The ABC’s Faustian bargain

Last month, despite plummeting government revenue, the Gillard government could still find an extra $10 million to give to the ABC. The sum did not emerge through the normal channels of government budget process. ABC managing director Mark Scott told a Senate Estimates Committee hearing on February 11 that it had been especially negotiated with the government in late 2012. The ABC normally operates on a three-year funding period, which now grosses it about $1.2 billion a year. The last three-year period ended in 2012 but the government rolled-over one extra year’s funding and let the ABC apply for a new three-year grant in the 2013 budget.

The ABC wanted the additional $10 million, Scott said, entirely for its news division. It would spend it on recruiting more journalists, providing new links between local radio journalists and ABC News 24, and establishing a specialist unit to do fact-checking for news staff.

This was an extraordinary manoeuvre. When I was a director of the ABC from 2006 to 2011, the ABC’s allocation in the May budget was fixed. If the organisation had a case for more money, it had to wait another year and make its plea in the context of all the other demands on the Treasury at the time. No one imagined that if the ABC wanted to do more things, all it had to do was go back to the government mid-year and ask for supplementary funds. Of course, had there been a crisis that no normal budget planning could anticipate then emergency funding might well have been sought, but the kind of extras Scott listed are not of this kind. There is something fishy here.

When news director Kate Torney announced the windfall to ABC staff, she did so at a time when the major newspapers and commercial television news networks were laying off hundreds of reporters. But Torney could crow: “There is no better place to be if you’re a journalist than the ABC.” The two major ABC unions were also pleased. Both the Community and Public Sector Union and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance put out media releases praising the move.

Hence it is pretty clear, at the start of this election year, that the Gillard government and its communications minister Stephen Conroy are using the grant to demonstrate to ABC journalists that Labor is on their side. The unspoken but none­theless unequivocal message is that, if the journalists recognise their self-interest, they should reciprocate. The ABC executives who negotiated this deal were not innocent parties. They must have recognised its political attraction for Labor at this time and were happy to exploit it.

This was the second time in as many years that Conroy has broken with accepted public funding processes to favour the ABC. His role was even more audacious in 2011 when he persuaded Cabinet to award the corporation a $233 million contract from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for overseas broadcasting by the Australia Network. In doing so, he overrode the decision of a foreign affairs committee appointed by Kevin Rudd that Sky News should get the contract. Sky had put in a much better tender, offering in particular to broadcast into China, something the ABC could not do. There was almost universal agreement in the news media (including the ABC’s 7.30 Report) that Conroy’s decision was shonky—a position the Commonwealth Auditor-General publicly endorsed in a report the following year.

But on the fourteenth floor of ABC headquarters at Ultimo, Mark Scott could hardly contain his glee. One of the most awful functions I ever attended was the farewell dinner in December 2011 for retiring ABC chairman Maurice Newman, a man I respected and admired. Unfortunately, the function’s guest of honour was Stephen Conroy, who dominated proceedings. I found it nauseating to sit through a sycophantic eulogy to him by Scott, followed by an even more cringe-worthy response from the munificent hero of the hour.

The ABC hierarchy has made a Faustian bargain with this government. It has sucked up to it as if it were the only game in town. But the more they do, the more they destroy the corporate image of reliability and honesty that any news service needs to retain a healthy audience. The fate of the now almost terminal Fairfax press, which for more than two decades has consciously pursued a left-wing, tertiary-educated audience at the expense of its once substantial conservative middle-class readership, is lost on ABC management.

Yet when Mark Scott was appointed CEO in mid-2006, he was well aware of the problems created by biased reporting. He used the conservative Sydney Institute to make his first major public address. He promised to revive the managing director’s role as editor-in-chief and to intervene in particular programs that broke the rules about impartiality. Among his targets for reform he named the flagship current affairs programs Media Watch and Four Corners. He said he would review the corporation’s staffing practices to foster a “breadth and diversity of voices”.

Scott asked the board to approve the creation of a new position, a director of editorial policies, to monitor and assess editorial performance. The board agreed and itself recruited the appointee, former journalist and lawyer Paul Chadwick.

One of the duties the ABC Act imposes on its directors is to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation. In particular: “The board is also responsible for ensuring that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial.” This could not be clearer, but in 2006 the board lacked any mechanism for testing the degree of impartiality practised by its huge workforce of broadcasters. In the lead-up to elections, the corporation had a crude test of the balance of radio and television time, or “share of voice”, allocated to politicians of the major parties, but nothing more sophisticated. Apart from that, the corporation relied entirely upon its viewers and listeners to make complaints to its department of audience and consumer affairs.

Directors therefore had no satisfactory apparatus to ensure they fulfilled their legal responsibility. Scott’s reforms seemed to be the solution.

Months went by, however, and little happened in monitoring and assessing editorial performance. I had argued that a survey of the commanding heights of the television network, the evening news, the 7.30 Report and Lateline, would be a fruitful place to start research. A small number of the most controversial topics would suffice. Instead, Chadwick spent the best part of a year doing a study of the non-contentious issue of accuracy in news broadcasts. Since the Act held directors responsible for both accuracy and impartiality, it was hard to object. Unsurprisingly, when his study was eventually produced it found ABC news was reasonably accurate, no better or worse than most news outlets.

At last, after about two years in the job, Chadwick announced he would examine a topic of substance: the impartiality of ABC coverage of environmental issues. This was obviously a vast field and nobody demurred when he said he would restrict his study to news coverage in Melbourne, with attention to some particular issues dividing the community.

However, when his report was finally presented to the board, it was nothing more than an analysis of news coverage of a dispute between green activists and local authorities at Port Phillip about dredging works in the bay disturbing the sea-floor habitat. Chadwick found the ABC presented both sides of the debate in an unbiased way.

Some of us on the board were disappointed, to say the least. After all this time and money, the outcome was such a piddling effort. The staunchest defender of Chadwick’s work was Mark Scott.

For me, the penny finally dropped. Chadwick was doing his CEO’s bidding. Scott’s concern about bias had been all talk. He knew what rigorous research into the topic would reveal and how much conflict it would cause him with the staff and his executive. In contrast, the part-time members of the board could be managed much more easily. Scott chose the more expedient path.

Today, when anyone complains about bias in the ABC, Scott openly stares them down. That was his approach to two recent public complaints by Maurice Newman and former director Janet Albrechtsen. Indeed, Scott now asserts it is the critics whose perceptions are biased. In contrast, ABC journalists like former Labor Party staffer Barrie Cassidy embody journalistic standards of “fairness, balance and impartiality”. Scott is completely confident that, in the absence of any authoritative research into the impartiality of his product, he can withstand any challenge.

In June 2011, at a farewell dinner on my departure from the board, Maurice Newman remarked that my efforts on this issue had been a failure. His position had been that cultural change in an organisation like the ABC was a slow process and transformation could only be nurtured, not pushed from above. The most a board could do was lay down proper guidelines and try to create an environment conducive to change. Well, after his own five years in the job, Maurice should admit his method was a failure too. Not only has nothing changed but in some areas things have got demonstrably worse. When Maurice recently made a formal complaint about the outrageous claim by science journalist Robyn Williams that climate change sceptics could be compared to paedophiles, the ABC complaints department decided, barefaced, that Williams was in the right. This is how ruthlessly the organisation defends itself today. Since he is no longer of any use to them, the former chairman’s views can not only be safely ignored but openly insulted.

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