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December 20th 2013 print

Geoffrey Luck

Aunty’s Special Friend From The BBC

The BBC exec being brought in to determine if the national broadcaster is guilty of bias will not take long to get acclimatised. As recently as August she was career-coaching the same ABC editorial leaders on whom she will now pass judgment

abc leans left smallStung by telling criticism and reeling from disasters of its own making, the ABC this week sent its chairman stumbling out into no-man’s land, waving a revolver in one hand and a white flag in the other. Inevitably, he fell down a shell hole and shot himself in the foot.

The inappropriateness of James Spigelman’s appointment as chairman of the ABC was fully revealed in his appearance at the National Press Club luncheon. Reminiscent of Managing Director Mark Scott’s opening speech in 2006, in which he conceded much and promised more, Mr Spigelman began with a conciliatory admission of concern about lack of impartiality in the ABC.

But with judicial adroitness, he dodged a judgement on the issue, confining himself to expressing concern about the frequency of public allegations. This allowed him to declare his confidence that any partiality would be due to “imperfections of human endeavor rather than systematic bias.” Allegations of bias were much more often a function of the topics chosen for reporting, than of the content. Such an observation indicates how little he knows about journalism, or how infrequently he listens.

Yet in July, the ABC Board had apparently been so concerned that it had issued a guidance note on impartiality, providing detailing information on how to achieve that objective. It would like to see it. There has been no discernible improvement in reporting in news and current affairs programmes, or in comment and opinion by specialist presenters or talkback hosts. The snide comments, the throwaway lines, the gratuitous personal observation at the end of a reporter’s piece to camera, have continued.

Despite his apparent confidence that things were under control, Mr Spigelman felt it necessary to announce a measure which would validate, once and for all, that the ABC was driving down the middle of the road. It would conduct four “editorial audits” a year on specific programme topics, conducted externally by people not employed by the ABC.

The first, already under way, is being undertaken by Andrea Wills, a former BBC producer, into only the radio interviews with Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd during the recent election campaign. It seems all the tapes have been flown to her in London. That this restrictive mandate will yield nothing of importance does not appear to have occurred to the chairman – or, perhaps it has been designed just so.

How appropriate is Ms Wills to evaluate the ABC’s impartiality? This is the woman, who until August this year, was responsible for training ABC senior editors on that very topic. Here’s an extract of her Linked-in CV:

Manager, Editorial Quality Training
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
July 2012 – August 2013

Worked collaboratively across the ABC and developed a corporate wide Editorial Leaders Program. This two day face to face course trained up to 18 editorial decision makers at the leadership level from all output divisions (News, Radio, TV, Innovation, International and Commercial).  It was targeted at editorial leaders who managed teams of content makers, usually at executive producer level, as well as producers and senior producers who had been identified as future ABC editorial leaders. Sessions discussed issues of impartiality and diversity of perspectives, considered how to mitigate political harm and offence for the ABC’s diverse audiences.

How much did the ABC spend on this year-long jolly-fest? Clearly, if Mr Spigelman and Mark Scott, self-proclaimed Editor in Chief, think that was the way to fix the ABC’s bias and cultural pre-dispositions, they are deluded and in complete denial.

What the ABC needs, in the News and Current Affairs area at any rate, is a strong managerial hand at the top, buttressed by tough seasoned sub-editors at the level where bulletins and programmes are produced. That is the only way to put an end to the self-centredness that distorts news values, indulges pet post-modernist theories, favours leftist and green values, and serves not as a servant of society but as hand-maiden to political and social ideologies.

John Bridcut, critic of the BBC, which had and still has the same problems the ABC denies, set out these twelve tests that every reporter and editor should apply to every story:

Accuracy, Balance, Context, Distance, Even-handedness, Fairness, Objectivity, Open-mindedness, Rigour, Self-Awareness, Transparency and Truth.

 

None of these alone guarantees impartiality; that comes from applying all twelve.