Towards a framework for analysis of the major forms of ABC/SBS broadcasting bias
I have been concerned for some time that the intellectual framework (and thus methods of analysis) concerning the public discussion of bias at the ABC (and SBS) is weak and under-developed. For example, the large number of complaints levelled by Minister Alston a couple of years ago at the ABC revealed a lot about ABC bias (at a gut frustration level) but did not adequately classify or point to the specific methods of deliberate bias engaged by our national broadcaster. I contend that the absence of a coherent framework for examining ABC bias has allowed the ABC to perpetuate this behaviour, almost seemingly at will. This has been most evident since September 11, 2001.
I do not pretend to hold specific expertise in media/press matters. In fact, I am far removed from the discipline – I am a budding law professional. My comments are therefore personal and subjective, but are also close to my heart – by being dismayed at what I see as the ongoing deterioration of the ABC.
The following ‘classification’ of the various forms of ABC bias is entirely based on my own observations, and is not supported by reference to existing research. I offer the material solely to stimulate thinking on how media bias can be defined and examined in an objective way.
- Overt bias – because of recent accusations of ABS bias, now relatively rare, particularly on ABC Radio National and ABC TV.
- Emotional bias – eg ‘Australian Story’, where subject choices tend to be selected from ‘victim’ groups (eg initially demonised but now ‘poor bugger me’ Geoff Clark of ATSIC; Hettie ?, a child sexual abuse activist famous for contributing to the demise of GG Hollingworth; there are many other examples, only occasionally different with an interesting case study),
- Leverage bias – this is where the ABC manufactures a ‘news story’ from one of its own programs - eg Four Corners articles frequently appear on the day of and the day after broadcast as ‘news’ articles
- Content/balance bias – this illustrates the ABC’s fascination with all things ‘wrong with social justice in Australia’. There is very little likelihood that ‘good news’ or ‘aspirational’ stories will get an airing unless it is in parody or ridicule (eg the series relating to Australian family dynasties could easily be interpreted as satire – the generous air time given to the ageing leftist Mungo McCallum in disowning his own Wentworth family is a case in point)
- Format/sequence/presentation bias – the ABC is expert in the use of theatrical and other techniques to strengthen a point. For example, the Four Corners program screened about poor David Hicks on 31/10/05 used blurred footage (with ominous music, but no voices) of GW Bush, Condoleeza Rice and one other (?Cheney) that implied or meant to leave the impression of conspiracy
- Partial-disclosure/Informant bias – this is the most common form of bias that I have seen. The ABC habitually allows people such as Phillip Adams to interview (regularly or occasionally) ‘experts’ without properly disclosing their backgrounds
- Headline-content disjunction bias – commonly observed where the headlines suggest something not easily discerned from the main text
- Omission bias – a very common problem with the ABC. Tonight’s Four Corners on David Hicks (31/10/05) was a good example of shameless and disgraceful one-sided reporting – so spectacular, that it could almost be believed!
- Questionable value/False value bias – a good example of this form of bias is where the ABC claims that there is ‘widespread outrage’ about something alleged to have been perpetrated by Howard/Bush/Blair. Often, this amounts to an exaggeration that cannot be validated by reference to other news sources such as BBC, CNN, ABC (USA) etc. Often used as an excuse to run a press release by the opposition. Instead of declaring the true basis of the item, it is portrayed as ‘outrage’, ‘widespread concern’ etc
- Non-correction bias – classic behaviour of the ABC. Allowed to get it wrong in a major way but offers no correction when caught out (eg Tiggie Fullerton forests piece shown on 4 Corners)
- Accepted wisdom bias/ Reference to higher authority bias – typically, manifested by quoting authorities such as the UN. Often used to demonise Israel. The ABC’s use of UN and other ‘authorities’ to virtually assert the illegality and/or immorality of Israel’s existence is breathtaking, to say the least
- ‘Quip’ bias – commonly seen in ‘old hands’ ABC Radio National staff such as Phillip Adams, Sandy McCutcheon, and perhaps others, adding their own sarcastic or cynical remarks to those of their guests. Sometimes used also to belittle or dismiss phone-callers or others who don’t follow ‘party line’
- Humor/Satire bias – it is hard to go past Dawe/Clarke on Thursday’s 7.30 Report for consistent bias against the Coalition. The occasional quip at the ALP seems to be just enough to deem this piece as OK
There are doubtless other forms of bias, but hopefully the above list may serve as a discussion point!