In his regular column for The Age, Jonathan Holmes makes the usual argument about why there should be more right wing voices on the ABC. As a right wing person myself, I disagree with Holmes’ argument. I thought I’d outline why.
Holmes’ argument is the old ‘The ABC has a legal obligation to have right wing people on it’ refrain. The Charter is found in s 6 of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1983, and there is not a single provision that states that there needs to be right wing voices on it. The only time the word ‘balance’ appears is in subsection 2(a)(iii): ‘to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialized broadcasting programs’. And that’s the only time the word appears in the Act at all.
There is a myth circulating that there’s a legal obligation for right wing voices to be broadcast on the ABC. As a piece of rhetoric, it’s fascinating, suggesting that nobody would broadcast right wing voices unless there was a legal obligation to do so. Indeed, there’s the opposite. Section 79A states that the ABC may determine to what extent and in what manner political matter or controversial matter will be broadcast.
The closest we get to a requirement is in s 8 of the Act, the duties of the Board. It is the duty of the Board to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism. It’s this section which enlivens Principle 4 of the ABC Code of Practice, but even this doesn’t say there needs to be a right wing voice on the ABC.
Holmes’ argument is difficult to follow in the particulars. He appears to be narrowing down on ABC radio in particular, claiming that its ‘leftiness’ is not representative of the nation as a whole. But his argument in the lead up to that appear to be a bit scattergun.
But if you take out the error about the ABC having a legal obligation to host right wingers, no part of Holmes’ argument follows. The ABC is filling a gap in the market left by commercial radio providing right wing voices, but the ABC should also cover the territory catered for by the commercial radio stations? The ABC has an obligation to duplicate the offerings already available in the marketplace? Radio National should do more to appeal to people who voted for Tony Abbott and John Howard?
Holmes does not argue on the grounds of quality. The starting point of the conversation ought to be: ‘Would the ABC be better if it had more right wing voices on it?’ Clever people might note that the ABC should just hire the best public intellectuals, regardless of their political persuasion, and let them improve the quality of public debate. It should worry us that conservative voices aren’t good enough to justify a place on the national broadcaster, but that’s the reality. Unless conservatives begin to engage constructively with public debate, the ABC shouldn’t provide us a platform.
It is also worth noting that Holmes is more concerned about right wing voices on the ABC than, say, actual minorities with interesting things to say. Why are there so many Baby Boomers on the ABC? Give them the boot and hire some people with whom I can have decent disagreements.
The ABC should get the right mix of people, and the right mix might not necessarily have any conservatives in it. Do they have the right mix of people now? I’d argue not. There are a lot of people on the ABC who are tired and don’t really contribute anything of value to public discussion. They’re sitting in seats that could very easily go to new voices that are routinely overlooked. And they could be replaced with people who were keen to improve the quality of public discourse, regardless of their political persuasions.
If right wingers want to hear more voices on the ABC, we should put a case for how we will make the ABC better that is more than ‘Because there’s a secret section of the ABC Charter that says the ABC must broadcast my views’.
Shameless self-promotion time! On the 16th of April as part of the You Are Here Festival, I’ll be on a panel discussing taxpayer-funded political art. As I said in that interview (and to the guy who’s organising the event), I tend to think panels are a waste of time. They’re good for hearing people express quick soundbites on a subject, but they haven’t evolved into something that really gets into the guts of a subject. With a small panel of three people, facilitated by the exceedingly excellent Ginger Gorman, I’m hoping that we create a panel discussion that’s genuinely worthwhile. My personal goal is that I can show how conservative commentators can engage constructively in a discussion about a contentious issue.