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October 15th 2014 print

Tony Thomas

The ABC’s Stacked Audit Deck

To allay criticism of its science coverage in general and climate change in particular, the national broadcaster convened a panel to take the measure of its efforts. Well, guess who will be doing the appraising? Alarmists Jonathan Holmes and Fiona Stanley, and that's just for starters

scaleUnkind people say that science coverage on the ABC is not up to scratch. For example, in October, 2013, Catalyst ran a two-part “investigation” called “The Heart of the Matter”. It promoted the notion that taking cholesterol-reducing statins doesn’t help heart disease. Watched by an estimated 1.5 million, the series may well have helped claim the lives of viewers who trustingly abandoned their medications.

The show and resulting outcry were too much, even for the ABC, which decided Catalyst had not been impartial, removed the program from its website and tried to set the record straight.

On the biggest scientific issue of all, the trillion-dollar catastrophic global warming conjecture, the ABC’s top science staffer Robyn Williams in 2007 suggested we are in for 100m sea level rises this century. Last August, the Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science thought it an excellent idea to give catastropharian fabulist Naomi Oreskes the run of his microphone. A fearmonger almost without equal, she seized the taxpayer-funded moment to warn that our puppies and kittens would be killed by global warming by 2023.

Well, all this ABC science tosh is going to be a thing of the past, at least according to the ABC. To that end it has set up a slightly independent “ABC Science Reference Panel”, which has been meeting this year in fulfilment of a promise made by ABC Chair Jim Spigelman back in mid-2013.

Just as the SMH and Age like to bang on about Fairfax Media scoops, my researches can be categorised as a scoop for “Quadrant Media”, as I have winkled the names of the ABC science auditors out of the national broadcaster:

Chair:  The ABC’s Board Member, No 1 ABC fan and bumbling climate-change eco-warrior Professor Fiona Stanley AC. For more about Stanley, see below.

… and the members  (drum-roll, please!):

Jonathan Holmes, the former Czar of Smug on ABC’s Media Watch (2008-13), who wrote in The Age last July that it was nonsense for former ABC Chair Maurice Newman to insist there has been no global warming since the mid-Nineties. That halt, the one Holmes declines to acknowledge, has now extended to 18 years, but charts and graphs and satellite readings, not to mention the IPCC’s po-faced admission that warming hasn’t lived up to its dire expectations, cuts no mustard with Holmes. No, as he wrote, “the climate scientists I know tell me it is drivel”, and for Holmes no more evidence is needed.

Adam Spencer, maths geek, ex-ABC Triple J comedian, ex-host ABC Quantum, FAQ, Sleek Geeks, and Breakfast on ABC Sydney Radio 702 (until last December). Affronted by climate sceptic Lord Monckton’s views during a July, 2011, interview, Spencer hung up on him.

Dr Jim Peacock AC,  Federal Government Chief Scientist 2006-2008, and ex-chair of the Academy of Science. His appointment must be some sort of ABC mistake, as Peacock has been favours nuclear power and genetically modified foods.

Julie Weber, Science Teacher of the Year 2013, Australian Science Teachers Association. She looks OK.

Linden Ashcroft, program manager at Earthwatch Australia. She believes in the IPCC climate models, 111 out of 114 of which run too hot.

Matthew Bird, PhD candidate, paediatrics, University of Melbourne. Seems OK.

Professor Peter Høj, Vice-Chancellor University of Queensland and CSIRO boardmember with a background in biochemistry/genetics.  Høj this month heaped lavish praise of UQ colleague and much-quoted catastropharian Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg for defending the Great Barrier Reef against climate change. On the plus side, Høj was awarded a medal for services to the wine industry, so can’t be all bad.

Peter Yates AM, Chair RiAus (Royal Institution of Australia, a science promotion not-for-profit) and Australian Science Media Centre. A corporate heavyweight (PBL, Macquarie, Morgan Stanley, Crown, Foxtel, Nine, you-name-it).   Fireworks possible if Stanley, Spencer and Holmes try to patronise him, although an intimate familiarity with Robyn Williams may have inured him to supercilious smirking. Williams serves as Yates’ deputy chair at RiAus.

Getting back to Fiona Stanley, she’s been distinguished in epidemiology, paediatrics and public and Aboriginal health. But she earned deserved  ridicule for her ventures into ABC sucking-up and climate catastrophism. As the ABC’s chief scientific auditor put it last month, wearing her ABC Board hat,

“From the age of five when I was an Argonaut, the ABC has been a force for good in my life and work.  It has educated, informed, entertained and excited me for over 60 years.  It is a fantastic resource for this nation.

