Ethics and its constraints are rarely front and centre in deliberations within the ABC. Reporters blatantly obscure the truth, distort by selection or emphasis, and add their own commentary, often with a sneer. Prestigious current affairs programmes devoted principally to sensationalism defame individuals and industries on the basis of old film or material supplied by outside partisan groups and presented out of context.
I was just getting to grips with the latest ABC misinterpretation of the American political scene by its leading Washington correspondent when Saturday Extra leapt out of my radio with a discussion of the ethics involved in the infamous Cabinet Papers case. I should have known better than to think even for a moment that Geraldine Doogue would permit any questioning of the ABC’s handling of the documents.
Indeed, her interview with Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre (formerly known as the St James Ethics Centre) was an illustrative example of the ABC’s look-over-there/nothing-to-see-here approach to important issues. The interview was devoted to “ethics”, but not those of ABC News’ publication of selected documents from the top secret trove. Rather, the segment focused on the as-yet-unidentified individual who purchased those filing cabinets.
Longstaff had no difficulty, right off, in finding that, ordinarily, the obligations is to return what is not yours to the rightful owner — in this instance top-secret documents to the government which misplaced them. But then he began to equivocate with a series of hypotheticals about what might have run through the unnamed individual’s mind.
“He may have been appealing to a higher order of good than his ordinary moral intuition had in this case,” said Longstaff, the man who once invited an Islamic absolutist to defend honour killings at his Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The man John Lyons in The Australian tells us is but a simple bushie who can’t cook vegetables obviously thought, surmised Longstaff, that the papers were no longer of use to the government. Or maybe, if they were, that some higher good to be served by passing them to the ABC.
Doogue pounced: “He saw a gap between what he was seeing occur in the broader community and what he was reading in these papers. Very much as anyone who has gone to see The Post, the (movie) story of the Pentagon Papers being leaked.”
Although he pointed out that by handing over the papers, the obligation to face the ethical question of what to do with them was transferred to the ABC, Longstaff stopped short of considering what the national broadcaster should have done. The nearest he came was to observe the ABC loved disclosing what it did, not to mention seeing itself and its scoop all over the nation’s front pages and home pages as a result.
And that was as close as the ABC’s Doogue came to examining her employer’s conduct — or misconduct, to be accurate, since the publication of state secrets is a clear and obvious breach of the law.
Meanwhile, the ABC had thrown up a smokescreen with the publication on its website, and simultaneously in The Australian, of the ostensible account of how it came to acquire the document trove. Even allowing for the reasonable need to obscure its source, almost everything in the report stretched credulity. What was notable was what the report didn’t say about any consultations that might have taken place about the ethics of broadcasting, selectively, information from highly confidential documents to which the ABC had no title. There was nothing but self-serving sanctimony about how responsible the national broadcaster had been in not publishing any documents that, in its view and its view alone, could endanger public safety or national security.
The Australian story was valuable, however, in establishing that
- the ABC had possession of the documents for months before the first story appeared
- it made photocopies which were sent to Brisbane and Melbourne (why, was not explained)
- that the most senior levels of the News Department were involved throughout, and therefore responsible
- it had been decided to concentrate on stories that would embarrass politicians – Rudd, Wong, Morrison and Abbott (although not in that order).
As Director of News Gaven Morris put it: “We could have told hundreds of stories over weeks or months.” So for many weeks, many ABC people read many, if not all the documents. The government and the public are entitled to ask; “How secure is that information?”
Hundreds of bits of classified information – some involving national security and personal reputations – are now in the hands (and minds) of people who have no right to them.
So far we have seen not the slightest hint that the ABC will be held to account for violating the law. Prime Minister Turnbull, in full Jim Hacker mode, sternly informed Sunday morning’s Insiders that heads must roll. But he was talking only of the unknown public servant(s) who let the files slip out and away. Of the ABC, which cannot invoke the defence of culpable absentmindedness, he uttered not a word of rebuke. Such is the fear the ABC incites in the spineless.
Given the ABC’s reputation for unethical conduct and rash reporting, especially as revealed in this case, who is to say such information will not re-surface, to be used journalistically and perhaps viciously? In case you need reminding, it was the ABC which jumped on that slanderous yarn about RAN sailors torturing illegal aliens aboard their leaky boats. It was such tosh and nonsense even Media Watch had to admit it was not the national broadcaster’s finest hour. By the reckoning of less partisan observers it was a politically motivated package of flat-out untruths.
