What kind of bias is Rebecca Weisser worried about?

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.

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Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

The charge of bias also arise because by covering important topics, the ABC has consistently covered progressive victories.

Liberalism basically won the twentieth century, and public broadcasters’ reporting of the zeitgeist has been cobbled together by modern conservatives into a history of bias, as though gay rights, feminism, environmentalism and racial reconciliation were never significant movements and wouldn’t have gained popularity without the nefarious Auntie pushing them on a helpless nation.

And that, of course, is the reasoning behind the bizarre concept of right-wing media: history can be frozen – or even reversed – if news outlets simply stop reporting anything new.

Steve Carey
Steve Carey
8 years ago

There is an interesting article by Dave Johnson on the Common Dreams website about the approach taken by right wing and conservative media in the USA and I believe, here too. The “media” can try to reflect to some degree the beliefs of the people they serve. Or they can set about changing the “mistaken” beliefs of the mob into right thinking. Fox is a classic US example as is the Australian here. Witness “Whitewater” and the Benghazi beatup there and the Gillard “slush fund” nonevent here. Other examples no doubt abound.

BurningChrome
BurningChrome
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve Carey

The “media” can try to reflect to some degree the beliefs of the people they serve. Or they can set about changing the “mistaken” beliefs of the mob into right thinking.

Fox are preaching to the converted. Nothing Fox anchors or prundits would say could persuade you to their way of thinking. Likewise, The Guardian UK also preaches to its flock. Both are guilty of inducing incredulity unto the reader/viewer.

rf
rf
8 years ago

Insiders and Media Watch; those 2 programs are such a source of angst for ‘the right’. Their focus on these 2 shows is far greater than the influence of either show on the wider community I’m sure. It also conveniently allows them to ignore the proliferation of liberal / conservative commentators parachuted in to almost every other ABC current affairs / news shows (come on down Nikki Savva, Peter Reith, John Roskam, Michael Kroger et al).

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  rf

I think that’s largely right. The problem is that with stuff like this and this is that it becomes very easy to paint the whole place as biased and downright silly, when it probably isn’t.

The other part is concern that the ABC might get as silly as the BBC and talk about insane muslim killers “making political statements” instead of something more accurate like “shouting Islamist slogans”.

So it is quite likely that it is a case of a few outlier trees obscuring the forest, but that always begs the question of why not chop down those trees? ;)

Pedro
Pedro
8 years ago

If you are hearing a lot of what you think is true and good, you won’t recognise that as bias. When you are not a labor voter, it is very easy to think that the ABC is largely run by labor and greens supporters. You tend to notice that the tone of reporting the things you agree with is different from that of the things you disagree with.

There are stupid and appalling people on both sides of the line. It is likely that the appalling people on the right have bigger audiences, but that is only significant to the extent is shows where the bulk of the general public sits on many issues. The other difficulty is with labels. Let’s call alan jones the most famous and vocal of the appalling right. I hardly ever hear him say something I agree with (not that I see or hear him often).

I think that the only reasonably balanced media I much look at is the Australian. They have lots that I both agree and disagree with.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

Labor has greater philosophical and policy differences with the Greens than it does with the Coalition, and they publicly oppose each other almost as much.

This is where decades of ABC-bashing really pays off: the notion that it’s avowedly left-wing is so entrenched that no matter how much it lurches to the right, conservatives can always complain that the IPA-approved views it expresses are verging on communism and must be moved even further right.

As for the Oz’s balance, I guess it did endorse Kevin Rudd, which balances out the endless campaigning and editorialising about Iraq’s WMD stockpile, the attacks on unions, gays, secularism and women, and those times when it simply rewrites research papers as convenient.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago

Actually, further to my earlier comment, can you all please read this piece and tell me that there isn’t a problem there??

I know that you are all too clever and sophisticated to read Tim Blair, but if you actually want to understand the ‘bias’ that people are talking about, then what he describes is a fantastic illustration of it.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Patrick

A couple of problems with that.

Militant Islam is on the rise and is a real and specific threat, which SBS should acknowledge, but what Blair and Bolt want isn’t to address the influence of Islam on the crime, but to skip over any sort of complexity and simply assert “Muslim bad!” (with the corollary that Christian is good).

I’m personally in favour of restricting immigration from strongly Muslim countries due to the current fashion for violent extremism, but the people who see a glaring leftist bias in SBS’ coverage would be equally outraged if coverage of Anders Breivik’s massacre focused on his Christianity to the exclusion of all else.

The real question is what is going on to radicalise young men, and the answer is a lot more difficult and complex than “Islam”.

The second problem is that discussion of Islam isn’t verboten.

Progressives leapt to the defence of Islam immediately after the September 11 attacks because, historically, groups that attract violent opposition from western conservatives generally turn out to be okay and deserving of a place in society, so it was a natural reaction.

You’ll find now, though, that leftist apology for Islam in general has waned significantly, so SBS isn’t really appealing to progressive sensibilities, even if that was the intention.

So much for bias.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

Progressives leapt to the defence of Islam immediately after the September 11 attacks because, historically, groups that attract violent opposition from western conservatives generally turn out to be okay and deserving of a place in society, so it was a natural reaction.

They did? And on the basis of such shallow thinking? I guess my connection to the lefty hive-mind was on the fritz as usual.

