The ABC Is On Solid Ground


There’s an old joke in the media that nothing excites journalists more than stories about themselves. Like a lot of classic humour, there’s more than a grain of truth in it. The media loves reporting on itself, and the story currently exciting the most interest is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The ABC has been making plenty of headlines lately. Many of them have been on the front pages of Murdoch newspapers. "THE ABC OF TREACHERY”, screamed the Daily Telegraph last Thursday. Talkback radio has also taken up the cudgels of ABC bias with gusto.

Of course, it’s not just the media. The anti-ABC campaign is being pushed enthusiastically by many in the government. The Prime Minister himself has been getting in on the act, giving interviews to shock jocks like Ray Hadley. The Tele’s “treachery” accusation came a day after Tony Abbott openly questioned the ABC’s motivations on 2GB. “The national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own, and I think it is a problem,” the Prime Minister told Hadley.

Conservative columnists are having a field a day. Andrew Bolt, always an obsessive chronicler of the ABC’s supposed left-wing bias, has been writing and blogging assiduously on the subject. So has Miranda Devine. In an editorial, The Australian, echoing Janet Albrechtsen from November, has even called for the resignation of ABC managing director Mark Scott.

Two stories in particular have incited the rage. The first was the ABC’s decision to run, alongside the Guardian, the secret documents obtained by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The documents showed that Australian intelligence agencies had been spying on the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The clandestine nature of the activity, and the circumstances of Snowden’s flight to Russia, allowed conservative critics to brand Snowden a traitor. That made the Guardian and the ABC easy targets for those prepared to beat the nationalist drum.

The latest incitement was the ABC's reports of allegations made by asylum seekers in Indonesia’s Rote Island, who claim that Australian Navy personnel abused them while transporting them back to Indonesian territory after being intercepted en route to Australian waters. The most controversial allegations relate to burns suffered by asylum seekers, who claim they were handcuffed and forced to place their hands on a hot engine pipe by Australian sailors.

As last night’s episode of Media Watch rightly points out, the story was not broken by the ABC. It was first reported by Indonesian outlet Kompas, and then followed up by Agence France Presse. From here it made its way to Australian media — for instance to Yahoo!7, which carried the AFP report.

Both stories have ignited a storm of conservative criticism of the ABC. The reasons are plain enough: they both deal with hot-button political issues. The Snowden files, after all, reveal spying of an almost Orwellian magnitude. The Navy allegations impugn the reputation of Australia’s armed forces, and call into question the signature policy of the new government. It’s not surprising that they would attract controversy.

But conservative critics of the ABC in these two cases have a pretty difficult task to prove the ABC has been irresponsible in its reporting. Let’s take the two stories in turn.

Is spying on the President of Indonesia a big story? Yes, it is. In fact, in the context of the Snowden allegations, it’s hard to think of a bigger story last year. The Snowden files were unquestionably the biggest scoop of 2013 globally, revealing the unprecedented reach and scope of the data collection activities undertaken by the NSA and its allies.

As many argued at the time, it’s hard to believe any news organisation in the world would have sat on such a story. In fact, were the ABC to have buried it, the organisation might arguably have been violating its own charter.

The Navy allegations are a little murkier. They are, by definition, based on hearsay, and have been denied by the Australian government and the Navy. So, like many stories you read every day, they present two largely incompatible perspectives, one of the asylum seekers involved, backed up by reports by Indonesian police, the other of the Australian government and military.

Does this mean that the ABC erred in arguing, as Tim Palmer said on ABC radio last week, that new footage it obtained “appears to back asylum seekers' claims of mistreatment by the Australian Navy”? On Media Watch last night, the ABC’s Paul Barry said that it did. “Even if the police did back the asylum seekers’ claims, there was no way of knowing they were true,” he argued.

I think Barry is wrong. The ABC story in question did not make any truth claim about the asylum seekers’ accusations. It merely stated that new footage appears to support them.

What the ABC was able to establish is that the asylum seekers’ injuries were real, and that they told Indonesian medics that the burns were caused by Australian sailors forcing them to grasp a hot pipe. Palmer’s remarks, which Barry criticises, are no more than an accurate description of the content of George Roberts’ story. This is indeed corroborating evidence that is consistent with the allegations already made.

This, by the way, is exactly what ABC boss Mark Scott argued in his interview with Mark Colvin yesterday.

“The allegations had been raised, had been reported everywhere,” Scott told Colvin. “Then the videotape came to light. And that videotape, along with the claims of the asylum seekers again, sent that story forward. And what the ABC didn't do was say that this was conclusive evidence at all.”

Scott is on solid ground here. This is no more than journalism as it is normally conducted. The story was developing, and the ABC was reporting new evidence in the context of what was already on the public record. In other words, it was gathering news.

If you step back a bit, you can see how crazy the whole debate about the bias of the ABC is. That’s because the ABC attacks are not really about accurate reporting or bias. They are about power and money.

Attacks on the ABC from the right are not exactly rare. But the election of the Abbott government has ratcheted up the anti-ABC alarms. They are being driven by a government that, astonishingly, seems already to have run out of ideas. Bereft of a positive policy agenda, the Coalition has instead decided to fight a reheated culture war on issues left over from the Howard years. To the chagrin of many on the right, it’s losing.

The motivations of the ABC’s critics in News Corporation are even more transparent. News has an obvious vested interest in taking down a highly competitive public broadcaster, a broadcaster that is comprehensively beating its own audience figures in many segments. News also has its eyes firmly set on winning back the Australia Network from the ABC, a deal potentially worth $220 million for the Murdoch-controlled corporation.

Actually, the very idea that News Corporation can validly criticise the journalistic integrity of the ABC almost beggars belief. We’re talking about the same company that currently has many of its top executives on trial for perjury and corruption in Britain — a fact that somehow never seems to get mentioned when criticisms of the ABC are made.

As for Andrew Bolt, who has trumpeted his claims of bias, he was found by a court to have got many basic facts comprehensively wrong when he wrote his notorious “hip to be black” articles.

It’s a measure of the efforts the ABC takes to ensure its independence that it even has a show like Media Watch prepared to exert considerable scrutiny on the ABC’s own reporting. There is nothing remotely like it anywhere in the News Corporation stable, let alone in the studios of 2GB.

Ordinary Australians know this. That’s why the ABC remains one of the most trusted institutions in the country, unlike tabloid newspapers or talk radio programs.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.