The news that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) ruled a story broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) breached the ABC’s code for impartiality because the reporter, the ABC’s political editor, Andrew Probyn, included a reference to the former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, being “the most destructive politician of his generation” is no doubt causing mirth and glee among some other participants in the Australian media landscape. Most likely from the same media players who regularly lambast the ABC for ‘daring’ to intrude into media areas that they should not intrude into – and usually doing a better job at it – because the ABC operates from an unfair position because it is a public broadcaster and not subject the same commercial constraints as other media players.
Yet Katharine Murphy, writing for The Guardian, backs Probyn’s assessment. Not as “an opinion, or a tantrum, or an abstraction”, but because in the context of the story Probyn engaged in a “cool, rational, clinical assessment of the evidence”. Murphy observes:
We could pretend that the mess that Australia is in on climate and energy policy is just some accident visited on the populace, that we all just woke up one day in deep dysfunction and that is just one of those random things that happen for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – but we would be lying to our audiences if we did that, and lying to our audiences is intolerable, unconscionable and unprofessional.
Being impartial shouldn’t require a journalist to suspend judgment, and to pretend that all perspectives are inherently equal, it should require a reporter to apply professional judgment informed by a rigorous assessment of the facts, with the objective of informing readers and viewers.
The ABC’s impartiality code requires “a balance that follows the weight of evidence”. It also requires fair treatment, open-mindedness, opportunities over time for principal relevant perspectives on matters of contention to be expressed.
And I agree.
The former Prime Minister has been the most destructive politician of his generation in the areas of climate change and energy – which was the focus of Probyn’s report.
I can’t help but agree with Murphy’s assessment towards the end of her piece:
Australia doesn’t need a publicly funded false balance factory. If that’s what the ABC has to be to be judged “impartial”, then we would all be better off if taxpayer support was directed towards different ventures rather than a purportedly venerable institution occupying media space for the sake of it.
I’m a great fan of public broadcasting and a great fan of the ABC. But if this is what some want the ABC to become, then I’d rather it closed its doors than become something it was never meant to be.