Former editor of The Australian Chris Mitchell praised the performance of Sky News’ election coverage in a column last week, suggesting that it surpassed that of the ABC’s in some key respects, notably in its flexibility around scheduling, and in the range of commentators and contributors. Having followed both Sky News and ABC News 24 these last few weeks (and indeed for quite a few years now), I think this is a fair judgement, albeit one that has to be contextualised by the very different regulatory frameworks within which both channels operate.
The ABC, as a public-service media organisation that spends taxpayers’ money, has a clear legal duty to be impartial, neutral, balanced in its news and current affairs output. Many commentators dispute the ABC’s impartiality, citing episodes such as the Zaky Mallah affair as evidence that the ABC defaults to a left-of-centre metropolitan elite liberalism on most topics.
And there has been acknowledgement by former managing director Mark Scott and others in the ABC of a “diversity deficit”. The range of opinions represented in ABC news and current affairs has been too narrow. As the ABC-commissioned review of the program concluded last year, the demographics of panels on public-access programming such as Q&A has been too white, too male, too “establishment” to capture the full splendour of Australia’s multicultural society.
Michelle Guthrie says she will address this issue as managing director, and it is important for the future of the ABC that she does.
In doing so she faces a structural problem which the ABC shares with the BBC – how to incorporate opinion and editorialising into its necessarily impartial journalism, without provoking the hostility of opposing opinions who feel mis- or under-represented. “Bias” is a constant issue for the ABC, and would be even more so if it seemed that one or other strand of opinion was being favoured.
Sky News, by contrast, has no such constraints. It can run programs presented by controversial pundits such as Andrew Bolt, Paul Murray, Chris Kenny, with guests such as Peta Credlin as she regroups after Abbott, in which there is no pretence of impartiality. Opinion is everything in these programs, and the more opinionated the presenter the better.
This is Australian TV’s equivalent of the model of print journalism down the years, in which strong, clearly expressed viewpoints draw audiences in and become part of an outlet’s brand. Sky News heavily promoted its recruitment of Bolt and Credlin, knowing that these names are eye-catching in themselves, regardless of what they might actually say on air.
The model works for me, I have to say. I will die in a ditch to defend public-service media and its democratic role as an impartial news provider, but there are times when I want heated debate, passionate argument, fearless editorialising. For all of that, I go to Sky.
Yes, The Drum and Q&A allow a degree of debate, carefully managed by an impartial presenter. Satirical shows such as Mad As Hell present a form of ego-busting commentary on politics that our political culture would be much poorer without. But Sky is the only televisual space in the Australian public sphere where we can engage routinely with the strong voices we enjoy so much in print.
If that were all that Sky News contributed, it would still be useful, but much less valuable. Controversialist opinion is all well and good, but hardly sufficient in a deliberative democracy. As this campaign has demonstrated again, Sky News takes its “objective” journalism very seriously, and has presented our competing politicians in contexts which no other broadcaster has.
I refer in particular to the leaders’ debates, including one on Facebook, which gave us crucial insights into the styles, personae and policies of Turnbull and Shorten respectively. I thought Malcolm won the first debate, although the studio audience gave it to Bill. Fair enough. That was a fascinating outcome, and made me think much more about what the Australian electorate is looking for from its prospective prime minister.
In its routine political coverage, meanwhile, Sky has David Speers, Peter Van Onselen, Patricia Karvelas, and guests such as Kristina Keneally, all providing commentary and analysis every bit as objective and nuanced as anything on the ABC. There is no right-wing bias in this coverage, but a genuine effort to include the full range of political opinion in the country.
This is why Sky News is the go-to real-time news channel for the political elite in Canberra. All sides of politics see it as a key outlet for promotion of their own policies and ideas, as well as keeping up with what the competition is doing.
Sky News pioneered 24-hour news broadcasting in Australia, and has delivered real journalistic value on budgets which the ABC would scoff at. Its mix of commentary and objective reportage/analysis works.
It is a shame, therefore, that so few Australians can watch it. Why can’t Sky News be on Freeview, alongside ABC News 24, rather than locked into a Foxtel subscription package limiting the audience to fractions of what free-to-air TV routinely commands?
We know that Rupert Murdoch thinks people should pay for quality journalism, and that’s right, but Sky News value to the empire is not merely commercial. It has political and cultural influence, and could have more if it was accessible to non-Foxtel subscribers.
Those leaders’ debates, valuable as they were, were seen by a miniscule proportion of the total viewing public, which might have learnt a lot from watching the rivals fight it out live, without editing and spin doctors keeping them on message. The work of Speers, Van Onselen and the rest is excellent, but they are narrowcasting, not broadcasting.
The era of Guthrie at the ABC will be one of further, more radical structural change and adaptation to the digital media environment. Sky News must also think about its place in the Australian public sphere if its managers wish to get the credit they deserve.