Yes, it is our ABC

The gulf between the views of the public and the ABC’s vocal critics is large and growing, writes Rodney Tiffen

05 December 2013

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“Publicly and privately praiseworthy”: ABC managing director Mark Scott.
Neerav Bhatt/ Flickr

RUPERT Murdoch’s Australian newspapers are not going gentle into that good night. Their lamentable circulation performance suggests that grim days await them, but their rage is undiminished. In particular, the Australian has maintained its rage against its most enduring target, the ABC.

In recent weeks the paper has published almost twenty stories about the pay packages of prominent ABC broadcasters – packages that pale beside the remuneration rates seen as unremarkable among its commercial competitors. But that was just a prelude to its more intense coverage of the publication by the Guardian and ABC of leaked material revealing how Australian intelligence had tapped into the phones, among others, of President Yudhoyono and his wife.

The leaks provoked intense diplomatic tension between Australia and Indonesia, and commentators in the Australian were overwhelmingly of the view that they should not have been published by the ABC. With its usual percussive campaigning, the paper found many ways to hammer its theme of ABC irresponsibility. On Tuesday this week, for instance, the topic took up more than half the paper’s front page, and included a very long article claiming that “some” have claimed that ABC chief executive Mark Scott and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger are involved in a “bromance,” evidenced by the way that they are “praiseworthy of each other” – yes, “praiseworthy” – in private and public.

On Wednesday, the media in general, and the Australian in particular, reported the strong criticism of the ABC and its left-wing bias expressed at Tuesday’s meeting of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party. Among the variety of sanctions proposed was Senator Cory Bernardi’s suggestion that the internet publishing activities of the “taxpayer-funded behemoth” should be terminated.

The echoes of the Howard era are almost deafening. During the 1996 election campaign, the Coalition foreshadowed a public inquiry into commercial television and promised to maintain the ABC’s funding levels. Once elected, it quietly abandoned the inquiry into commercial TV and then, citing the budget deficit, announced a major inquiry into the ABC, with its main term of reference the need for the national broadcaster to adapt to a reduced budget. What the head of the inquiry, Bob Mansfield, discovered was the strength of public affection for the ABC. In the end, he recommended cuts to international broadcasting (which would not offend substantial domestic constituencies) and changes to how the broadcaster managed its properties, a recommendation that was thankfully ignored.

With its public harassment and its appointment to the ABC board of ideologues who lacked any sympathy for the national broadcaster’s mandate, the Howard government inflicted considerable damage. A funding squeeze meant that the ABC’s budgets declined relative to its major commercial competitors. But the strong public regard for the ABC that Mansfield had discovered was its major protection against stronger frontal attacks.

If the contrast between vocal opinion (as represented by conservative Liberals, News Corp newspapers and commercial talk-radio announcers) and public opinion was wide in 1996, it is almost unbridgeable now. To get a sense of how out-of-step the ABC’s loudest critics are, it’s useful to begin by looking at public opinion about the media as a whole.

The Australian Election Survey, conducted after the 2010 election, asked respondents to express their degree of confidence in thirteen different groups and institutions. The armed forces came top, with 91 per cent expressing either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence. Perhaps surprisingly, universities came next, at 80 per cent. The two institutions at the bottom were television (23 per cent) and, still lower, the press (17 per cent).

Although opinion polls show great variation depending on the phrasing of survey questions, the general theme is scepticism about the media’s performance. In May 2011, for instance, Essential Media – which now polls regularly on this issue – found that only 35 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that the media usually report the news accurately, while 54 per cent disagreed. On the question of whether the media usually report all sides of a story, the split was an even more unfavourable 21–69. On their capacity to hold politicians accountable, the media did better, almost evenly split 45–43.

Sometimes public regard for the media is even lower than might be imagined. Following the Abbott government’s travel rorts scandals in October, Essential asked respondents to rate ten industries and organisations as either “extremely corrupt,” subject to “some corruption,” or “not at all corrupt.” The media topped the list with a 34 per cent “extremely corrupt” rating, just ahead of government, on 32 per cent, and building and construction, on 25 per cent.

Contrasts in attitudes to individual news organisations are equally interesting. In a 2010 online survey conducted by Polimetrix, which I designed with David Rowe and Paul Jones, respondents were asked to rate ten different groups and organisations on a “feeling thermometer,” with a higher rating indicating more favourable feelings. The ABC rated highest, with a mean of 6.7, and commercial TV coming second, on 6.0, ahead of the two major political parties Labor and Liberal on 5.0. News Limited newspapers rated 4.8 and commercial talkback radio 4.7, both well ahead of the bottom-rating group, asylum seekers, on 3.4.

When Essential asked respondents to rate their trust in sixteen institutions and organisations in March 2013, the High Court rated highest at 74 per cent; the ABC came second, at 70 per cent, ahead of the Reserve Bank (64 per cent) and charitable organisations (52 per cent). The TV news media came in ninth, at 30 per cent, and newspapers were eleventh, at 27 per cent. The same question had been asked two years in a row, and the ABC’s rating has been heading up, while TV news and newspapers remained broadly flat.

