The truth, which everybody knows but which they’re always very reluctant to admit, is that the sort of people who are attracted to work at places like NPR and PBS, with their modest salaries and their particular output, are overwhelmingly people with left-of-center views. If you don’t have left-of-center views, you either go to a bank and make a lot of money or you end up working at Fox or something. And yet those organizations still have to steer a middle course in political terms. There is that constant tension, and you will get it to a much lesser degree working at the ABC and at the BBC. They have similar umbrellas but the degree of the political partisanship and indeed the bitterness of the political partisanship, is not anything like the same degree.
Having grown up in Australia though, I can recall the ABC being maligned in a similar way as a leftist organization. From my own father for one.
Certainly those allegations are made all the time by the right in Australia. And, as I say, it’s not entirely unjustified in the sense that I think if you asked anyone who was honest to examine which way the bulk of ABC employees vote I’d be very, very surprised if it wasn’t 70 or 80 percent voting for the left-of-center party over the right-of-center party (to the extent that there’s any distinction these days). And there might be a much higher percentage than in the general population who would vote Green, for that matter. The issue is: To what extent do people working for the ABC overcome those biases in terms of their reporting? I think the truthful answer is that they’re pretty good at it. The bias comes in more in the selection of topics to write about and report on rather than the way it’s done.
These are all very well rehearsed issues that have been knocking around about public broadcasting in English-speaking countries for decades. I worked for PBS in the 1980s. The fear of being accused of being politically biased was greater there—even though we were working on a long-term documentary series—than it ever was at the BBC or the ABC.
What kind of pressures did you experience while at PBS?
In the 1980s, when I was at WGBH in Boston, they had produced a series about the Vietnam War in co-production with a British commercial station, Central Television [now ITV Central]. They had one Brit on a team of about four producers—he was a fairly classic sort of pugnacious, lefty, British TV documentary maker. There were really quite terrible culture clashes as to how opinionated the program should be, and the extent to which it should regard the North Vietnamese point of view as being as legitimate as the American, and so on.
I did a similar series on nuclear weapons immediately after that, when there was quite a lot of sensitivity at GBH about how I would turn out. And indeed, I had similar arguments, and I didn’t last the course in the end—I made two out of the three films I was supposed to make. I found it a very difficult working environment.
Difficult because of the political pressure you found yourself under?
In a sense, it was. We would make a documentary on a very complicated topic and take a long time to do it. It would then be taken by the executive producer and taken to a committee of advisors who, in the filmmaker’s absence, would go through a bunch of criticisms that would then be brought back to us. Most of those would be: you haven’t said this and you haven’t said that. The answer was: well, I’ve got forty-eight minutes. It was just agonizing. This was funded by the Annenberg Foundation, which is a fairly mainstream and, if anything, right-leaning organization. It wanted a series that could be shown in educational institutions and that was therefore devoid of any controversy whereas I was from a school where what you looked for was the controversy when you do a thing like that.
These kinds of internal disputes have always been there, in my experience, in PBS and NPR, because the right has always hated the notion of those places existing—even though they don’t even begin to compare in terms of their place in the communications forum with the role of the ABC in Australia, let alone the BBC, which is a monster. NPR and PBS combined are little minnows in comparison. But that traditional anti-statist, free enterprise, capitalist approach of the mainstream in the United States is much more suspicious of anything that looks like state-owned media than is the case in Europe.