Guest column with Sally Young

February 14 / 128

Conservatives dismiss the ABCs of democracy

The sceptical approach of our country's critical institutions is wrongly labelled as left-wing bias.

The ABC and universities are two consistent targets for conservative criticism in Australia. But this is puzzling because conservatives are big users of both.

Conservative politicians obviously like going to university. Of the 19 cabinet ministers of the Coalition government, 17 have completed a university qualification and five liked university so much they stayed on to complete postgraduate studies.

Conservative cabinet members have studied at some of Australia's - and the world's - most elite universities, including Oxford, Yale and Harvard. More often than not, conservative politicians send their children to university too.

As for the ABC, if you cast an eye over a list of cabinet ministers' media engagements, it's clear that they regularly appear on ABC radio and television. Walking around Parliament House, you can see Coalition offices and advisers regularly tuned in to ABC news.

Many people in conservative-held electorates, including in rural and regional Australia, rely upon and prefer the ABC. Research conducted by Newspoll last year found that about 80 per cent of Australians believe the ABC does a ''good job'' covering country and regional issues, compared with only 45 per cent for commercial media.

There are important connections between the two spheres of journalism and scholarship. Both share the same broad mandate - to discover, to know - and both take much the same approach to achieving that through critical questioning, research and contrasting and checking sources.

This is where the misunderstanding about ideology and knowledge begins.

To put it simply, doubt is the essence of knowledge. You have to have doubt in order to understand and discover. But the default position of conservatism is to accept and preserve rather than question, challenge or seek change. This means conservatives often misread the critical, questioning approach taken by good journalism and research-based education, seeing it in simplistic terms as ''left-wing'' bias.

Although numerous internal and external studies of ABC content have found there is no systematic bias, conservative critics won't be convinced because they perceive bias in a more intangible way - as something that underlies the whole approach used at the ABC, rather than what is measurable (such as equal time or a right of reply).

Good journalism and good scholarship require a sceptical approach - to never take anything at face value or give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Always question, critique and look for problems because therein lies the potential for improvement and solutions.

Conservatives don't seem to understand the paradox: that the things they dislike about the ABC (and universities) are also the same things that make them value those institutions. That make them want to go to Oxford or Yale or to watch Four Corners instead of The Biggest Loser. If conservative critics got the changes they wanted, they wouldn't frequent those institutions as much as they do now because if those institutions were uncritical, deferential, celebratory of society as it is, they would no longer be prestigious universities or highly trusted public broadcasters. Their reputations and quality are based upon doing the intellectual hard work of doubting.

Politicians say they defer to popular will - ''the Australian people always get it right'' - except for when popular will doesn't suit their political agenda. In this case, the Australian public's support for both institutions is strong and clear. More Australians are attending university, while the ABC is the most trusted news organisation in the country.

Forty years ago, less than 5 per cent of Australians had a degree. If enrolments stay on trend, soon 40 per cent of the working-age population will have a bachelor's degree. Research by Universities Australia last year found that 88 per cent of people want their children to obtain a university education.

Meanwhile, survey research by at least three polling companies over the past decade (Newspoll, Roy Morgan Research and Essential Media) has found that Australians trust ABC news and current affairs vastly more than commercial media. In 2013, Newspoll research found that a large majority of Australians believe that the ABC performs a valuable role and provides quality content.

People are voting with their eyeballs (or ears). Overall, ABC audience figures have been increasing not only because of iview, online and digital channels but even in ''traditional media'' with audience reach and share for ABC radio at a record high in 2012-13. Perhaps this success is part of the problem, drawing the ire of commercial competitors who then put pressure on the government.

How ironic though that conservatives are far more radical than ''the people'' in their views towards the ABC and universities. A real conservative - and a real democrat who followed the ''will of the people'' - would safeguard the things that the Australian public values and the traditions that underpin them, not seek to diminish them because of some misguided ideological grudge.

Sally Young is associate professor of political science at the University of Melbourne.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Age on 5 February 2014:




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