Friday, March 25, 2005


Prof. David Flint speaks:

Every so often someone lets the cat out of the bag. One recent example was the president of an English teachers' association - and former chairman of a government curriculum committee - who editorialised that the nation's English teachers had failed. This was not because of any prevalence of bad grammar or inadequate knowledge of Shakespeare. This was because their former students had just re-elected the Howard Government.

Last September, the Sydney Morning Herald journalist and former ABC Media Watch presenter David Marr insisted that the "natural culture of journalism is kind of vaguely soft-Left inquiry sceptical of authority". More ominously, he decreed that journalism should be a left-wing closed shop. "If they don't come out of that world, they really can't be reporters." Anyone else, he said, can just find another job.

But the golden rule of journalism is not to see the world through some ideological prism. Rather it is that while comment is free, facts are sacred. A clear distinction must always be made between opinion and the news, the publication of the results of the objective search for the truth on matters of current relevance. With the exception of the taxpayer-funded public broadcasters - where opinion must be balanced - the media remain free to express their views, however robust and partisan.

While the media demand that all institutions be accountable, it is a supreme irony that under their very own standards, much of Australia's elite media, and particularly its public broadcasters, are constantly found to be wanting.

The solution is not, as Media Watch argues, in imposing increasingly draconian regulation on the ABC's own competitors. When it was suggested the program operate under precisely the same disclosure rule it insists applies to commercial radio, Marr predictably dismissed this as nonsense.

But Media Watch would go further - it wants the gagging of some commercial radio presenters as well as big de facto fines on the stations. It once even called for a government-appointed media tribunal over the press - something hardly consistent with democracy. As noted American media watcher Stephen Brill famously told one of Marr's predecessors, Media Watch is not the solution: it's part of the problem. It ignores fundamental ethical requirements the most humble newspaper regularly observes - for example, that if you make a serious allegation subsequently found to be without foundation, you report this prominently.

When I was recently a guest on the ABC's Lateline program, I pointed out the obvious need for balance on the ABC. Marr theatrically declared this "nonsensical". It was, he argued, unbelievable that "this man, in this day and age should have such a kindergarten view of balance".

But in its very own code, the ABC requires that every reasonable effort be made to ensure programs are "balanced and impartial". It says that editorial staff are to present a wide range of perspectives, "not unduly favouring one over the others". Really?

We regularly hear the views of both government and opposition on ABC television news, which is perfectly proper. But then the opposing view will often be repeated not only by the Democrats, but also by one of two Green senators. And the news itself is too often selected through a "soft leftie" filter. Worse, in each week, ABC TV engages no conservative presenter and only one conservative commentator - and that for less than 10 minutes, on a Sunday morning and during church hours.

Not in anybody's wildest imagination could this be called "balance".... When Marr dismissed the code requirement for balance as "nonsensical", I pointed to the one and only program on ABC TV that is clearly balanced, Insiders on Sunday mornings. Even then, the conservative voice is always in a minority. But at least this ensures that any opinion, Left or Right, can be balanced. And not just "as soon as possible", as the code prescribes, but instantly.

Rather than continuing to be yet another left-wing taxpayer-funded opinion program, Media Watch should consist of a balanced panel exchanging no doubt robust opinions about the media. (Marr is strenuously opposed to this.) The chairman should have the skills of a Barrie Cassidy - and his courage, too.

Recall Cassidy's brave remarks on commercial TV about the ABC's almost deranged attempt to impose an extraordinary dose of political correctness after 9-11: "At the ABC, a memo went out about a week ago to all radio commentators that they were not to say anything derogatory about the Taliban … So here I am on Channel 10, I can say that the Taliban execute women for adultery. They've been known to throw acid in the face of young girls who don't wear veils and so on. I can get it off my chest on Channel 10 but I can't say it on the ABC."

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