The ABC, once again, is being accused of self-censorship to please government. Claire Connelly reports.
Three ABC journalists have criticised the ABC over the removal of a website article on Turnbull government corporate tax cuts by its chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici, claiming the incident conforms to a long history of ‘pre-emptive buckling’ to government pressure.
Former ABC director and journalist Quentin Dempster has called on the ABC to repost its “corrected” version of the article which questioned the claimed benefits of Turnbull government proposals for corporate tax cuts. The audience could then separate fact from analysis and opinion.
And former ABC broadcaster Carol Duncan told New Matilda that a number of ABC journalists had been in touch with each other behind the scenes over the censoring of Alberici’s reporting, despairing over the public broadcaster’s dwindling independence.
“The government of the day uses budget cuts to control the ABC and to force them to cower,” she said.
“The ABC will tell you this is not true, but I recall taking a local politics lead to my newsroom one day and being told the newsroom wouldn’t touch it because they ‘still had to work with the council next week’.”
“Sunderland’s (Alan Sunderland, director of ABC editorial policies) mealy-mouthed attempts at defending the Alberici decision are truly awful. How dare they not stand behind her. I am confident the truth will out,” Carol Duncan said.
Duncan, made redundant in 2014, is now an elected ALP Councillor. Dempster, a former ABC presenter, was also made redundant in 2014 when the ABC Board axed state-based TV current affairs programs. He was staff elected director of the ABC for four years in the 1990s and is a well known advocate for public broadcasting.
An experienced ABC journalist who has worked at the public broadcaster for more than a decade told New Matilda that over the last five years, managers stopped asking ‘is it an important story’ and instead asked ‘will it end up on the front page of the Australian?’
“It started in the Abbott era when conservative attacks on the ABC became consistent and unrelenting,” they said.
“I used to cover really risky and exciting stories, but after that, it was always about risk and perception management.”
“The attacks came alongside budget cuts, so the fear was real and it effectively had the desired effect of dampening the broadcaster’s ability to hold those in power to account and be the voice of the community.”
The ‘pre-emptive buckle’ a decades old ABC tradition
As a controversy grew over the ABC’s decision to take down Alberici’s article from the website, Quentin Dempster, now contributing editor to The New Daily, told New Matilda that the ABC had a history of what decades ago was termed ‘the preemptive buckle’ to whichever government was in power.
He told New Matilda that during the first Gulf War, management was going to sack Geraldine Doogue to appease an enraged PM Bob Hawke over 7.30 Report coverage of the war.
“Fortunately the then head of news protected Geraldine,” he said. “In the current Alberici case, staff are concerned that by taking her piece off the website completely, a perception is rapidly developing that the ABC has been ‘got at’ because we now have an enraged PM, Malcolm Turnbull. Alan Sunderland says this is not true. Denial noted. But now everyone wants to see the revised piece reposted to evaluate the ABC’s seal of editorial approval clearly defining Emma’s opinion from analysis.
“Alberici is not the only domestic economics writer to conclude that the benefits of corporate tax cuts are questionable.”
Dempster is calling for the ABC to publish a detailed annotation identifying its concerns made within Alberici’s story and analysis of the claimed benefits from the proposed corporate tax cuts.
Dempster said perhaps Alberici’s next expose should focus on “the calculated manipulation” of carry-forward tax losses by big corporates year-on-year.
“Creativity in accounting and carrying forward tax losses is a very effective method for corporates to bury their own mismanagement,” he said.
“I’m hoping a fearless ABC can find a whistleblower from an accounting firm to enlighten the public about what really goes on with tax accounting. Tax havens aren’t the only story here. We need to support a fearless ABC and I’ll be watching what happens with Emma Alberici, along with everyone else I’m sure.”
Carol Duncan told New Matilda she was “unofficially blacklisted” by the public broadcaster.
“My former manager was told not to bring me back in after my redundancy,” she said. “The station manager invited me to come back on a casual basis, ‘because it would be good for you, and good for the community.’”
She says she filled out the paperwork and was preparing to commence when a fortnight later, the station manager rescinded the offer.
“She said, ‘I’m not allowed to bring you back in and if you try to do anything about it, the official line will be ‘Poor old Carol, we know she’d like to come back, but we’ve moved on to fresher, younger voices…’” So they would try to patronise and embarrass me into silence. It worked, I guess.
“I was told there was ‘too much fuss’ when I was made redundant. I went to great lengths to say the right things, support the ABC and my colleagues, to not sledge the ABC. But I think [a senior staff member]blamed me.”
Duncan says the ‘fuss’ (i.e the street protest over her sacking) was engineered by the station, not her.
“That said, the ABC runs on ‘cool kids’ and the ‘celebrity ceiling’,” she says. “You are either a celebrity or know who to suck up to to have any career prospects. If you are simply a, dare I say it, quality, highly-skilled journeyman broadcaster – not famous for something else first – you don’t stand a chance.”
Duncan claims to have had run-ins with management over its editorial policies on the reporting of climate change and vaccination stories.
“They got the shits when I dared to suggest that in some issues, balance is not required,” she said.
“We as taxpayers are paying for the truth because we won’t get it from commercial outlets. I understand that commercial outlets reflect the opinions of the owners. But if the public broadcaster does that, it becomes nothing more than a propaganda arm of the government. A truly decent, democratic government can withstand and embrace critique and criticism. Maybe even learn from it.”
