Whose ABC? My ABC.

The front page of the Inquirer in Saturday’s Australian was devoted to ‘Whose ABC?’, an article by journalist and former political staffer Chris Kenny. Attacks on the ABC re-emerge with such regularity that it is almost tiring, and most such articles exhibit a stubborn willingness to admit that the ABC might actually be of immense value to sectors of society. Kenny’s piece is no different.

The article questions the appeal of the ABC to the ‘mainstream’, or to ‘middle Australia’. If the ABC were to adapt accordingly, in order to appeal to Kenny’s conception of these groups, one assumes that ABC 1 would end up looking like the commercial television stations. If so, then people like me would have nowhere to turn except to SBS for media content that interests them.

Commercial television has nothing for me. News and current affairs programs on the commercial stations are sensationalised, insular and often downright offensive in the assumptions they make about their viewer’s values. I have little interest in the AFL, and few of the ‘mainstream’ movies that screen on Channels 7, 9 and 10 appeal to me. I have no interest in ‘reality’ TV, Dancing with the Stars, or MasterChef. Nor would I waste my time watching American crime drama. The commercial channels represent few of my interests (even in their advertising), don’t examine issues that I consider important in any depth, and frankly bore me.

So I watch the ABC and SBS. Admittedly the ABC is not for everyone, which always prompts questions about the use of taxpayers’ money. However, a core part of the ABC’s aim is to fill a gap in the market. Kenny suggests that the ABC isn’t fulfilling this aim, drawing on comments about The Drum website, but in my view, programs such as Q&A, Four Corners and Media Watch certainly do fill a gap in the market.

These programs contain content that does not ‘dumb down’ the audience. They contain content that encourages critical thinking and that seeks both to inform and to challenge viewers; content that, in my view, cannot reliably be found on the commercial channels.

While Kenny lampoons the supposed Left-wing bias of the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien, Channel 7 and 10 give Right-wing presenters such as David Koch and Andrew Bolt free rein to state their biased opinions on national television. Sunrise, one of Channel 7’s flagship programs, featured ‘Kochie’ beckoning to viewers in the wake of a news report on protests at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

‘If you’re watching at Villawood,’ said Koch, ‘come in close: Australians have a great sense of fairness – when you do things like that, we say, on your bike fella, get back out again, don’t take advantage of us.’

It’s a prime example of a presenter telling the audience what they should think, and it completely lacks any in-depth analysis of the issue. Admittedly Sunrise is an entertainment show more than anything else, but that kind of overt bias exhibited immediately after a news item is definitely not quality TV.

I also disagree with Kenny’s argument that the ABC offers nothing for rural audiences. For my family in Victoria’s high country, the radio in the kitchen is permanently tuned to ABC, and it is a lifeline of support each summer when fire danger is high. ABC 1 also presents Landline, a long-running program that comprehensively examines a variety of rural issues. Landline was a regular part of my media diet as a child, and it made me aware of the incredible complexity and diversity of rural life in Australia, outside of the rural environment that I was already familiar with.

I am also worried by the use of terms such as ‘mainstream values’ and ‘suburban values’, with the ABC apparently being out of touch with the groups that represent these values. ‘Mainstream values’ is a term thrown around on a regular basis, but defining what it encompasses is impossible. Who gets to say what these values are? Who belongs to the category of the so-called ‘mainstream’? It is incredibly short-sighted if ‘mainstream’ is defined by images such as the nuclear family and a house in the suburbs – images that dominate the commercial media’s prime-time advertising.

Early in the article Kenny puts forward the assumption, supposedly ‘for argument’s sake’, that the critics are correct and that the ABC’s content and analysis is skewed to the Left. This point of view (analysed in more depth by Queensland journalist Derek Barry) persists throughout the article, with no attempt made to challenge it, nor to consider an opposing angle. Thus Kenny’s piece of writing, attacking the relevance of the ABC and accorded a prominent position in Australia’s only national broadsheet, operates on a mere ‘assumption’ throughout.

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