Earlier this month, the Australian Senate compelled the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to make public an internal review that assessed its coverage of the 2019 federal election. As a public broadcaster, funded by taxpayer dollars, the ABC engages in natural and constant self-analysis that most other media outlets do not. Reviews like this are common, but they are usually for internal purposes. However, the current government doesn’t like the scrutiny of a media outlet that it provides the budget for, and was looking for a way to embarrass the broadcaster.
While there were a number of findings that indicated that the ABC coverage of the election was fair and impartial, the headline that the government wanted made public was that two of the network’s panel shows did not feature enough conservative voices among their guest commentators. This assessment has been used to confirm the worldview of many within the government and their allies — especially within News Corp — that the ABC is hotbed of socialist agitation, out of touch with the values and inclinations of mainstream Australia.
In reviewing its broadcasts in a manner that sought to assess and calculate the political persuasion of its guest commentators, the ABC was submitting itself to an understanding of politics simply as a zero-sum struggle between cultural tribes. Through this perspective the media’s purpose is as a vehicle to transmit content solely via a partisan political lens. Therefore, in order for the ABC to provide “balance” as a public broadcaster, it is required to program segments that feature an equal number of partisan warriors from each side. If it fails to do so then it is perceived to be failing in its remit.
Yet the ABC is not a neutral actor devoid of political ideals itself, it doesn’t exist solely to facilitate the political battles of others. Media outlets have always had worldviews and political positions, and while public broadcasters are distinct entities that hold a purpose that is much broader than those of commercial networks, their purpose is based on certain political principles.
Public broadcasters exist due to a liberal democratic ideal that believes there are public benefits to having a well-informed population. Therefore the ABC is guided by a natural sense of public outreach, and it has an obligation to provide broad access to quality, reliable, and occasionally uncomfortable information. This requires both a commitment to geographic accessibility, while also seeking to serve those communities which may be overlooked by commercial media outlets. It is not a vehicle for majoritarianism.
In order to facilitate its charter the ABC needs to remain committed to the epistemological foundations of liberal democratic norms and principles. While liberal democracy contains an adversarial contest of political parties and ideas built into its structures, the brute tribalism that has come to dominate the way media outlets operate is an affront to its inherent commitment to pluralism. This pluralism is not an even number of partisan warriors battling for supremacy, it is a far more subtle and sophisticated phenomenon: the understanding and respectful coexistence of different and competing interests. These interests do not map neatly onto political parties.
As the adherence of Anglosphere conservative parties to liberal democracy has begun to weaken, these parties and their allies have come to see an adherence to epistemology, and even democracy itself, as forms of unfair bias. This makes the job of the ABC far more difficult, because in order to prevent itself from being perceived as politically partisan it feels the need to give exposure to ideas that may not be based in reality, and could be dangerous.
Often media outlets can get drawn into a game of creating “false balance.” This is particularly the case in relation to issues concerning climate change, where there is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the phenomenon, but a strong political identity in Australia built around denying its occurrence. The ABC’s editorial policy does not include a provision that the broadcaster should avoid views that contradict the weight of scientific evidence.
To be fair to the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has banned some of his party’s wilder politicians from appearing on the ABC, giving the broadcaster some respite from this dilemma. Yet the fact that he has had to take such an action speaks volumes about the party’s own internal problems, and the issues facing important Australian institutions like the ABC due to radicalization of conservative politics.
That the ABC consistently engages in self-scrutiny like the recent review of its coverage of the 2019 federal election is an indication of how seriously the broadcaster takes its duties to the Australian public. Yet the ABC should resist falling into the trap of assuming that people are incapable of existing outside of a political sect and therefore its programming should reflect this polarization. If it submits itself to an operational framework that favors labels over ideas, and feels the need to constantly emphasize what political team a commentator plays for, then this will only perpetuate the current dangerous cynicism and disillusionment that many people unfortunately now feel toward the media.