Reader stakeholders not enough
While subscription models marketed on fearless independence and high quality public interest journalism have the potential to be game changers if they reach critical mass, with the capacity to fight lawsuits from aggrieved vested interests on whose toes they are treading, Dempster says the ABC’s independence is the responsibility of its board under the ABC Act.
“The board promulgates editorial policies and oversees accountability structures which ensure compliance,” he says. “Were there evidence of editorial censorship through outside influence the board would have a duty to intervene.”
Former Independent MP, Tony Windsor tweeted cryptically yesterday that at least one ABC Board member was using their editorial influence on political issues, which is outside its charter.
“The ABC is regularly bombarded by complaints from politicians and vested interests and has been pretty good at holding and demonstrating its independence,” says Dempster. “Occasionally there are contentious cases through the complaints procedure which are arguable and may give rise to audience and staff concerns about the good old preemptive buckle. I’m not saying at this stage that the Emma Alberici incident is such a case. We need further particulars.
“What we need is strong independent editors ready to argue the public interest case with their proprietors and business boards throughout the mainstream media. In an age of fake news and Facebook distortions, this is more important than ever.”
Editorial Director of the ABC, Alan Sunderland provided a lengthy response to the issues highlighted in the article. It’s printed in full below.
To fully understand our approach to this issue, it really is necessary to take five minutes to read our editorial guidance note on the subject.
When you read that, you will see that while there are one or two very limited circumstances where ABC staff can publish or broadcast opinion, our statutory role as a public broadcaster means that almost without exception, that is not part of the job of our journalists, or anyone involved in news and information content.
The guidance note I have shared with you (and it has long been publicly available on our website for anyone who wishes to read it) explains the crucial difference between analysis and opinion and how to determine which is which. Put simply, analysis is intended “to aid understanding and provide richer context and information, rather than to pass judgment or sway opinion. Analytic content attempts to offer the audience a deeper understanding of an issue, often through detailed examination of the facts and by making connections between them which may not be immediately apparent. This includes providing context and background against which current events can be better understood.” Opinion, on the other hand, “is based on the particular views and perspectives of the identified person or group expressing it. Whether stand-alone programming or a clearly signposted contribution to a broader piece of content, opinion can be based on personal preferences, sectional or commercial interests or a wide range of other factors. It is simply a means for expressing a view.” Most importantly, opinion content does not need to be impartial. Our journalists are permitted (and in many cases expected) to write analysis but not opinion. Therefore, Emma’s piece was published as ‘analysis’ as we could not and would not publish an opinion piece from one of our journalists.
The guidance note goes on to provide some very useful ‘hallmarks’ of a piece of ABC analysis to guide our journalists. It says that analysis usually has the following features:
- The presenter/reporter/author possesses special knowledge, skill, training, or experience, or longstanding professional engagement with the same or similar subject matter.
- It is clearly based around demonstrable facts and evidence.
- It is clearly intended to assist with understanding an issue rather than debating it, or prosecuting one particular side of a case.
- The presenter/reporter/author has actively sought and included an appropriate range of relevant content, not just that which might support one particular conclusion. Analysis can, however, include observations justified by the weight
- The language is more descriptive than judgemental and the tone is explanatory and reasoned. It should indicate awareness of complexity, rather than instructing with an air of certainty.
So our guidelines make it clear that this kind of analysis is what ABC journalists should do, NOT articles that prosecute a particular side of a case only.
It is fundamentally important to understand that, even if (as with Paul Barry last night on Media Watch) you believe those guidelines are wrong or too strict. They are, nevertheless, the guidelines under which we have operated for years and they are pretty consistent with other public broadcasters around the world. It goes with the turf.
With that background in mind, let’s turn to Emma’s analysis article. The facts of the matter are these:
- The Director of News, Gaven Morris, did not see the pieces before they were published and neither did my editorial policy advisers.
- As soon as he did see them (about 90 minutes after they were published) he expressed concerns that they might not be fully compliant with our editorial policies, so news management and the News editorial adviser took a closer look.
- The ABC formed the view, based on the guidelines, that Emma’s analysis piece was actually closer to opinion than analysis.
- In the circumstances, we would normally either remove content or change it to fix the problem (and transparently acknowledge that it had been changed).
- From a purely practical perspective, we were able to fairly rapidly amend the news article to fix up some accuracy/context issues, but given the nature of the analysis piece we had to remove it because it is not possible to quickly turn an opinion piece into an analysis piece. But I understand work is continuing to do that if possible.
Quentin’s suggestion that we repost a version so that the audience could separate the analysis from the opinion makes no sense once you understand that our reporters do not do opinion. It’s not a case of better labelling if what you are doing is continuing to publish something that does not accord with our editorial standards. If we produce a new piece of analysis that meets our standards, of course it will be published. But publishing a piece that ‘clearly defines Emma’s opinion’ would not be in keeping with our editorial standards.
If Quentin or anyone else are concerned that the ABC has been ‘got at’, and if Carol thinks our comments are ‘mealy-mouthed’, then all I can say in response is that it helps to take the time to understand the issue here.
Far from bending to political pressure, the ABC is acting to ensure we uphold the highest standards of journalism and protect the ABC’s editorial standards.
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