It’s a very respectable argument in its way but it doesn’t have a chance of getting much headway given the ABC’s popularity with the public as a whole, which is considerable. Every time they do surveys of what people think about the ABC, asking whether they think it’s biased, there’s a massive majority who say they don’t think it is. When they ask whether people value the ABC as an institution, there are massive majorities in favor.
Even though it has a smaller audience than the commercial media in television, for example, its spread in radio means it’s very widely listened to—in the bush, etc. And its television audiences are respectable—they channel 15 percent when a popular commercial station will get 23, 24, 25 percent.

Someone in the coalition [of the conservative Liberal and National Parties] once said, “The ABC is our enemies talking to our friends.” There is a certain truth in that. Whatever the ideological propensities of the people who work at the ABC, it is kind of middle class welfare—an awful lot of people who vote conservative prefer the ABC to commercial media because of the kinds of programs it makes and because it doesn’t have huge swathes of advertisements all the way through it.

Your role seems something like that of an ombudsman. Do you see yourself, and your job, that way?

I don’t have any official function at all, but I do criticize the ABC, as well as everybody else in the media when I think that’s justified. At an official level we do have a director of editorial policies whose function, especially now that he is just about to put in charge of the whole ABC complaints procedure, in a sense makes him effectively the ABC’s ombudsman. He’s not in the editorial chain of command. On the whole, Australian media organizations don’t have ombudsmen in the way that a lot of mainstream news organizations do in the U.S.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.