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May 31st 2013 print

The butcher, the block and Captain Underpants

The ABC's Mark Scott explains the business of being impartial before a Senate Estimates hearing. To help him out, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy contributes interruptions, inanitities and, at the best estimate, a half-measure of wit 

Late on Wednesday afternoon, when Mark Scott went before the Senate Estimates Committee, he was welcomed at first by a slather of soft-ball questions from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. And for emotional support, there at the table beside him was the garrulous figure of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, the man who once boasted he could make telecommunications executives wear red underpants on their heads.

Peace, harmony and good fellowship – that was the initial tone as an untaxed Scott extolled the ABC’s virtues, its impartial approach and, by implication, his own sound stewardship of the national broadcaster’s assets, budget and reputation.

Then it was the turn of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, who was most interested to learn more of Russell Skelton, the former Fairfax journalist recently appointed to head the ABC’s fact-checking unit. While Abetz hacked away at Scott’s po-faced reserve, Conroy burbled with asides, interjections and inanities – so many and so often it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was there to run interference for his friend. The full transcript can be found here

…..Senator ABETZ: Mr Scott, we could be here all night. I have here more than a dozen examples of Mr Skelton’s tweets denigrating Liberals such as Senator Brandis, Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey and other current and former Liberal leaders.

Senator Conroy: He knows his facts, doesn’t he!

Senator ABETZ: So how can you credibly maintain that Mr Skelton is impartial and a suitable choice to be the ABC’s fact-checker? I will give you a few examples: ‘Gordon nails Brandis‘; ‘Morrison, the LP’s one-trick pony‘ —

Senator Conroy: Absolutely factually accurate at all points! What is your problem?

Senator ABETZ: The Liberal bird -brained backbencher slams Gestapo data retention‘ —

Senator Conroy: There are many different definitions!

Senator ABETZ: that was about Mr Ciobo. ‘Joe’s not the sharpest pencil in the box when it comes to numbers‘; ‘Rudd wept and Julia triumphant‘; ‘The honeymoon will be too long for the monk‘ — all these from Mr Skelton.

Are you still saying you will not comment on individual tweets? There are dozens and dozens of them showing a partiality against the coalition.

Senator Conroy: In your biased view.

Senator ABETZ: Mr Scott, do you understand that we in the Coalition do not accept that this man will go about his task with impartiality given his past track record of complete and utter partiality, including some quite offensive tweets?

What I would invite you to do is take all of these tweets on notice and come back to the committee and explain how this builds confidence in the community’s mind that Mr Skelton will go about his task  with impartiality. I will table those for the committee.

Mr Scott: I will take that on notice. Let me simply say in response to the broad thrust of that that Mr Skelton is a very experienced and award-winning journalist. We thought, on the criteria that were spelt out, on his ability to provide and lead a team that is testing statements, coming to conclusions and providing the evidence behind that, that Mr Skelton is an appropriate person to lead that division. Finally though, the performance of that division will be the responsibility of the ABC. It will be the responsibility of the news division that delivers it.

There will be a number of people who work in it. Finally, as editor in chief, I am responsible for that outcome. So I expect that the real test of Mr Skelton’s professionalism in  undertaking this role will be the performance of the unit over time. That is a matter I suspect will come to the attention of this committee and we will discuss in the future. But fundamentally the test of any of our journalists is: how do they act in the role?

Mr Skelton has only been working with us for a matter of days; the test will be how he performs in the role. I understand your qualms about the appointment and I understand your concerns at some of those tweets. But fundamentally the judgement will be on the performance of the role: is he seen to be fair, balanced and impartial; does he act without fear or favour; and is the evidence accrued to back up the judgements that are made by that unit?

Senator ABETZ: Is this the same award-winning journalist that has been twice criticised — once for a one-sided story about the Aboriginal intervention and a second time in relation to his Age story ‘A town without hope‘, about Aboriginal degradation in Balgo’? Skelton did not go to Balgo, and that story was accompanied by pictures of a camp 300 kilometres away. My source? The ABC’s Media Watch. In addition, is this the same award-winning journalist who has been accused of grossly inaccurate journalism and even making up interviews?

Mr Scott: I am not aware of that detail. In the 20 years of Media Watch a great number of journalists have come to its attention. Mr Skelton is an experienced and award-winning journalist but, finally, he will be held to account for delivering to the ABC’s editorial policies, which are the highest standards that operate for the practice of journalism anywhere in the country. There is a full accountability mechanism around that. Part of that accountability mechanism comes from the work of this committee. If there are concerns about the performance of that unit, I am sure they will generate attention here.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but it will all be too late after the election.

Mr Scott: Sorry, in what respect, Senator?

Senator ABETZ: Now let me compare all those opinions about coalition members by your independent, impartial fact-finder with his views on the Prime Minister. What would you say about this tweet: ‘Extraordinary times. JG at last behaving like a PM. ALP vote up, not down. Beware the pundits‘? Isn’t this shameless barracking, pure and simple?

Senator Conroy: You just have a biased view on it, Senator Abetz.

Mr Scott: Senator Abetz, I really think there is little point in going through a whole series of tweets —

Senator ABETZ: What about this tweet: ‘Another take on Julia Gillard PM: grace under pressure‘?

Senator Conroy: A factually accurate statement!

