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What's the task of a public broadcaster?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Public broadcasters around the world have the job of defending the public interest. Doing so means treading a fine line. There will always be governments demanding complete support. And in the heat of battle, it's hard to be quietly reasonable. When President Johnson used the might of the US military to bomb and napalm Vietnam, few could be calm and raise thoughtful objections. No, it was "my country, right or wrong". Pretty wrong, as it turned out.

When Margaret Thatcher declared war on Argentina over the Falklands, the popular media in the UK overwhelmingly cheered her on. Yet in both cases, history has questioned the wisdom of what was done and asked why the media were so slavishly supportive of what governments were doing. It's the job of a public broadcaster to ask "Yes, but why is this necessary?" "Is this really a crisis?" and "Is this the best policy option?" Public broadcasters must be reflective, thoughtful and have a balance between support of government and intelligent criticism.

And so to the present case in Australia. The Abbott Government naturally wants the media to be completely supportive of its policies. It dislikes the material run by the ABC, especially "Q and A" . Like other governments, the Abbott Government listens too much to shock jocks and talks to them often. Worryingly, it marches in step with the News Limited tabloids. It seems odd to me that the Murdoch papers have an editorial line which carries through from the front page to the cartoon, the opinion pages and the Letters page. And the line is to support the Abbott Government and ridicule the current Labor leader.

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The ABC Chairman's references to North Korea are apt. Our media are free, and should not echo what the government's media outlets say.

Like many of my friends, I am concerned about the direction of some of the Abbott Government's policies. Clearly, the Islamic militants are a threat to all societies we know. But I'm puzzled about why the Government wants to change higher education and what benefits its changes would bring. Its schools policy makes me scratch my head, unless its purpose is to drive middle class people out of State schools and into private schools. And I won't even raise the question of the "noisy" wind farms which sections of the Government and the media dislike. Thus I am very far from an uncritical supporter of Mr Abbott, and I question some of his statements about the ABC.

But I also don't understand the direction of the ABC. There is some truth in the complaints by Mr Abbott and others that there are some pet subjects which ABC gives priority to over many alternatives important to ordinary Australians.

Let's name a few pet subjects.

First, Muslims. Why does the ABC give so much fawning attention to Muslims of all descriptions? I don't believe every Muslim is a terrorist, naturally. But the ABC seems to want to bend over backwards to give every aggrieved Muslim a voice. Muslims appear week after week on "Q and A" and other programs, putting their views and demanding sympathy, usually without anyone putting contrary points of view. What about some other voices? Don't we have Buddists? Hindus? And others? Some intelligent Christian voices might be an idea. We are growing tired of seeing Rev. Fred Nile held up as someone to be ridiculed. But it's nearly always Muslims who appear on the ABC and SBS. Why? Are Muslims so important? Are they all so oppressed? You would think so, from the uncritical way in which they and their views are presented on the ABC. There are issues relevant to Islam, but its followers are not numerous in the Australian population.

Second, feminism is another pet subject for the ABC. Time and again we get loud, outspoken feminists broadcasting their views on ABC programs. It might be Ms Germaine Greer, or any number of her acolytes. Feminism is a legitimate point of view, but is surely not the only point of view about sexual equality. How many advocates of men's issues have we heard on the ABC? How many women have we heard from who don't want to be called feminists? Surely we are entitled to hear a variety of views. The contradiction between feminism and Muslim women who wear prescribed garments is a puzzle which is rarely explored critically.

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Third: asylum seekers- yes, it's a worldwide problem. The ABC seems to push its own view of the issue relentlessly. Refugees are poor unfortunate people and the government of Australia is unsympathetic to their plight. Perhaps it is. But governments in Italy, France, Spain and Thailand are also dealing with the problem and seem probably less sympathetic, to me. Some of us would like to ask- how many refugees can we take in? What useful work can they do? Will they spend their lives living on welfare? Who will pay for them to learn English? Can our schools educate their children?

We could list more. The theme that seems to jump out is that the ABC (and often SBS too) likes to put the spotlight on victims. Feminists have seized on the role of victim and they will not give it up without a struggle, whatever ordinary women and men think. Similarly, asylum seekers can always claim the same role. And Muslims seem always ready to say they are being oppressed or victimised. As Robert Hughes said, we have a culture of complaint in which he who complains must always be listened to. All more true when it's a she.

All of these are trotted out week after week by the fairly unwatchable "Q and A'. Last week it gave us a mostly tedious discussion about citizenship and taking it away from dangerous Muslim radicals. Is this an issue that has people arguing passionately in pubs and coffee shops? I doubt it. There is just enough in what Abbott is saying to make thoughtful, independent people agree with him, a little. I really wonder : who are the people that decide such issues are so important? Where do these people live? Who do they talk to?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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