“Unfortunately,  many of us have taken the ABC for granted. My hope is that readers will realise how valuable our public broadcaster is and fight to save it from further cuts and harassment. 

“If you only read The Australian, or listen to the views of some politicians, you would think that the ABC is struggling to provide fair coverage of events, is biased in its politics and its science, and that it is wasting tax-payers’ dollars. Have you noticed that journalists critical of the ABC have started to call it ‘the taxpayer-funded ABC’?”

Heavens! Why would ABC critics note that the broadcaster is funded by the taxes of all Australians, yet has not a single conservative host or compere (with the possible exception a breakfast radio host in Perth, Eoin Cameron, who is a former Liberal MHR but anything but partisan in his presentations)?

Stanley went on to claim, wrongly, that the ABC was making do in 2012-13 on $825m when the fact is that it was allocated $1.22 billion. In the interests of fact-averse consistency, she also claimed that The Australian had demanded the ABC be privatised. Good thing that she’s not an engineer designing bridges.

“As a scientist”, as Stanley described herself, she believes the ABC is doing a great job, insisting it is “crucial because  we are poorly served by other parts of the media.”  The ABC’s new auditor continued,  “We are now in a situation where a major commercial news organisation [i.e. News Corp] is denigrating the ABC with a vicious, sustained campaign which is extremely damaging to our public broadcaster and to the nation.”

In April, she told Radio National that if we didn’t reduce global warming – time was running out -  then kiddies (as distinct from Robyn Williams’ kittens) would starve and sicken. “I’m not a climate change expert,” she gushed, “but I do trust the incredible scientific evidence … We don’t actually know if it is on the rise [warming, she means] but all the risk factors for it are on the rise.” Perhaps, in addition to rejoicing that Stanley did not make a career building bridges, we should also be glad she does not teach English and clear thinking.

The Abbott government was bad for sacking the Climate Change Department. Climate sceptics made her “anxious and angry” because they were dissing scientists and hurting generations as yet unborn. Such injustice makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, as the greenies’ Monster Climate Petition explains in its preamble:

“My great great grandchildren ask me in dreams, what did you do while the planet was plundered? What did you do when the earth was unravelling?”

Stanley was rested enough, however, to sign on as ‘lead petitioner’.

Spigelman, as author of the audit idea, is no slouch on law (ex-chief justice, NSW) and science history (co-author of tome on nuclear energy). He announced in mid-2013 that it was time to put ABC science coverage to the test, as per the ABC Charter for accurate and impartial journalistic presentation.

Spigelman said he’s not a climate sceptic. But he said ABC journalists needed “to hold scientists and technologists to account for their claims and conduct”.

“What I believe needs most work, is to develop our capacity to appropriately challenge scientists, not least those whose work is distributed by press release from organizations with a vested interest in favourable publicity. That includes, these days, universities [and Tim Flannery’s Climate Council – TT].

“I would hope we can further develop the scientific literacy of our news and current affairs staff. In this…  we must go beyond PR handouts, or what has been called ‘churnalism’.”

The panel, he said, would be set up to

  • Develop benchmarks against which to judge ABC science coverage
  • Take as a litmus test 10 major ABC science stories in the past year and judge their breadth and depth (I hope the statins scare and the kittens-and-puppies stories got up).

After the panel reports, it will then run a private symposium with ABC staff on science coverage. The ABC will then issue a public report on the whole exercise. Later, other non-science ABC subject areas will get similar scrutiny, using the ‘quality reference panel’ idea. (Might I suggest the ABC’s political coverage is a topic brimming with potential?).

Spigelman told the Academy, loftily, that science reporters were a dying breed outside the ABC, whose Robyn Williams and Karl Kruszelnicki were paragons. ABC science coverage stands “head, shoulders, thorax and abdomen”  above other broadcasters, he boasted. Kruszelnicki, by the way, claimed last year that global warming since 1997 was six times more than the British Met Office had calculated, then compounded that monumental falsehood by abusing Andrew Bolt for getting the figure correct.

Spigelman said “impartiality” included  giving opportunities over time for key points of contentious issues to be covered, but ‘balance’ involved following the weight of evidence on topics such as climate change.  He finished with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to our local News Corp headline writers: “Primarily because of the expansion of the News Corporation internationally, Australian sub-editors have made a disproportionate contribution to the punch of tabloid newspapers, particularly in London and New York.”

Meanwhile, I can hardly wait to read Professor Stanley’s criticisms of the ABC. Fiona, don’t hold back! (Hire her as your  next conference speaker, $15,000 minimum)

Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com