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February 13th 2014 print

Geoffrey Luck

How The ABC Gets Away With It

Complain all you like about the broadcaster's transgressions against fact and impartiality, but it is unlikely to do a scrap of good. While Managing Director Mark Scott embraces semantics, the review process wraps complaints in lawyerly language, obfuscation and interminable delays

abc leans left small“Media professionals need to grow thicker skins, They need to accept more and harsher criticism, disseminate it more readily, correct errors swiftly, be willing to clarify, explain their decisions, acknowledge their misjudgements, and where appropriate, apologise.” – 2009 Review of the ABC’s Self-Regulatory Framework, Change with Continuity

So why did Mark Scott choose to use weasel words when his reporters were caught supporting allegations of misconduct amounting to torture against Navy personnel? Why didn’t he apologise, as his own Editorial Guidelines report recommends?  Instead he slithered around the fact that video was put to air triumphantly as seeming to back up asylum seekers’ claims of mistreatment – by employing a semantic quibble. “Wording needed to be more precise on that point” he said.

Nobody should have been surprised. For the last 30 years the ABC has been fighting to escape accountability for its news broadcasts. It has moved from a battle to prevent government imposing an external complaints review body to establishing a self-regulatory system — and then watering that down so drastically that only in the most egregious breaches will a complaint be upheld.

The ABC boasts that it has the most comprehensive complaints system of any media organisation in Australia, equal to that of any broadcaster in the world. The historical record shows its claim of industry best practice to be a myth.

Back in the early 1980s, there was no formalised complaints process. The Commonwealth Ombudsman was the only authority to which an aggrieved listener or viewer could turn. The Ombudsman then, Professor Jack Richardson, declared at the time: “The ABC’s attitude towards my office is prima facie evidence of a reluctance to be accountable”. The broadcaster was “a pain in the arse” and “gutless”, he said,  for neither acknowledging his right to adjudicate complaints, nor contesting it through an appeal to the Federal Court.  Richardson’s view, based on the Attorney-General’s opinion, was that program complaints could be subsumed under administrative matters since they all related to the notion of good governance.

When the Commission became the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1983, section 82 of the new Act provided for the appointment of a Community Affairs Officer (CAO) to investigate complaints “that an error of fact has occurred in a program, announcement or other matter broadcast or televised.” That was all. The loose drafting meant that the CAO was independent, not answerable to senior management although a member of the staff. Disputes arose over his findings against program units, which the managing director was unable to resolve. Despite continued pleas, it was not until 1994 that an amendment to the act repealed section 82.

In the new Corporation, management’s immediate problem was to head off pressure for external supervision of the complaints process. The new Hawke Government made no secret of its contempt for the ABC. Foreign Minister Bill Hayden attacked the broadcaster for its “leftist views, bureaucratic fiefdoms and unbalanced reporting.” Hawke criticised the “bias, partiality and propaganda” in a Four Corners program on uranium mining. Management, he raged, was controlled by the staff union. The Department of Communications pressed strongly for an independent review body.

The ABC proposed an internal auditor to deal with complaints about programs, but the staff unions blocked it. The Victorian Manager, Malcolm Naylor, famously wondered, “Why ask for complaints, people will only complain?”

For years the organisation successfully fought government attempts to appoint an external review body, but in 1991 Hawke’s strident criticism of its coverage of the Gulf War forced it to set up its own Independent Complaints Review Panel. The ABC also grudgingly accepted the Australian Broadcasting Authority as the ultimate arbiter in complaints about breaches of its Code of Conduct.

The ICRP originally was composed predominantly of experienced journalists, broadcasters and ethics practitioners. Later it came to be dominated by lawyers, as the ABC refined its Code and Editorial Guidelines in increasingly legalistic terms. Anyone who stuck it out with a complaint all the way to the panel could expect to spend nine to ten months in conflict.

In March, 2003, the ABC created a four-step process. This set up a single unit to receive and deal with all complaints, appointed a Complaints Review Executive to oversee decisions, with the ICRP and appeal to the ABA as final steps. This system was just in time to deal with Richard Alston’s protest about biased coverage of the Second Gulf War. Ultimately, 25% of his 60 complaints were upheld, five times as many as normal.

From there it has been all downhill. Six years ago the Board expressed concern at a number of episodes of bias and the way editorial policies were being discharged. But the review it instigated (for which Mark Scott subsequently claimed credit) became trapped in an exhaustive process of consultation with program staff and every level of management. The outcome was a weaker, not stronger, system.

