right hosts for MediaWatch. These are solutions to the political elite’s idea of media bias. They would do nothing to make sure the ABC’s programming more closely reflected the concerns of the broader public.
The debate over bias at the ABC is not about how to make the national broadcaster a more "impartial clearing house for our ideas, and a stimulant to our thought", it’s about a struggle between rival elites.