This latest ethical fail by the ABC is merely the most dramatic example of the journalistic greed that has now corrupted the national broadcaster. From a proud and disciplined organisation which did a lot with limited resources, it has become a wealthy, self-indulgent and self-pleasuring colossus which no longer tells the public what it needs to know. Now it tells the public what to think and how to think.
For more than a year, listeners and viewers of ABC programmes have been subjected to a continuous barrage of mis-reporting of US politics. Not content with openly barracking for Hillary Clinton and publicly weeping at her defeat, the ABC has carried on guerrilla warfare against Australians’ perceptions of the incumbent president. Broadcasts that seek not to explain and interpret but to condemn and decry have been its journalists’ specialty. Through 2017, the popular Breakfast session carried a daily feature by Matt Bevan, a sneerer of the first order, who has offered little more than summaries of the latest critical, abusive or distorted American commentary. A regular programme, Planet America makes clear in its very title that it is a send-up American politics in general and the Trump White House in particular. Of course it presents itself as a source of informed analysis even though one of the comperes is a “comedian” from The Chaser. At least the temptation to President Trump fornicating with a dog was resisted, which is something, I suppose.
For months the ABC and its Washington bureau have been barracking for impeachment. Their hopes have been pinned on the allegations of Russian collusion that allegedly undermined the Clinton campaign and prompted the ongoing investigation by a special prosecutor. What the ABC’s Washington bureau has avoided is the significance of the Clinton campaign/Democratic Party-funded dossier that was put to political use by the FBI under James Comey.
We have now learned the extent of the conspiracy with the release of the memo from the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. The Federalist website succinctly lays out the key seven points raised in the memo. But none of that from the ABC and its senior Washington correspondent, Zoe Daniels, who has focused her recent reporting on the strenuous efforts by Democrats to prevent the memo’s release. Her report on the AM programme dodged its significant details and went straight to FBI denials and the fact that the Democrats had a 10-page rebuttal. These are some of the things in the Congressional memo (read the original here) that Daniels didn’t think worth mentioning:
- the fact that the anti-Trump dossier – an essential part of the case – had been funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee was not revealed to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court when applying for surveillance of a junior Trump staffer. Not initially, or for three subsequent extensions.
- that senior FBI and Department of Justice officials knew that the political origins of the dossier.
- the author of the dossier, former British spook Christopher Steele, had a personal bias against Donald Trump and told a senior Justice official he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
- Steelewas first suspended and then terminated as an FBI source for crowing to journalists of his relationship with the FBI.
- the FBI authorized payments to Steele, but never disclosed that in its applications to FISA.
- the FBI had assessed the Steele dossier as “uncorroborated”, and after his termination, as only “minimally corroborated.”
- three of the four applications to the FISA court were signed by James Comey, who publicly described the Steele dossier as “salacious and unverified”.
- FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had admitted to the House Intelligence Committee in December 2017 that without the dossier no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISA court.
Australia has reached the stage where news from its national broadcaster is no longer trustworthy. Process and technique have replaced authenticity in reporting. In the plethora of live reports from the sites of trivial events, reporters conduct cosy chats with the studio anchors instead of reporting to the audience. Instead of tightly scripted reports that can be read by the studio announcer, the emphasis is on ‘being there’, without regard for whether it adds anything to the story or its drama. So we have long-winded ad-libbed rambles from on-the-spot, with the only result being time wasted that could be used for other, more, or better stories.
Let commercial TV outfits make their reporters stand thigh-deep in floodwaters for live crosses, shiver in snow banks or whatever other stunts they believe will help their news shows sell soap powder. The ABC should be above that and once, long ago, it was, when news reported straight and without bias or omission was the basis of its reputation. The casualness with which its reporters use unnecessary adjectives, prefix their reports with redundant verbal flourishes, and end them with gratuitous opinionated conclusions further demonstrate why listeners and viewers can no longer turn to it for authentic fact, why its breathless reporting demands a dose of salt.
It is now thirty-seven years since the Dix Report on the ABC. It’s time for another root-and-branch investigation of this billion-dollar elephant before it goes further out of control and does more damage to the villagers who own it and the unvarnished, un-slanted truth they pay for and are entitled to hear.