Environment of fear as ABC fails bias test

Bookmark and Share Media, Telecommunications and IT Unit | James Paterson
The Australian 12th August, 2014

THE ABC is not like any other broadcaster. With more than $1 billion in public funding, we rightly demand the ABC be rigorously fair, balanced and impartial.

On energy policy, we now know the ABC fails that test. As reported in The Australian yesterday, the Institute of Public Affairs released research that conclusively demonstrates the ABC's bias against fossil fuels and in favour of renewable energy.

Energy policy is vital to our prosperity. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Australians pay among the highest electricity prices in the world, as a direct result of policy choices that have unquestionably been influenced by media coverage. However, this analysis could easily be replicated with the same results in other areas of ABC coverage.

In March, the IPA commissioned the independent media monitoring agency iSentia to analyse the ABC's coverage of energy policy issues in relation to the coalmining industry, the coal-seam gas industry and the renewable energy industry. In the largest study of its kind, iSentia analysed 2359 separate ABC reports over a six-month period on these industries across national, metropolitan and regional radio and television.

The results were striking. iSentia found an astonishing 52 per cent of all ABC reports on renewable energy were favourable. Just 10.8 per cent were unfavourable.

Yet only 15.9 per cent of coalmining stories were favourable, while 31.6 per cent were unfavourable. And just 12.1 per cent of coal-seam gas stories were favourable and 43.6 per cent unfavourable. The renewable energy industry is heavily reliant on subsidies and regulatory favours via the mandatory renewable energy target. Indeed, independent modelling conducted by Deloitte Access Economics for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has found the RET alone will cost the Australian economy $29 billion by 2020, push up power prices for households and businesses and kill 5000 jobs.

Yet iSentia found only 14 ­stories that cast the economic impact of the renewable energy industry in an unfavourable light. An incredible 117 stories suggested that renewable energy had a positive economic impact.

CSG and coalmining generate thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of exports, without government subsidies or regulatory favours, but the ABC was obsessed with the potential environmental impacts of the fossil fuels.

During the sample period, only 37 stories were broadcast that depicted the economic impact of the coal industry in a positive light, against 115 that suggested the industry would have a negative environmental impact. The benefits brought by CSG to the Australian economy merited the ABC's attention only 52 times, but the assertion the industry would have a negative ­environmental impact was delivered in 259 stories.

iSentia found - surprise, surprise - that hopeful language featured in 93 stories on renewable energy, compared with 21 stories on CSG. The language of fear was used in 306 stories on CSG compared with 51 stories on renewable energy.

That's hardly surprising given the interviewees. On coal-seam gas, the ABC's go-to man is NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, quoted in 92 stories - more than double the next most prominent guest. While federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt was the most quoted in stories about coalmining, a close second was Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters.

On both radio and television, and across regional, metropolitan and national programs, the ABC consistently and overwhelmingly favoured renewable energy and treated the coalmining and coal-seam gas industries with extreme disfavour. This suggests the problem of bias at the ABC is endemic across the organisation.

If, as David Marr said, you have to be a leftie to be a journalist, then those who choose to work at a public broadcaster instead of a commercial outlet are even more likely to be left-wing. Once surrounded by others of a similar world view, and insulated from their audiences by the absence of a commercial imperative to seek advertising, it's predictable that the personal preferences of journalists dominate coverage.

If bias at the ABC is systemic, only structural reform will solve it. A new board or management won't change the culture. Privatising the ABC is the only way to ensure taxpayers' money is not used to fund biased coverage.