Saturday, June 17, 2006

Unleashing my bias

Some people want the ABC privatised. Others like it public. I personally have no strong opinion either way, although I tend to agree with John Roskam in today’s Age. There may be some benefits of a public broadcaster, which I think Andrew Norton alludes to in his post on Catallaxy.

I like the serious tone of ABC television and the fact that it has time to run complex arguments at length. This is not to say that a commercial station wouldn’t do the same thing better – heck, when I had cable I would only watch Fox News and CNN (and the BBC, but isn’t that partly government funded?). But does it really matter if the ABC is biased towards the right or left in an age where we have so many other media outlets to choose from? If, as rational individuals, we assume the worst about any government (as we should, because they're a self-interested bunch like the rest of us) political bias hardly matters because we can adjust our decision making and thinking accordingly.

I wrote a paper on High Court appointments for a university assessment recently where I argued on similar lines. The same principle would apply to the court's appointees - whether or not they are appointed on the basis of merit or favouritism is a moot point if they're getting security of tenure and are well paid. At a broader level, the particular bias in an institution of government at a given time is nothing more than a reflection of current community opinion. This is the democratic element we shouldn't forget. And besides, there is no one - not even me! - who isn't biased. If you're human you're biased. It doesn't matter how well you reason around it.

I'm not implying the current bench is less than the highest quality. Indeed, I'm no expert, and from the judgments I've read so far - even controversial ones like Mabo 2 - the process of reasoning is well substantiated. Although, one might put that down to the nature of legal reasoning, which can probably be deceptively balanced unless you know what you're looking for (which, as a first year law student I don't). Of course, in such a situation it would be great to have more state input into the appointment process. Just so we can get a well-rounded bench - or board, in the case of the ABC. Professor Greg Craven has done some fantastic work in this area which I highly reccommend checking out.

If I followed through on my inherent bias towards privatisation it would lead to me adopting a predictable stance. I mean, apart from public goods why have anything in 'public hands' if it can be provided by the private sector? That would be my bias, and I'm sure others have theirs. But in this instance I'm not particularly fussed either way. I don't mind a bit of left-wing reportage if it forces me to think.


At June 20, 2006 12:13 pm, Blogger Jono said...

. But in this instance I'm not particularly fussed either way. I don't mind a bit of left-wing reportage if it forces me to think.

But you already have left-wing reportage coming out of private media outlets, mainly the Fairfax press. And unlike the ABC, they are held accountable by market forces.
I'm sure there is a market out there for left-wing opinions.

But why should everybody be compelled to pay for the ABC when not only do I disagree with what they broadcast, but I simply don't watch it 99% of the time ?

Just like you, I find it a positive thing to challenge your existing ideas by reading opposing viewpoints.

But the ABC are a rigid dinosaur, with the editors enforcing a strict code of conduct. They stopped ABC reporters from mentioning how the Taliban threw acid in women's faces, and they refrain from use the word "terrorist" to avoid defaming Islam and insulting Muslims.

Whats more, they are stealing market share from Fairfax and other left-wing outlets. It costs close to $800mil per year to run, why not just give the money back to taxpayers ?

At June 20, 2006 1:14 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think my post was a bit convoluted. I didn't mean to imply I'd oppose ABC privatisation in all circumstances, just that perceived bias - which, instead of the financial point you raise, is what the debate seems to be revolving around - by itself is not a good enough reason for privatisation. In any case it's a subjective assertion to make. I actually prefer a small degree of left-wing bias in certain social policy areas (gay marriage, recreational drug use, abortion) and with this government I would not protest against the left's 'bias' in favour of basic human rights' issues.

As the ABC is not providing something that the private sector couldn't do better, I agree the wastage of taxpayer money should stop, but it's not something I'm particularly 'fussed' about given the other reform areas liberals need to be pushing. Put it down as a peripheral element of reform. People will always claim bias to reflect their own bias, and no doubt the debate will settle down a bit if the ABC were privatised. I'm not so sure that in this case it's something clear-cut that you can objectively point to as a recurring, institutionalised pattern - do you see it that way? The fact that many people are arguing about the ABC's bias will no doubt create some public pressure for reform. I think people are generally smart enough to think for themselves anyway - if they weren't politicians wouldn't find it so hard to change their views.

