FALSE BALANCE: The ABC in Glass Houses… With Secret Tape Recordings

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BLOG*: In the annals of irony, this one is gold-plated.

As our regular readers would know, New Matilda is eyeball deep in an investigation into claims of gagging and false balance within the ABC.

In case you’ve missed the saga, you can read about it here.

In 25 words or less(ish), former ABC Tech editor Nick Ross secretly taped several meetings with the head of ABC’s Current Affairs division, Bruce Belsham, in which Ross was directed to find an angle to attack Labor’s NBN Plan in order to provide insurance against attacks from the Coalition.

Belsham refused to publish several exposes by Ross for such puzzling reasons as “the Turnbull camp will come down on me like a tonne of bricks”. So too, Belsham suggested, would ABC senior management.

This all occurred, notably, in the shadow of the 2013 federal election.

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Reader reaction to the story has been very strong, but the media reaction, not so much. ABC’s Media Watch gave the story a wide berth last night, and with the exception of mean tweets and the occasional blog post attacking Nick Ross or New Matilda, mainstream media has stayed away as well.

The ABC hierarchy, however, has been a little more vocal.

Since contacting the spinners at Aunty almost a fortnight ago to seek comment, New Matilda has been accused of “unethical”, “irresponsible” and “reprehensible in the extreme” behavior.

The ABC’s chief objection?

“… that New Matilda expects a response to partial excerpts of secretly recorded conversations without the opportunity to hear and understand the full context of what was said, despite our repeated requests.”

Which raises an interesting question: Are there precedents for media outlets publishing or broadcasting the contents of secretly (and illegally) recorded conversations?

And more importantly, on those occasions, did media provide the ‘victims’ of the story – ie. the people who were being exposed in the recordings – the opportunity to listen to or read a transcript of the conversation, prior to answering questions from journalists.

The most recent example of the use of illicit tape recordings in a media story that we could find occurred in October 2015. You can watch that story here… it’s a particularly juicy episode of, wait for it, Four Corners. You’ll remember that program from such venerable institutions as ‘The ABC’.

A screencap of the ABC Four Corners program last year, which played secretly recorded tapes of conversations between Michael Lawler and Iain Ross of the Fair Work Commission.
A screencap of the ABC Four Corners program last year, which played secretly recorded tapes of conversations between Michael Lawler and Iain Ross of the Fair Work Commission.

The story was in part about Fair Work Commission Vice-President Michael Lawler and his habit of secretly tape recording discussions with various people, including his boss, Fair Work Commission President Iain Ross. It you want to skip to the ‘smoking gun’ part where Four Corners plays the audio recordings, it starts at 22 minutes and 45 seconds.

The crucial point here, of course, is whether or not Justice Ross was, to paraphrase the ABC spinners, ‘provided the opportunity to listen to the secretly recorded conversations before being asked to provide comment’?

NM asked the ABC if that did, indeed, occur. Here’s their response: “The ABC doesn’t comment on internal decisions at Four Corners.”

For the record, that’s about 646 words less than the ABC was prepared to say before it became aware of its own breathtaking hypocrisy.

So with no response forthcoming, we decided to do some digging of our own. Turns out, the ABC not only did not provide Justice Ross the audio or transcript of Lawler’s secret tape recordings before seeking comment from him, but the ABC didn’t even tell Justice Ross of the existence of the tapes prior to the story going to air.

Oops.

And just in case the really big irony hasn’t yet dawned on you… Four Corners is housed within the Current Affairs division of the ABC.

That’s the division headed by Bruce Belsham.

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