Good reporting hangs upon the obligation to lay out the facts without fear, favour or bias. At the national broadcaster a rather different approach prevails, as coverage of the Triggs hearing demonstrates: begin with an inaccurate summation, omit relevant background, and highlight only the most dubious and partisan accusations
Trying to grab hold of the bias and political subversion in ABC news bulletins is much like catching a snake with soapy hands. You sense the truth of an event being perverted on the screen in a flash of wriggly distortion; then it’s swiftly gone, like a taipan into long grass. There isn’t time for reflection — the following avalanche of images and distracting sounds leaves only a disturbing ghostly image of partiality and posturing. And a bad smell.
Since the ABC’s extension of the iView replay facility to news bulletins, it is now possible to recover and confirm the impression left by an item in a previous evening’s 7pm TV bulletin in every state. Better be quick, though, as it’s often not available until the next morning and gone by that same night.
On Tuesday, February 24, the story about Professor Triggs’ interrogation by the Senate Estimates Committee left me with the uneasy feeling that its treatment in a report fronted by Canberra political correspondent Julie Doyle (one of the many) was particularly snaky.
The first warning that something was wrong: the conclusion was in the opening.
Presenter Juanita Phillips: They have no power to sack her, but today it’s emerged the lengths the Abbott government has gone to, to force the Human Rights Commissioner to resign.
Note the word “force”. Then Doyle took up the story, which she told from a single perspective — that of Professor Gillian Triggs.
Doyle: It didn’t take long to get down to business. The head of the Human Rights Commission revealed details of a government attempt to coax her out of her job.
Triggs had been asked in the hearings about a meeting on February 3 with the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s department, Chris Moraitis, but that wasn’t explained. Doyle’s report jumped straight to the drama of the answer in Triggs’ testimony:
Triggs: The purpose of the meeting was to deliver a request from the Attorney.
Q: And what was the nature of that request?
A: (Looking around her) The nature of that request was to ask for my resignation.
Doyle then explained:
Doyle: But that wasn’t the full extent of it, Professor Triggs telling an Estimates Committee that she was offered a senior legal job with the government instead.
Then it was back Triggs’ testimony:
Triggs: “I rejected this out of hand. I thought it was a disgraceful proposal.”
Doyle’s report then cut straight to committee member Sarah Hanson-Young:
Hanson-Young: “It sounds like a bribe. Smells like a bribe, sounds like a bribe. What we have to work out whether it is.”
Chairman Ian McDonald: “You should withdraw and apologise.”
Doyle: She did, but her point had been made. The row between the government and Professor Triggs has been fuelled largely by her decision to hold an office. The Attorney-General says he reached the conclusion last month.
Brandis: “I felt that the political impartiality of the Commission had been fatally compromised.”
Next, leaping straight from the committee hearing, Doyle’s report landed in the middle of Question Time, where Bill Shorten was shown asking Tony Abbott what he knew about the role being “offered” to Triggs.
From the ABC’s perspective, job done: The wicked Abbott government had used playground bullying tactics in a bid to hound from her job the upright defender of asylum-seeking children. Viewers were left with the inescapable impression that she had indeed been offered a bribe – an illegal inducement to leave office.
While the Prime Minister has described Triggs’ Forgotten Children report as a stitch-up, the ABC could give everyone sewing lessons. Its report distorted reality while also breaching the broadcaster’s Editorial Guidelines to “gather and present news and information with due impartiality.” Fortunately, the Parliament records all its proceedings, including Committee hearings. It is therefore possible to spend a day on the Parlview website watching and listening to what actually happened in the committee room, as Doyle presumably did. Log on to Parlview and a very different picture emerges from the many hours of questioning.
Secretary Chris Moraitis gave evidence that he did not seek Professor Triggs’ resignation, nor did he use that word or convey any such a request from the Attorney-General. He simply told her that Senator Brandis had lost confidence in her. Senator Penny Wong tried to get him to agree that he had offered another role as a “prize”. When he denied that, Senator Wong said: “You expect Australians to believe that?” Which brought a spirited defence of Moraitis from Senator George Brandis, as a “highly respected public servant of more than 40 years standing” and the attack on him as “despicable”. Wong withdrew the remark.
Questioning by Senator Jacinta Collins of Secretary Moraitis elicited the fact that Professor Triggs had initiated the episode by contacting him in January and asking if he would seek the Attorney-General’s view of both herself and the Commission. If this was a naïve attempt to secure support in the face of what was then mounting public criticism of the Forgotten Children report, it backfired badly. Moraitis conveyed the message that Brandis had lost confidence in her.
As to the offer of another senior government legal role – the so-called “bribe” floated by Hanson-Young — Moraitis gave evidence that he had been surprised she knew about the role. “I was very well aware of the special role before you brought it to my attention,” Triggs said. In further questioning, Moraitis specifically denied that he considered the offer an ‘inducement.’ He also contradicted Professor Triggs’ claim that he had asked for her resignation.
But the principal omission in the ABC report was George Brandis’ evidence. This is what he said:
“I have had a good and cordial relationship with Professor Triggs…..my lack of confidence in Professor Triggs was in her role of President – how she had managed to steer the Commission to a position where its reputation for non-partisanship had been compromised. My regard for her personally and esteem for her as a distinguished international lawyer was undiminished – and are. I did not want to see her reputation damaged. As a matter of goodwill and as earnest of goodwill towards her, I hoped her acceptance of another position would demonstrate my confidence in her abilities as a lawyer and particularly international law.”
None of this made it into Doyle’s report. Rather, she remained unmoved and undistracted by the logic that a loss of confidence in a tenured officer inevitably means that person’s position is untenable.
As a journalist, I understand how difficult it is to compress five hours of committee hearings into an accurate news report. But it is only possible if the reporter – and the organisation – set out to do so with open minds. The ABC’s reporting is now so associated with partisan campaigns, attitudes and canted political opinion that it has lost the credibility it once enjoyed for impartiality and objectivity.
Today, sadly, errors and distortions are not only excused or condoned by senior management; they are defended by the pretended independent assessors in a complaints system that has been progressively watered down over the last decades. So it would be useless pointing out that Doyle’s story breached Editorial Policy standard 1.3: “Ensure that editorial decisions are not improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests.” Or 4.1: “Gather and present news and information with due impartiality”. Or 4.4: “Do not misrepresent any perspective.”
But it really doesn’t matter anymore. The ABC’s obsession with, and expenditure on digital frippery, its pursuit of ratings and fostering of a commercial image, its emphasis on presenting every story in voice and vision, often with youthful but inexperienced reporters, its fraudulent pretense of reporting international events by remote journalists, these have all combined to destroy belief and trust in the national broadcaster.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976