At June 20, 2006 7:03 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I have to admit I hadn't thought of the state-run ABC competing with market-based sources of leftist opinion (like Fairfax), but that's undoubtedly what it does.

So, in line with an injunction from Professor Suri Ratnapala, my favourite professor at law school... thanks Jono for making me think about something I simply hadn't thought of before!

At June 20, 2006 7:48 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

I was gonna let this slide, but Jono's response just got more provocative as it went on. This post was actually three times as long. I've cut off (for now) some of the more theoretical argumetnts against ABC bias and also some stuff dealing with the more substantive market and tax arguments.

Before I get into it, jono, do you have a link to the Taliban/Acid story. Sounds despicable.

I dont want at all to dominate the comments section, so i'll leave the rest for a few days.
It's bloody long enough already. So treat is as an unfinished opus.

OK. Sukrit is right that percieved bias is always gonna be subjective, but I think if we collectively look at the facts we can all agree to at least stay in the same ballpark.

1)Fairfax does not have an obvious left-leaning bias nor as many readers as some think. Take a look at the leader on todays Op-ed page (its relevant to the subject too.)

2)News Limited has a more clearly obvious bias than Fairfaz AND a bunch more readers (though - these days - not as much of the first as many 'leftists' believe.)Todays Op-ed leader: ttp://

3) Both SMH and The Age have serious 'rightist' competitors in their home city. Too bad for Brisbanites ,Hobartians and all the others. Now, where did that market for left wing ideas go? Somewhere in Ruperts closed fist I reckon. Never forget we are crony capitalists not any other kind.

4)Here's a big one. The ABC, overall, does not have a significant bias. We can argue details if you like.

5) What bias the ABC has is dwarfed by that shown by 3 major TV stations and about 5 major radio stations. Oh, and Pay TV (I assume, since i've hardly seen it.)But you'd be foolish not to consider the power of CNN (and the BBC of course) In the T.V World the 'left' has SBS (partially government subsidised?) and Online it is a different story. Perhaps a pointer to the future?

6) What bias the ABC does have is distorted massively by the current political climate and fostered by a decade of Coalition rule (and also of prosperity) among other things. Battler values may be seen as reflecting the current political 'centre' (and they have every right to, until we get a better democracy) but that doesn't mean their opinions are based on fact.

So reform, yes! Privatisation? There must be precious few org's less suited to that particular course of action. And of all the justifications for doing that, percieved bias is way out ther beyond peripheral. In fact I reckon it's an argument against privatisation, personally.

At June 20, 2006 7:52 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

To clarify: My point 6 is essentially arguing that what we think of as 'the centre' - to which the ABc is seen as swinging to the left - is actually not the objective centre at all. Instead it is constructed crap.

Cheers :-)

At June 20, 2006 10:33 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I have long maintained that commercial television is not biased. It is too awful to be biased.

Bias requires a certain degree of literary and compositional skill (I used to work as a graphic artist for a major charity - I know this intimately). With the exception of shows like Sunday, most commercial telly is simply not good enough to be biased.

This is not to say bias is good. It is simply to say that is not necessarily a marker of poor quality. I have seen outstandingly good programs (including on FoxNews) that are undoubtedly biased to the right. I have seen outstandingly good programs (some on the ABC) that are biased to the left.

Long experience in the law has taught me to treat telly viewers like jurors. We may think they are stupid - they certainly don't understand the law - but 99% of the time they get it right. Seldom does a jury return a 'perverse' verdict.

Likewise, seldom are telly viewers taken in by bias, especially when they are not well-educated. F. A. Hayek once postulated (in Law, Legislation and Liberty, I think) that ordinary people could adopt effective filtering strategies based on their life experience.