My personal reaction to the September 11 attacks was dismay, and appalled horror at the prospect of some seriously heavy US reprisals. And disgust at the rush to jingoism displayed in the editorial cartoons of US papers and on bulletin boards I used to frequent. Disgust at the quick adoption of racist epithets like ‘towel head’, a photoshop fit-up of muslims celebrating the attack with commemorative sandcastles, complete with embedded toy plane (the ‘towelheads’ in that one were actually Khalsa Sikhs). And so on.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

They sure did.

The Muslims-are-savages accusations were met with Muslims-are-sages defences. For every overblown right wing attack on Islam, the left mounted a defence based largely on Islam’s history of progressivism.

The true state of affairs is more difficult: while Islam has gone through periods of enlightenment equal to the west’s, at this stage it is in a hostile and regressive phase and needs to be quarantined.

It should come as no surprise that conservatives took the opportunity to unleash their bigotry, nor that the left reacted to contain it.

Australians are generally wary of Muslim immigration. The left should accept the real reasons for that and start talking about it intelligently instead of letting the Bolts and Blairs lead the way with simple bigotry.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Editor
8 years ago

The Muslims-are-savages accusations were met with Muslims-are-sages defences. For every overblown right wing attack on Islam, the left mounted a defence based largely on Islam’s history of progressivism. (emphasis added)

That’s an absurd universal claim which I refuse to accept without evidence. And it would have to be some pretty strong evidence given the very complex internal logic of that sentence. Too tired and frazzled right now to tackle the translation into formal notation to show you just how many conditions you have to satisfy to support it. Amusing as I might otherwise find the exercise.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

I think you’re conflating the response of informed, thoughtful leftists with the torrent of argument and counter-argument from internet activists.

If you want to talk about specific, long-form arguments, that’s one thing, but the front line was all about caricature.

I’ve been a campaign volunteer for both the Australian Democrats and Greens, and I assure you that simplistic notions of Islam are very popular with rank-and-file progressives.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

…and the vast majority of conservatives, obviously.

The left’s advantage is that it smarter on average, not absolutely.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

After I posted that last comment and wandered off in a fug of rumination and retardation to the bathroom to execute my plan to take a long relaxing soak for at least as long as it takes to listen to a Monteverdi CD, I decided the best way to express your claim formally would in set theoretical notation (with quantifiers). In more or less plain English starts something like this “All members of the set of attacks by members of the set of political actors known as the right (see definition pending) on the set of religious believers known as Muslims …” yada yada, lots more agonising syntax or incomprehensible mathematical symbols, take your pick.

You say:

I think you’re conflating the response of informed, thoughtful leftists with the torrent of argument and counter-argument from internet activists.

I say nothing of the sort. You have redefined the sets of political actors involved by re-specifying them as subsets of your original sets ‘left’ and ‘right’ within the intersection of the supersets political actors and idiots. Now that is a much more sustainable claim.

And now it really is time for bed. Too much insomnia can kill you.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

The more variables a post covers, the harder it gets to parse, which is frustrating.

I don’t have much truck with beyond-left-and-right claims. People can call themselves conservatives or liberals or progressives or libertarians or pro-bird, but they almost always fit safely on the right or left of centre.

There are times when a distinction is meaningful, such as the case of left-wing conservatives like North Koreans or right-wing progressives like Radley Balko, but for the most part people are on the usual scale.

We’re getting further and further from the content of your OP, but my point is that when it comes to media reporting Muslim terrorism, eliding the role of religion isn’t an example of left-wing bias, because the left long ago stopped believing Islam is progressive.

Case in point: look at how fast the chiefly feminist faction of the left STFU about respecting the veil and admiring the choice of women to cover themselves. Didn’t take many Sheik Hilalis to clear that one up.

paul walter
paul walter
8 years ago

She is that pathetic creature I saw on QA some time ago, isn’t she?
It is just fascist noise from Murdoch and should be treated with the contempt it deserves, along with the incessant belly-aching about “Media Watch”, which they only hate because it springs them too often telling lies.

BurningChrome
BurningChrome
8 years ago

heh. I pop into The Drum from time to time and you can be sure that many of the commenters see ABC as theirs – and by theirs, I mean as a platform for their anti-Abbot/lib rantings.

An example of an opinion piece (pure dreck) without any reference to Abbot or Libs:

din:
30 May 2013 8:13:51pm
the two ape comments were totally out of line,and shouldnt have been made

but there are people whose opinions matters to me, and people who dont. The vast majority of people are in the latter category. These people can call me whatever they want, and I wont like it get to me – since their opinion about me isnt important enough to worry about.

now lets go back to attacking Abbott, he deserves it

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-30/ho—racism/4723212

When I first hit the nets, I came across ‘Godwins law’. Now I know that some folks may think of Abbot as a Hitler of sorts – but come on. A piece completely unrelated to Abbot and we see a commenter chomping at the bit to get a boot in.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  BurningChrome

Anon’s codicil to Godwin’s Law: any intentional attempt at triggering of Godwin’s Law in order to invoke its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.
Trotsky (Gummo’s) Corollary to the codicil: as the length of any blog discussion of alleged ABC left-wing bias approaches infinity the probability of such an attempt approaches one.

BurningChrome
BurningChrome
8 years ago

Abbot, Abbott. I’ll get his name right one day.