Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Biased View of Media Bias

There's been a bit of discussion lately about media bias, following the new appointments to the Literature Board and the ABC. I can't say I'm too phased by it, since bias is not necessarily a bad thing; strange as it may seem, you can be both objective and biased. But it's an interesting subject, if only because of the frequency with which it crops up in political disputes. So I thought I might put my two cents in, about media bias in general, and about bias in Australian publications in particular.


Firstly, it has to be said that broadcast media, in Australia at least, is much less biased than published media. Right-wingers are fond of attacking the ABC for having a left-wing bias, and left-wingers are fond of complaining about right-wing bias in the commercial networks. That's not really true; as Rachy pointed out in a conversation with me, the commercial networks are populist. You can't really slot this populism into a political category; they'll go for whatever rates. For instance, Sixty Minutes did a story this weekend about the chemical pollution caused by a large company operating in Botany Bay: as a political issue, this is closer to something the Australian Greens might be focusing on, rather than the two major parties, but it's hardly an example of overwhelming pro-Green bias.

The ABC is not biased, either. It's probably different from the other stations in that it's self-consciously intellectual; it targets what are called the big ideas and the big issues, which is partly why it has so many programs focusing on religion and science and art and economics, even though none of them rate very well. I do agree that the ABC's board is biased, simply because I've been told by a person who worked for the ABC - a left-winger - that they were, overwhelmingly, old socialists. I just don't think that this has much of an effect on the content of the ABC shows. And why should I begrudge old socialists a job?
So, as I said, the ABC is self-consciously intellectual. Overall, I think this has a negative effect on their shows, since it means they will accept most ideas that come to them with very little criticism. About two weeks ago, on the 7.30 Report, Kerry O'Brien interviewed John Howard about nuclear energy. O'Brien challenged Howard that he had not looked fairly at the alternatives, such as wind and solar power. There is some truth to this, because these proposed alternative energies are demonstrably inefficient, and more energy may in fact be expended in setting them up and taking them down than they produce themselves. In other words, the 'sustainable energy' alternatives most commonly put forward in the media are silly alternatives. Why should we consider the silly alternatives 'fairly'? By continuing to use the ABC as a platform to push these alternatives, O'Brien contributes less to the energy debate than to the general confusion in Australia which surrounds this topic.
So, enough said about the ABC and the commercial networks.


Secondly, moving on to the published media, there are more extreme examples of bias. The most obvious reason for this is probably because of the predominance of opinion columnists; another example is the influence of Australian artists and creative writers on parts of this media.
Quadrant, for instance, is a right-wing publication - it's John Howard's favourite journal, for starters. It's also an excellent read. The first editor was Australian poet James McCauley; the current poetry editor is Les Murray; several poems and stories are featured in each issue. The articles are often excellent, written with wit and insight, covering topics from the serious and academic to the light-hearted and trivial. Here's the intelligent response of one Quadrant reader:

Well, I vote for The Greens at both state and federal levels and I buy Quadrant.

As he points out in comments to that post, 'I don't think it's good policy to ignore what the other side is doing and thinking.'

If anything, I lean to the right, but I agree with Dean; it's stupid to ignore people that disagree with you. At worst, they might persuade you that they are right about some political points. This is why I sometimes read Overland, which describes itself as a 'leftish literary journal'. It's not just leftish, it's far to the left of the Labor Party. (Yeah, I know, that's a biased claim; but that was the overwhelming impression that I got when I read it a while ago, and since I can't remember the articles that gave me the impression, I'm going to have to leave it at that.*)
Personally, I find that both the content and the arguments fall short of Quadrant's standards, but again, it covers a wide range of subjects, the writing is skilfull, and literature features heavily.

The mainstream media is also biased. Generally speaking, the Fairfax papers, most prominent of them being The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are left-wing. The Murdoch papers - most prominent being the Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph, and The Australian - are right-wing. Mr Lefty implies, in comments to this post, that The Age is 'fair and balanced'. He's half-right; The Age is balanced, but unfair. In the names of balance, for instance, it might feature columns by an extremist like John Pilger. (In Australia, Pilger is most well-known amongst fringe organisations, such as readers of the Green Left Weekly, where he is regularly published). Given that Pilger's routine method is to employ inflammatory propaganda terms and to ignore the crimes of terrorist organisations like Hamas, the question has to be asked - why is he printed in major Australian publications at all?

This being said, the Murdoch papers are biased too. They offer some support to the conservative Governments in Australia and America (but, interestingly, they also support the Labour Government in Britain.) Broadly speaking, the perspective they offer is patriotic and nationalist; they supported the Iraq war; and they are pro-privatisation. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is another question entirely. Personally, I enjoy their columnists and reviewers (even in the Herald Sun, with the exception of Andrew Bolt). The standard of debate in the Murdoch papers is just as high - if not higher - than in the Fairfax papers, and they are frequently better formatted and wittier. The Herald Sun regularly tells us more in a single headline than a Fairfax writer might tell us in a paragraph.


So there you go: a biased view of media bias. As I said, I don't think that bias is necessarily a bad thing, and it's possible to be both biased and objective. But it's also worth being aware of the kinds of bias in the news media, both on screen, and in print.

UPDATE! - Turns out the ABC board are now all Howard Government appointees. I think my ex-ABC employee acquaintaince may have been referring to the middle management. What, you wanted me to do research for a blog post? Oh, bugger off!

*I'd like to see you guys do that in an academic essay, heh!


At 7:21 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Fuck - this was a REALLY BORING post. Sorry guys, I'll try to do better; this topic just piqued my interest.

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim, I think you were a bit off the mark with The Australian. Their news columns are generally pretty much down the middle with the exception of a couple of Sydney "angle localisers" who drift into opinion.
But their official opinionistas are about as politically diverse as one could hope for: On the right there's Albrechsten, Devine, Pearson and Sheridan matched by Adams, Costello, Steketee and Price on the left. Covering the broad middle would be Kelly, Shanahan, Milne and Steve Lewis. The leader writers appear to second-guess Rupert depending on whether it's a libertarian or conservative type of day, but who reads leaders, anyway? And Emma Tom is all over the place like a mad woman's hair, which is kind of apt.
-- Slatts

At 1:41 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Could be - it's always hard trying to balance the opinion columnists, one off the other. The most prominent names in The Australian, for me, are Pearson, Albrechtsen, and Devine, and of course Adams. I always thought of Adams as The Australian's 'token' left-winger, anyway.

I think the editorials definitely have the tone of second-guessing Rupert; a good thing, really, since they provide an excellent balance to The Age's editorial page.

Thanks for your comment!

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Dean said...

Emma Tom is very good value. But I most enjoy Julie Baird. She writes for The Sydney Morning Herald and sort of looks to me like a closet Christian, but she's definitely good value.

The other guy I like is Matt Price. Very amusing. Short and sweet.

At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Pilger is hardly an extremist - in Britain, he's mainstream. He's always in the New Statesman, the Guardian - even the venerable Times now and again. With the exception of the Times, these are all lefty publications to be sure, but on my train in the morning, all of these publcations are reguarly brough in and out of the briefcases of middle managers and City types; there not just for earnest students who think they know a thing or two about Marxism.

Also, when I lived in Australia I distincly remember him on the ABC semi-regularly and I think Bob Hawke even had a very public go at him once, such was his prominence in the mainstream media once upon a time.

Perhaps it's just the current poverty of thought in Australian journalism that means that he's been relegated to the pages of a rag sold by a distinctly weird political cult?

He should be everywhere.

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