These strategies did not require education; they required inherited knowledge, a sort of evolutionary epistemology for grown-ups. Educated people, by contrast, can bugger up badly. I've lost count of the number of university educated people who'll trust Al Jazeera before the BBC or CNN. Because they don't tell lies for their supper, they assume journalists (inevitably middle-class) don't tell lies for their supper.

Poor people are never so gullible. I know - I was one for most of my life.

At June 21, 2006 2:56 pm, Blogger Jono said...

Mikey. Maybe you should pay attention to Sukrit's observation that bias is often a perceived thing.

Leaving aside bias. I'm only try to convey one message. Why should every taxpayer be compelled to pay for the ABC ? That question hasn't been addressed.

As for the contentious issue of bias, you can't honestly claim that the ABC has no significant bias overall.

Everybody, every media outlet has some bias. You and I are both biased. It really annoys me when people can pretend that they aren't biased.

If you wish to portray the ABC as unbiased, then it doesn't do much but show your appreciation of its left-wing slant.

I don't see how linking to op-ed pages, is an accurate reflection of what has been years of media bias at different institutions.

I would disagree with you and say News Ltd is less biased than Fairfax. News Ltd does much less editorialising of its news reports than other outlets.

Have you read weekend editions of the SMH or Age ? They are so loaded with left-wing editorialising its palpable.

Oh and heres the link to the story about ABC self-censoring over the Taliban throwing acid on women's faces:

I saw this myself on Channel 10, when an ABC journalist described that he couldn't mention certain things at the ABC. Its quite a well known quote, you can google it.

At June 21, 2006 2:59 pm, Blogger Jono said...

By the way, the ABC has a well known program called Media Watch. It repeatedly attacks News Ltd publications for errors or inaccuracies.

Can anyone find a single example of where it has criticised ABC errors ? Even when people have emailed and phoned the ABC bringing those errors to attention, Media Watch have *NEVER* published a single one.

Media Watch is nothing more than a self-righteous PR campaign to attack journalists whose ideology doesn't match the ABC editors.

At June 24, 2006 8:02 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Cheers Jono,

I admitted from the start that the ABC has a bias. Significant Bias...hmm, well that depends. OK, pressed, I will admit that about 5% of the ABC's programs have significant bias. This includes a fair few programs on Radio National and a few things on ABC TV. On top of this there are semi-regularly occasions where some-one, somewhere on the ABC goes over the top (I remember something on JJJ's breakfast show a few years ago?) I will also admit, that I am only one (biased) person so clearly my truth isn't THE truth.

Those programs which have significant bias are balanced out, with very few exceptions, by the abundance of 'right wing' media, as I mentioned before. Mediawatch performs a valuable service and I wish Channels 7,9 or 10 had a similar program. It's way more than a P.R campaign but I understand that it embodies a kind of snide, righteous elitism, that really pisses off some people.

I don't know about Media Watch on the ABC (that's setting a high standard which few media outlets meet) but they certainly dont shy away from jabbing their 'left wing' colleagues at Fairfax. there's about a two to one ration of articles referecning News to articles referencing Fairfax.

I enjoy the weekend editions of the SMH, so that provides some anecdotal support for the fact they are more 'leftish', though It's only others who would describe me as such.But more so than News? I think we'll have to agree to (very strongly) disagree. Maybe we could keep this thread open and every so often post a piece that we percieve as bias. Would be an interesting experiment.

As for your overriding point on Tax, well, here's something I prepared earlier. I think this style of argument is virtually useless. Tax can not be understood as an individual transaction; it is a complicated process and anyone taking this line needs to address the implied complexity of that within the limited possibilites of the current political climate. In an ultimate world perhaps, but then a lot of things would be very different including the ABC. As it happens the ABC's budget is fairly small, and has been getting smaller for a long time (prior to the last budget.) Moreover, just like educated graduates (the last targets of the 'but they're stealing my money logic") the ABC produces a public good that goes way beyond what you see (or don't see on your t.v. screen.)