Senator ABETZ: That is one Kevin Rudd would not even agree with. This is just cheer squad stuff from the person you have now appointed as an allegedly impartial fact-finder. Do you still believe, given all this evidence, that Mr Skelton is a suitable appointment to this task?

Mr Scott: We will judge him on the work that he does.

Senator ABETZ: Would it surprise you to learn that Mr Skelton has sought to walk away from his endorsement of the highly contested assertion that 97 per cent of scientists believe in human induced climate change? I am only talking about the percentage figure not the issue of climate change. He only walked away from it after being challenged by the reputable foundation chair of environmental engineering at the University of Tasmania, among others.

We have the tweets. Mr Skelton said ‘Yes, there really is 97 per cent scientific consensus on global warming and then when challenged he lamely sad ‘Not my facts. They belong to somebody else.

So what sort of fact-checking does he do when he is willing to tweet stuff without knowing its veracity and then, when he is picked up on it, simply says ‘Not my facts’?

Do you know what, that last tweet occurred on 22 May. I think he might have already been your fact-checker at that stage. Does this indicate a prejudice on a controversial issue, and a lack of intellectual integrity, or not?

Mr Scott: We will judge the performance on the performance. We have guidelines in place; we have editorial oversight on the operation of that division. And, finally, I think it will be a matter for review over time.

Senator ABETZ: And all these Tweets, some of which I accept were undertaken prior to his appointment —

Mr Scott: He has only been with us for a couple of days, so you have recounted nearly all of them.

Senator ABETZ: You told me not to interrupt, and I graciously accepted your admonition. Let’s make that a two-way street.

Mr Scott: Certainly Senator.

Senator ABETZ: All these Tweets I have read out now appear under the Twitter account ‘Russell Skelton, Editor, ABC Fact Checking Unit, Sydney, Australia.’ Can you point me to where Mr Skelton says, on his Twitter account, that just because he Tweets something it does not necessarily mean that he endorses it?

Mr Scott: I expect it will be there imminently.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, it will be there very, very, very shortly. But can you not see why the coalition, as a major player at this election, at a minimum, is concerned about the credentials and clear bias of Mr Skelton?

Mr Scott: As you know, I speak regularly to MPs and senators from both sides of parliament. I think there have been questions about a fact-checking unit: should we create a fact-checking unit, and what role will it play?

There has been apprehension, irrespective of personalities, as to why we are doing this. We think it is a contribution that can be played there. But, finally, it will be judged on its performance. The staff there will be judged on their performance. And I just think you need to keep in mind that it is not a one-word verdict that is handed down; the evidence that is used to back that verdict is also handed down. So I cannot think of anything that will be more open and transparent. People will be able to come to their own judgments.

Senator ABETZ: Oh, this is very transparent, I agree!

Mr Scott: But let’s hear about the performance of the unit, Senator. The performance of the unit will be transparent. The evidence that is behind its judgements will be there for all to see, and people will come to a judgement as to whether they feel that that has been fair, accurate and balanced or not.

In a further exchange, Conroy appears intent on re-living his glory days as the smart alec in the back-row of a Year 9 classroom:

Senator ABETZ: Do you have any concern about bias at the ABC?

Mr Scott: I would draw your attention to a much bigger survey commissioned by The Australian in February this year.

Senator ABETZ: I am asking about you. Do you have any concerns?

Senator Conroy:
Malcolm Turnbull gets on far too often, doesn’t he, Senator Abetz? You would agree with that!

Senator ABETZ:
Do you mind, Minister! Mr Scott, do you have any sense that the recent survey which found that 41 per cent of ABC journalists said they would vote for the Greens, 32 per cent for Labor and 15 per cent for the coalition generally reflects ABC journalists’ political leanings?

Senator Conroy:
He could not possibly know.

Mr Scott: No. There are about 1,000 journalists who work across the ABC in news, radio, rural divisions and others. The ABC pool—

Senator ABETZ: You have given me an answer and I accept that it was a very limited sample size.

Senator Conroy: Frankly, I was shocked by that survey!

Senator Conroy: I was shocked!

Senator ABETZ: Can we believe that Mr Skelton will be impartial when checking the public statements of politicians when just last July he tweeted ‘Abbott’s extremism on display’? Are we to assume this is a display of impartiality by Mr Skelton?

Senator Conroy: It could have been factually accurate!

Mr Scott: I am happy to talk about the fact-checking unit if you would like to talk about that.

Senator ABETZ: No, I am asking you about a specific tweet.

Senator Conroy: It could have been very factually accurate, Senator Abetz!

Senator Conroy: In my view that tweet is likely to be completely factual and true!

CHAIR: Order! Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. Can I ask about this tweet from your fact-checker, which is also about Mr Abbott: ‘No statesman, with no style’. Is this also indicative of an objective mindset?

Senator Conroy: No, an accurate one. A factually accurate one. That would check against the facts!

Senator ABETZ: The way the minister says it I think tells the whole story for us. What about last August, when Mr Skelton tweeted ‘Mr Abbott was revealed to be the shameless opportunist that he is and he was red faced. Windsor nailed him to the floor’? Is that another clear exhibition of the absence of bias by Mr Skelton?

Senator Conroy: I am confident that that was a factually accurate statement!