In our identity culture wars is the ABC promoting cohesion or pulling us further apart?
Jul 6, 2022
The ABC was founded to uphold an idealistic purpose and provide a news service citizens can trust. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Western world is undergoing a war between cultures and ideologies with the future uncertain. David Anderson the Managing Director claims, 'the ABC nurtures social cohesion and national unity'. But, in their attempt to be inclusive, is the organisation having the opposite effect and contributing to the spread of contagion and a tyranny of the minorities where individuals are eager to take offence?
Fortune has recently smiled on the ABC. Labor has won government with a policy which states, 'In an era when media diversity, media freedom and quality public interest journalism and local news are under threat around the world, Labor will ensure Australians have access to a strong, healthy, diverse, and independent media operating in the public interest. We will properly fund, and support the independence of Australia's national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.'
To do what exactly?
The ABC Charter tasks the broadcaster to contribute to a sense of national identity and to take account of the multicultural character of the Australian community. In 2022, Australia is the most ethnically diverse country on earth: 800,000 identify as First Nation people. The ABC has taken a political position on reconciliation and is working assiduously to raise the profile, cause, and rightness of the claims of the traditional owners. This project has wide political support, but also sets a precedent.
Encouraged by a policy of 'multiculturalism' as opposed to assimilation, alongside First Nation people, there are more than 250 different language groups or 'nations' across the continent, each with distinctive cultures, beliefs, and dialects. Within each group there are sex, gender, age, language, disabilities, religious beliefs, health, and attitude differences. This complex mix of people comprise the potential audience the ABC aims to bring into 'a cohesive and national unity.' That is quite a challenge.
For a broadcaster to reflect our diversity to us, we need to see ourselves and hear ourselves on screen. This can be achieved broadly as we have seen with the transformation in content and representation that has occurred on screen for people of colour and for women, since the sixties. Through showing the value of diverse approaches to art, music, cultural celebrations, and so on, the ABC is attempting to draw different groups together and enhance national cohesion.
But more recently the ABC seems to have bought into the idea that 'identity politics' trumps all, by attempting to ensure each group, no matter their size, is 'represented' by someone who speaks on their behalf. This is one form of inclusion, but within every group, large or small, there is diversity. It is not only important to know how are we different but also how we are alike? The mainstream is made up of minorities.
The ABC is making a serious attempt to change its audience profile, given millennials now equal boomers in number. They are moving away from those who have aged alongside the broadcaster to a younger demographic group and attempting to cater to their interests and a philosophy that embraces individualism. It is tough for a public broadcaster to provide comprehensive programming for such a diverse population as ours.
Twenty percent of Australians are children, around 5 million in number. Historically children have been spoken of as a priority. They should be, as they are the future. And what of the people who are now living on average twenty years longer than what their life expectancy was when the ABC was formed; those over sixty years, who number twenty per cent also. A large number has been loyal ABC viewers, yet now they are poorly served by media generally. Is there an argument that the ABC should do more for these elders?
The disabled now have a high profile on the ABC, in representation and programming. The LGB community has gained wide-spread acceptance of gender difference. Australians have embraced gay rights and same-sex-marriage and the ABC has helped change attitudes. These people are well represented on the ABC.
In the 2016 Census 1260 people identified as transgender. That number is reported to be growing with 1.2 % of the population now so self-identified. Their cause is far more contentious than others, with passionate conflicts about the place of trans-gender athletes in sport, and the age when young children should be able to undergo affirmative therapy to become a different gender. Indeed, even the use of the term 'woman' is now hotly disputed.
In the process of recognising difference, we have become knee deep in wokeism and cancel culture. The ABC has responded with trigger warnings prominent in news programs, along with help-line phone numbers to call. There is research suggesting these warnings are now so pervasive they are counter-productive. Fifty per cent of us we are told will experience mental illness in our lifetime. The latest census identified two million so diagnosed. Does this insistent message and repeated warnings help trigger the very symptoms of despair? The services don't appear to be available to deal with wide response, and who knows how effective they are. The ABC seems to have taken on the proverbial role of Health Aunty. Yet it is very easy to fall foul of the politically correctness rules. The cartoon Bluey is now censored for offensive language.
How far can the ABC take this approach to diversity? Now it seems politically incorrect to make anyone the butt of a joke, yet as Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinison) has said, 'Every joke has a victim'. Rampant political correctness denies the ability to puncture grandiosity. It is essential we use comedy to laugh at ourselves, and satire to critique political performance; so far, the ABC has achieved important goals with its comedy programs.
