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Staff capture. Paper from the Institute of Public Affairs Conference: Their ABC or our ABC?, held Sydney, 31 March 2001

Staff Capture


( Speech to the IPA Conference, 31 March 2001 )



Christopher Pearson *



In a disconcerting moment of frankness, Phillip Adams once admitted that, of course, ABC Radio National was a hotbed of political correctness.


Even more disconcertingly, making the same concession in a far less complacent way, Robert Dessaix remarked that working in much of the ABC was a comfortable enough proposition if you were female or gay but that, in terms of career prospects, heterosexual male employees might just as well slit their wrists and be done with it.


Coming from two of its more astute internal observers, these seem to me compelling evidence of a longstanding problem with the national broadcaster.


Significant sections of its operations have been subject to staff capture. Instead of serving the interests of its shareholders, the public, they serve the much narrower and less representative interests and ideological preoccupation of their employees.


There are honourable exceptions---like most of regional radio. But the gap documented by Professor John Heningham in his research on the world views and values of Australian journalists and the public is obvious and widening.


This gap helps explain how reconciliation, the republic and social justice have become emblematic issues---in ABC news and current affairs coverage and in consequences in the quality press---at a time when they barely register as matters of concern to the electorate.


Tony Walker, writing in these pages, and Greg Barns, in The Age , last week specified them as the defining assets of Peter Costello's claims to the leadership of the Liberal Party.


I think Costello has far too much sense to hang his hat a second time on the republican peg, given that the referendum was resoundingly defeated in all States.


Although there is a broader suburban support for Aboriginal, he's also well aware that it's an ALP strategy designed to help Bob Hawke and latterly Kim Beazley resile from their ill-considered commitments to a treaty: a slogan vague to the verge of meaningless and very unpopular with conservative constituencies whose support Costello will need.


Then there is social justice, a cant Vatican term of the 1890s, which means in policy terms whatever redistributive plan the individual invoking it has in mind.


Costello's hapless brother, Tim, a Baptist minister, is partial to the phrase and deploys it in the same carefree way as Michael Raper, the head of ACOSS. Treasurers and prime ministers need to be exceedingly cautious when borrowing rhetoric designed by their opponents.


It is a common misconception, I think, that the support the ABC lends the Labor Party is unequivocally welcomed by it.


Several ALP parliamentarians were openly mortified by the relentless, partisan and dishonest reporting of the Hindmarsh Island affair. It's a comfort to know some of them have a real respect for Aboriginal culture and detest fabrication and fraud.


The key to understanding the internal culture of the ABC is that it owes more to nostalgic baby-boomerdom and what I call 'the Bob Ellis tendency', than to the thoughtful Left, let alone the Right of the ALP.


While plainly Labor benefits from publicly funded barracking and undercritical reporting before elections, some of its MPs and many party members are interested in sensible policy development, moving the arguments along. How much Mark Latham feel about the trivialisation of a subject like social capital?


The debate about public education and how to fund it has barely progressed beyond the rhetorical pieties which were Senator Natasaha Stott Despoja's stock-in-trade as a student politician.


Intelligent Labor people often noisily resent the way that ABC news and current affairs deals, in a dopey and demeaning fashion, with policy issues they care about. These range from its kindergarten economics to its reportage of the IVF debate, euthanasia, abortion and 'safe injecting rooms'.


Its handling of the far-from-settled scientific arguments about global warming, with inevitable implications for exporting Australian, has scarcely been reassuring either.


Finally, there are a lot of Labor-voting Catholics. Imagine how they feel about the moral universe in a serial like Sea Change or Nell Schofield's unforgettable, gushing coverage of the Sydney Mardi Gras.



* Christopher Pearson is Editor of The Adelaide Review .