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May 08th 2014 print

Geoffrey Luck

The ABC’s Activism Trumps Journalism

Man bites dog used to be definition of news. These days at the ABC news is whatever pet crusade journalists, producers and the national broadcaster's gold-plated talking heads feel inspired to insert in that day's bulletins. When you have the unrestrained use of a taxpayer-funded pulpit the urge to preach must be irresistible

soapboxIt’s official!  As many have long suspected, the ABC’s News Division is now a politically active, social-campaigning institution. Those activities may be outside the scope of the Corporation’s charter, and specifically prohibited by the Editorial Policies, but increasingly they have subverted news values, editorial judgement and destroyed any claim on integrity.

Here’s how the new policy revealed itself:

On Tuesday morning, May 6, listeners to Radio National’s Breakfast programme were surprised to hear a report on domestic violence by Juanita Phillips, the ABC’s $316,454-per-annum 7pm newsreader. It featured an interview with Roger Yeo, whose daughter, Michelle, was murdered by a former partner who stalked her. Paul Mulvihill is now serving 29 years for the murder.

John Izzard: The ABC’s Wasteland

On Tuesday night, the TV bulletin on ABC1 was interrupted by the insertion of the Phillips report in full colour, repeating the story and interview heard on radio in the morning.  Again, there was no news justification for the item: the point was a call for the prime minister to hold a national summit on domestic violence, and for men to take responsibility by wearing a white ribbon.

That night I lodged a complaint:

ABC News must make up its mind — is it a news organisation, reporting events, or a political campaigning entity?  Juanita Phillips’ “report” on domestic violence and interviewing the father of a victim smacked of lobbying and campaigning, not reporting. It was the same material we had heard in the Breakfast programme on RN earlier in the day, a repetition totally unjustified by its news value. The emphasis the ABC, through its feminist mafia, is devoting to the so-called problem of domestic violence takes the problem out of all proportion. For every instance of domestic violence, there are hundreds of thousands of happy, secure and safe families in Australia. This is a beat-up, taking a social problem, actual but not desperate, out of context and again accentuating the negative aspects of Australian life which ABC News now fastens on assiduously.

There can be no doubt Juanita Phillips was spearheading an ABC campaign on the issue. The day before, Monday May 5, Phillips had posted a story on the ABC’s website, headlined, ‘Domestic violence victim Kay Schubach speaks out as calls for national summit strengthen.’ In her interview, Schubach reflected on the murder of Lisa Harnum, thrown from her 15th floor balcony by Simon Gittany, convicted and sentenced to twelve years imprisonment.

Phillips was keen to make the point that domestic violence knew no social boundaries and Schubach fitted that well. “She is tiny, elegant and well-spoken,” she said. “She lives and works in Sydney’s affluent Eastern Suburbs and moves in well-connected circles.” And most important, she endorsed Phillips’ campaign for a national summit on domestic violence.

Today brought the ABC’s response to my complaint from NSW News Editor Don Lange:

Thank you for your email. The domestic violence series does represent a change in direction. However, I think it is news that domestic violence campaigners are calling for a national summit on the issue. These sort of stories will be an occasional inclusion in the bulletin in a bid to connect more with the audience. There has been a generally positive response to seeing Juanita out in the field. I thought it was great to hear her on AM. The 7PM piece was largely repetitive of the radio story but there is not a massive crossover between the audiences of the two programs. It also represents better value for our shareholders.

So social campaigning on pet issues is now kosher in the ABC? Have News Division executives completely lost sight of the difference between reporting and proselytising? Was outrage about the exorbitant salaries paid to front-of-house journalists responsible for sending Phillips out in the field to provide “better value for the shareholders”?  Before she came to the ABC Phillips appeared on-camera as a reporter for both the BBC and CNN. Undoubtedly she is over-paid as a pretty face to read the news (a throw-back to the Tanya Halesworth days of the Sixties), but how come her only report for the ABC is not a news story but a political plug?

Domestic violence is merely the latest issue to be taken up with an enthusiasm that displaces news discipline. Child abuse, the sins of the churches and churchmen are top order subjects for ABC News and  Current Affairs. Last year, ABC News allied itself with the campaign to bring errant priests in the Maitland diocese to book for their predatory conduct on minors. It endorsed the investigations of Newcastle journalist Joanne McCarthy and trumpeted the self-proclaimed efforts of a retired detective, Peter Fox, to expose child abuse in the Catholic church.

At one point, an ABC reporter interviewed Fox outside the Maitland courthouse, giving him the opportunity to embellish his story, while failing to report police evidence just given inside that repudiated his role in the investigation.

In these days when political correctness suppresses so much valid comment, the feminist cohort in the ABC has quietly gained disproportionate power. The promotion of Leigh Sales to chair the 7.30 programme when Chris Uhlmann was the obvious choice, based on competence and gravitas, and the appointment of Sarah Ferguson to the role when Sales conveniently departed to have a baby) demonstrate the influence of the ‘sisterhood.’

The result has been a transfer of the arrogance of Four Corners to the flagship evening current affairs programme, as Ferguson’s ill-bred and unproductive interview with Mathias Cormann recently demonstrated.

Under current management, ABC News and Current Affairs is obviously off the rails. No mere application of editorial guidelines or code-of-practice rules can bring it under control.