The final reason is that there are several negative consequences of privatisation some of which I hint at in the below post, which constitutes the crumbs of what i wrote a few days ago.

At June 24, 2006 8:07 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Other reasons why the ABC has no significatn bias and should not be privatised

7) Like the U.N, I think a lot of the ABC's critics ignore a vast bulk of their operations

8) ABC Radio National offers the best example I am aware of where clear opinion balance reigns. What do you get when you put Michael Duffy and Philip Adams together? In fact I think this is an example of the pressure for public reform Sukrit talks about.

9) Market forces do not keep Fairfax (or anyone else) accountable, they keep it short-sighted, headline oriented and bubbling with pointless polemic.

A rejoinder to Sukrits comments about ABC & the market

"Opinion, like everything, is a market. If the ABC were forced to compete we'd see an improvement in standards and the ABC would prosper"

This is the most solid argument in all of this, yet i'm highly dubious of it. If you want to push the point i'm happy to dance. I don't agree the ABC is providing something the market could do better. I actually think that the media sector offers one of the stronger arguments against full economic libertarianism. The imperative to earn money and to run commercials affects media and especially affects news & Current affairs programs. Ratings are a very crude measure and a very inadequate incentive. And when we consider the other 'products' ABC offers (Community, contribution to national identity) the idea that the organisation should be sold off becomes for me, ludicrous.

At June 24, 2006 9:04 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

As my comments thus far show, I'm more in the Sukrit camp on this one - while there probably is bias, I just don't find it particularly annoying. No-one is forcing me to watch the ABC (although, as Jono quite rightly points out, I am being forced to pay for it).

Leaving that issue to one side for the moment, I think much of the conservative and libertarian dislike of the ABC stems from the 'snide, righteous elitism' Mikey referred to. Media Watch with David Marr at the helm is one example, but there are many others, particularly on Radio National. Sometimes the punters see through this - witness what happened to that appalling arts show fronted by 'sneering lefty' Guy Rundle.

That said, TV is a very exposing medium. As any lawyer who's had to spruik for a client on the 6 o'clock news can tell you, it does more than just make you look fat. Radio National provides a shelter behind which the 'sneer' can more easily hide.

I honestly believe that many more people would pay heed to leftist views if they were not articulated with such self-righteousness. To a skeptic like me it comes across as almost religious and very off-putting. And, to be fair, I dislike it when righties sneer, too. Gerard Henderson comes to mind in that respect.

At June 24, 2006 9:35 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Hej sl, I forgot to comment on your 'too bad to be bias' line of thinking.

I think that only captures one type of bias. The intentional, direct bias. There are other kinds and in regards to Commercial T.V they often come via market pressures, methinks. And via shareholder pressures. And of course via Mogul pressure. Which is not to say the ABC doesn't have different pressures which cause different Bias'.

On the Snide rightteousness, well...that didn't spring out of nowhere. I'm open to correction, but I suspect that the longer Howard has been peddling the aussie battler, man of the people, anti-intellectual schtick, the more irritated and snide people like David Marr have become. In other words it takes two to tango.

The climax of all this came after the recent election. The reaction of the dispossesed left towards those who gave Howard the senate was horrible. And I think it was a truning point. Nevertheless, it's one of the things which makes me tend to turn off when anyone describe themselves or others as 'left' or 'right.'

How do you find The Chaser, for example?

At June 24, 2006 9:52 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I have to be honest and admit that I've hardly watched any of The Chaser - I saw a bit of their War on Everything, and some of it was pretty funny. I'm thinking especially of the bit where one of them rolled up to some altmed festival and started spruiking various forms of snake oil - often labelled as such, too. All these old hippies were completely taken in by it. It probably appealed to me because of my membership of the Skeptics - we've been trying to debunk some of the loopier aspects of the 'new age' movement for years.


Post a Comment

<< Home