The crucial first question for the new chair of the ABC

At some point, speculated to be as soon as this month, the government will appoint a new chair of the ABC. The first media interview of a new ABC chief will always cover a few topics, but there will be one question, probably sounding quite innocuous, that will stand out for its potential impact on not just quality broadcasting but confidence in our public institutions: is the ABC biased?

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne.

Former ABC chairman Justin Milne.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The typical response of newly appointed chairs is a peremptory dismissal of possible bias on the basis that the broadcaster gets equal criticism for both sides. “I don’t know that there really is a bias,” Justin Milne said in his first interview as ABC chair in 2017, “Roughly speaking, 50 per cent of the audience will think it is biased to the left, 50 per cent will think it’s biased to the right – it has ever been thus.”

Let’s have a closer look at the question of fact. Most people understand that an impartial broadcaster would be expected over time to have roughly the same level of bias concerns from one side of politics as the other. This metric is precisely what a range of pollsters have surveyed over the years to measure possible bias.

The results of these surveys – Newspoll (2001), Taverner (2013), Newspoll (2014), and Essential (2015) – have been remarkably consistent: significantly more people feel that the ABC favours the left rather than the right. The most recent poll – Essential – found 22 per cent of people believing the ABC to have a left-bias, 3 per cent a right-bias, 36 per cent no bias, and 40 per cent don’t know. (It should be noted for the record that Essential is a left-aligned polling firm.)

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