That was the 2009 Review quoted above; it planned to phase out the Complaints Review Executive and the ICRP “over time”. In 2011 the ABC did so, introducing a new category of “resolved complaints”, claimed to promote early and effective resolution of matters. But an examination of all the cases in the four years since then shows almost all “resolved” complaints could well be classified as “upheld”, conveniently improving the statistics. In 2012, some 103 complaints were upheld and 66 “resolved”. Last year 64 were upheld and 73 “resolved”.

The 2009-’11 Editorial Guidelines instituted a distinction between News and Current Affairs; Topical and Factual; Opinion; Performance and User Generated Content. This created loopholes and enabled evasions when factually wrong statements were excused as being the opinion of the speaker. A complaint about the wrong impression left by such a mis-statement was brushed aside. Many of these “opinions” have been political or ideological, and their defence has contributed to the ABC’s reputation for bias.

The ABC’s Code of Practice and Editorial Policies is replete with thickets of sections and sub-sections which set the precise legalistic criteria against which any complaint, whether for bias, balance, fairness or accuracy is judged. The result is that the wood can’t be seen for the trees. Audience and Consumer Affairs – a unit supposedly independent of program departments – is assiduous in applying its legalisms instead of considering the overall impression conveyed by a program or news item.

Furthermore, the rules are constantly changing. The current Editorial Policies are the fifth set in ten years. These latest have simplified and generalised the ABC’s responsibility in 22 pages to observing sets of principles and standards. These are defined as applying to accuracy, corrections, impartiality and diversity of perspectives, fair and honest dealing, privacy, harm and offence. The distinctions between News and other program units has been removed.

There are a number of escape hatches which make it difficult for a complainant to pin the broadcaster. “Judgments about whether impartiality was achieved in any given circumstances can vary among individuals,” it says. And it continues to play the old and ever-reliable get-out-of-jail card: “Impartiality does not require that every perspective receives equal time, nor that every facet of every argument is presented.” Mark Scott promised in 2006 that when dealing with controversial subjects, balance would be achieved “over time”. He refused to define “over time”; in fact most specialist programs never return to the subject to provide the balance.

An appeal to ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority and successor to the ABA) against a decision of Audience and Consumer Affairs must cite the Code of Conduct; ACMA has no jurisdiction over the Editorial Policies (although much of the wordings are similar). This will be a strictly legal investigation, with enough wiggle room for interpretation in the vaguely pious Code sections to defeat complaints of all but the most blatant breaches.

And the Code now specifies that if the ABC takes steps to redress the cause of a complaint about a breach before it is referred to ACMA, the breach will not be counted as a breach. This skews the statistics and makes year-on-year comparisons difficult.

I was trained as a reporter by the ABC, but so long ago that the principles, strictures and disciplines I was held to no longer seem to apply.  So the many complaints and criticisms I have made in recent years have not been from a political or ideological viewpoint, or in support of any newspaper proprietor, but grounded on and tested against the rules I was taught by the ABC itself.

I have protested about a wholesale defamation of the role and conduct of patrol officers in Papua New Guinea by an aggregation of biased comment; exposed the use of a video clip completely out of context to give a wilfully false impression of a prime minister; complained that a senior political reporter opened his report with video of Tony Abbott competing in an Iron Man event, then commented that he was running for office “the only way he knows how.” A London correspondent, reporting on the Queen’s opening of Parliament, could not restrain her republican instincts to sneer: “A woman wearing 3,000 diamonds and jewels worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars (asking) the British taxpayers to give her a pay rise.”  A complaint that a reporter had wrongly claimed Serbs had “overrun” the Dutch UN compound in Srebrenitza led to a furious exchange on the semantics of the word.

None of these complaints succeeded; inventive explanations were found to deny the points in detail, ignoring the overall impression and intent.  Behind these problems lies the poor training of reporters today; one year instead of four year cadetships, an emphasis on television technique, an apparent lack of sub-editorial oversight and discipline by demanding senior journalists. As a result the worthy statements of intent in the Editorial Policies and Code of Practice are largely unenforceable, or rather, breaches are too easily justified.

Over three decades the ABC’s complaints system has been successfully entrenched as a policeman investigating the police. The government’s proposed inquiry into the efficiency of the ABC’s operations is an opportunity to cut through the bureaucratic obfuscation that frustrates honest review of complaints. It should recommend what the Hawke government was too timid to do in 1984 – a completely external independent body to receive and handle all complaints about ABC programs.

As Professor Richardson said, it’s all related to good governance.