In August, Essential posed a more focused question about trust in media coverage of the 2013 election. Contrasting those who had a lot and some trust, with those who had not much trust and no trust at all, ABC TV ranked highest with a 58–17 ratio, while commercial TV had a 29–53 ratio. Among newspapers (according to respondents in the relevant state for each title), the Age had the best ratio (42–34) and the Sydney Morning Herald ranked second (39–37). The Australian split evenly (31–31), while the Murdoch tabloids were well into net negative ratings – the Herald Sun 30–51; Daily Telegraph 25–49 and Courier Mail 23–41.

Essential had carried out a similar survey in July 2011, but had only asked people to rate newspapers they regularly read. All came out on the positive side of the ledger, but there was quite a hierarchy: the Age was at the top (79 per cent of its readers expressing trust; 18 per cent distrust); then the Sydney Morning Herald (74–25); the Australian (69–27); the Courier-Mail (65–34); the Herald Sun (54–44) and last the Daily Telegraph (52–46). Among these respondents, in other words, almost half of its own readers didn’t consider the Telegraph trustworthy.

The generally high regard for the ABC carries over into support on particular policy questions. For example, in our 2010 Polimetrix survey, 80 per cent thought that in the modern world public broadcasting was still important, with only 6 per cent thinking its time had passed. In June 2013, an Essential Poll found a clear majority (57–15) opposing privatisation of the ABC and SBS. In October 2012, Essential reported that 34 per cent thought the ABC should receive more funding, with another 32 per cent considering current levels about right and only 17 per cent believing it should receive less funding.

A consistent – indeed a stark – picture emerges from this polling data, but it is not one you are likely to see highlighted in the Australian. The public has little confidence in the news media as a whole, and the ABC is, overwhelmingly, the most trusted and respected media institution in the country. •

Rodney Tiffen is author of News and Power (Allen and Unwin) and Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (UNSW Press). His new book, Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment, will be published in February by NewSouth.

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  1. Ronald Kerr added this comment on 5 December 2013 | Permalink

    The whole thing is political. One only has to consider how the present government is going about minimizing the information which, in normal circumstances, should be in the public realm. They can control the commercial media by threats and promises but fortunately not the ABC – yet. It irks them.

  2. Cherie Studwell added this comment on 5 December 2013 | Permalink

    Regardless of public support for the ABC which I fully endorse, I fear this government could well go ahead with plans to, if not destroy, then at least hobble the ABC. I think Abbott is going to go quite a lot further to the right than Howard. He wants to make his mark.

  3. Erica Jolly added this comment on 5 December 2013 | Permalink

    There is one thing we can be sure of. The ABC will need to be protected from a Senate dominated by the Coalition and those who support it even if they are independents after July 2014 and the results of the re-run Senate election early in 2014. This government has no interest in protecting the only non-advertising public broadcaster in Australia. It has no interest in equity. It has no interest in the kind of public service the ABC with its educational role and its role in preventive health work. its preservation of the wide range of the arts that bring with them education as well as entertainment. It has no interest in honesty. We have seen already how it works once it grasps power.I have noted over decades and particularly since 1996 how our shallow, often shock-jock driven noise in commercial media behave to prey upon the fearful.
    All those people who value this one public service with all the effort it makes to be balanced – it has needed to be careful even since Howard showed his purpose – whatever their political persuasion will need to fight to protect it from the likes of Cory Bernadi and Christopher Pyne and all who want to turn us into an American clone where the public broadcaster must rely on the donations of those with wealth in a population of 240 million. Imagine our remote and regional areas without the access to all the ABC offers on behalf of their inhabitants in so may different ways. It has an broadly connective role for all Australian citizens and children whatever their background, and wherever they live. Thank you for these reassuring figures but they will not be enough against Murdoch’s marauders unless we start fighting now to protect it.
    Erica Jolly MACE – Member of the Australian College of Educators

  4. David Ransom added this comment on 6 December 2013 | Permalink

    The ABC is essential to public debate in Australia. Like the song says- You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
    David Ransom

  5. David Hand added this comment on 6 December 2013 | Permalink

    This article is a classic non sequitur. Actual facts supporting the headline – “The gulf between the views of the public and the ABC’s vocal critics is large and growing” do not appear anywhere in the article.

    Instead we have the harsh criticism from the Murdoch press et al, accusing the ABC of bias, compared with a fairly banal question about how trustworthy people think the ABC is.

    Well where do I fit in? I trust the ABC as a news source and I think it has a left wing bias.

    For an article that is actually about the heading, look at these questions.

    Do most people want to stop the boats?
    Does anyone at the ABC want to stop the boats?

    Do most people think it is really bad that the ABC has compromised Australia’s intelligence activity and made the Abbott government’s relations with Indonesia more difficult?

    Does anyone at the ABC think it’s really bad. Well at least Mark Scott admits that the story has really damaged Australian / Indonesian relations.

    In reference to those questions, I think you will find that the gulf between the views of the public and the ABC’s vocal critics is not very large at all.

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