We all matter: blacks, children, elders, disabled, gender diverse all matter. But do we undermine the very important goal of cohesion in society by giving a platform to every small minority group demanding special rights? If my rights as an individual count most we are in deep trouble as a community. Inclusion must not count over fairness to all.
In this upheaval of values, the ABC's, news, current affairs, and discussion programs have an essential role to play. But they seem to be all over the place; vigilant in representing our differences but taking on the techniques of their commercial counterparts in their journalism.
While seventy per cent report they trust the ABC, most Australians get their news from commercial sources and social media, and for entertainment they watch streaming services. But the ABC remains an essential service in times of emergency which affect everyone. People turn to the public broadcaster for life-saving information. Its record here is outstanding.
Maintaining this capacity across the country is fundamental, as newspapers and commercial broadcasters have left media deserts in country, regional and suburban areas. The ABC must be strengthened, not only to provide information at times of crisis (bushfires, floods, blackouts, Covid), but also countrywide news and information; to cover local civic, social, political, and sporting events, the football scores, the art exhibitions, events that matter to community groups. If Australia is to remain a cohesive democratic unity, communities must communicate across their differences.
A viable democracy relies on open debate and the sharing of perspectives. Australia has a history of peaceful electoral transitions. The ABC Managing Director says, 'We need to take care of democracy every single day,' and the new government shares this view. In her first interview as Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland said, 'having a strong news media in Australia is one of the key pillars of democracy. A free and sustainable media has never been more important, at a time when we've had a loss of trust in institutions.'
Only a national public broadcaster can achieve what is required today, but public interest journalism is 'in a mess', as described by Margaret Simons: This is not journalism, in Meanjin, 2022. The ABC is included in her critique.
Journalism is about providing information you can trust, holding power to account, and fostering dialogue. It demands solid research, investigative techniques and fact checking, as well as an ability to write in an engaging style. The best reporting requires time, resources, and support from the employer organisation. These qualities have been eroded with the explosion in social media.
Simons argues that too often, background material is not read, errors are not corrected, misleading headlines are used by editors as clickbait to attract a reader, interviews have become contests with gotcha questions which will be re-run for days as news promotions. Short stories and rapid-fire 'grabs' fuel the 24/7 news day, and formulaic current affair stories yield a simple pattern for journalists to follow without too much thought. A checklist seems to cover the type of interviewee used in current affairs.
Journalism has become dominated by 'opinion' with journalists becoming celebrities as they interview one another to comment on the news of the day. Simons calls it 'Performative watchdoggery'. The main-stream news outlets are ratings-obsessed competitors and given the challenges from Google, Facebook, and online blogs, where everyone can be their own publisher, news has degenerated into attention-grabbing fragments, usually sensational, and with a twist to set them apart. Twisted truth becomes alternative facts and fake news, a pervasive phenomenon which has undermined public trust in the media and in politicians.
Simons goes back 50 years to describe how, as a budding journalist, she was inspired by the investigative journalism undertaken at the Washington Post to uncover the crimes that led to Watergate and U.S. President Nixon's resignation. I can go back to news anchor Edward R. Murrow, initially famous for his Second World War radio coverage of the London Blitz, then for exposing the injustices committed when Senator Joseph McCarthy staged his campaign to root out Communists in America in the 1950s. Murrow's courage is legendary and his news gathering strategies were professional. He and his news team persisted, despite pressure from CBS's corporate sponsors to desist and McCarthy was exposed. We need this kind of journalism if democratic institutions are to survive. It's argued now that Trump is 'untouchable' and Nixon would have survived with today's media mess up.
In our current environment how far should the ABC go to reach those who are not watching news? Would their pursuit mean more dumbing down, sensationalising, and fragmenting news programs? Or does the ABC choose to do only the very best quality journalism for those who do want to watch it?
The ABC was founded to uphold an idealistic purpose and provide a news service citizens can trust. It remains a fundamental role. There is no better place to debate these issues of values-based journalism than on the ABC itself with its nationwide reach. The public broadcaster should lead by example, in all their news coverage, current affairs and discussion programs, online and free to air. This means devoting adequate resources to best practice. It will take considerable time to recover trust and give us the best chance for us to live in a cohesive, peaceful society, celebrating how alike we all are rather than our differences.
Patricia Edgar is an educator. She was the architect of the Australian Children's Television Standards, the founder of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.