The ABC's (Almost) Victory

ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott.

Last October, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott announced the broadcaster’s new editorial policies at Gerard Henderson‘s Sydney Institute.

A critic of the ABC, Henderson has long perceived bias in its reporting. Scott noted that announcing these changes at the Sydney Institute was not entirely about ‘… the hope that by being my gracious hosts tonight, Gerard and Anne Henderson, might be hospitable to me and sheathe their rapier-like criticism of the ABC for an evening.’

The reforms Scott announced do not hunt down bias like a maniac wielding a gun, and thus probably wouldn’t ‘sheathe’ Henderson’s ire. While arguably motivated in part by the cultural crusaders’ (and successive Federal Governments’) criticism of bias, what is more important is that the reforms seek to lift the already high standards of the ABC’s on-air content by adding more monitoring and rigour to its practices.

The changes, which took effect in March this year, further highlighted the need for independence and impartiality in reporting and stated that opinion shows can have an editorial slant on issues, but that other opinions on the same issue must be reflected elsewhere within the ABC. Scott’s changes also included taped rebuttals on Media Watch, the development of Difference of Opinion and a new position: ‘Director of Editorial Policies.’

It was the last of these reforms that caused apocalyptic images of editorial witch hunts and newsroom interference amongst ABC supporters. But even the fears of the Friends of the ABC, the most ardent of the defenders, were alleviated when Paul Chadwick was appointed to the position. Chadwick, a Walkley Award winning journalist and former head of the Victorian Privacy Commission, had previously reworked the Media and Arts Alliance’s code of the ethics.

He is a strange choice for any malicious attack on the newsroom.

Although it turned out to be unfounded, this initial scepticism was not without value. It was born out of the ferocious protectiveness of editorial control that is characteristic of the journalists, producers and editors who work at the ABC.

The ABC is an institution that pays comparatively low wages to its staff compared to elsewhere in the sector. If employees aren’t staying for the pay, then they are staying for the ability to explore complex issues without fear or favour. And despite some recent celebrated cases, editorial control still seems to lie in the hands of the journalists and producers in the newsroom, reflected in the consistent quality of news programs such as Lateline.

Thus it is hard to imagine someone like political Board appointment and long-time critic of the ABC, Janet Albrechtsen, appearing in the newsroom to stop a story about the War in Iraq; and it is even less likely anybody would listen to her.

Rather, the real attacks on the ABC’s ability to report come in the form of budget cuts. The national broadcaster’s funding peaked in the 1983-84 Budget and has seen major cuts since then. By starving it of funds, the Government has forced the ABC to make cuts to journalistic staff and foreign bureaus.

This should not devalue the dangers of political interference; editorial control in the hands of journalists and producers is paramount for any media organisation.

For an example of the potential problems of political interference, we need look no further than the July screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle. The ABC programming department decided to pass on the film, but was forced to screen it after a decision by the Board. The ABC editorial charter stipulates not only impartiality in reporting, but that broadcast material must be factually correct and knowingly truthful. Swindle, long before it was screened in Australia, had been proven to be neither of these.

The much derided decision to have Lateline host Tony Jones state before the documentary ‘that it does not reflect the opinion of the ABC’ should be viewed in this light not as an editorial comment on global warming, but rather a comment on the standards of journalism found in the film. It is sad that the ABC screened something that the newsroom could not support.

Problems also arose in the discussion that followed the film. These problems were not the fault of the format (a product of the editorial changes) but rather the topic (the product of the political interference by the board). To screen a film so inaccurate was to invite the low standard of debate seen on the night.

The guests talked over each other; others had little to say or little reason to be there. Michael Duffy, the host of Radio National’s Counterpoint, was there as a global warming denier, not as an expert or insider, and added little to the debate.

It didn’t get better when the audience was invited to ask questions. Complaints of environmental fascism and population control were mixed with a questioner who proudly announced that he had studied under the ‘great Lyndon LaRouche.’

The decision to screen Swindle was made by political opponents who don’t trust the judgment of committed and experienced ABC staff. These are the same staff who have sought to improve on-air content through Scott’s editorial changes and who are staring down its ludicrous critics by lifting the already high journalistic standards of the ABC.

The effect of this is to force the Gerard Hendersons of this world to criticise even higher quality of content, thus further revealing their uncritical ideological colours. This is the victory of the ABC.

Swindle is the ‘almost’ part of that victory. The lesson we can glean from the whole affair is that the critics should let the ABC be the ABC. This is an institution which has a culture of constantly improving itself, and it should be left to do what it does best; reporting the news accurately and truthfully with some additional funding.

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