On April 11 in Canberra, three of the most senior ABC executives — a trio representing combined salaries far in excess of a million dollars a year — appeared before Senate Estimates. The entire transcript of that session can be found here and will confirm the impression of many that the national broadcaster is a law unto itself, an entity whose managing director is alternately very sharp on the uptake and, whenever it seems to suit, thick as a post. Readers are encouraged in particular to note the distance from candour between Senator Abetz’s repeated attempts to ascertain why the ABC is spending public money to promote the hijab and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie’s blandly vacant answers (page 3) that the latest taxpayer-funded vehicle to advance the media career of Yasmin Abdel-Magied is just “part of a fashion program.”
Shortly after that exercise in query and fog, the following exchange concerning the ABC’s handling of public complaints unfolds between Senator Eric Abetz and ABC editorial director Alan Sunderland ($178,145 p.a., as of 2013). Read it as a background briefing before absorbing the dismissive arrogance on display in the exchange of correspondence between Quadrant contributor and former ABC London bureau chief Geoffrey Luck and Audience and Consumer Affairs investigations chief Denise Musto. Their exchange is reproduced in full below this Estimates transcript. The emphasis is Quadrant Online‘s.
ABETZ: Can you indicate to us, on notice, the criteria to determine how a complaint is dealt with and how it is determined whether a complaint should be reviewed by the ACA [Audience and Consumer Affairs] team or by the program itself?
Mr Sunderland: Sure, I will provide you a summary.
ABETZ: Thank you. I note that in the October-December 2017 quarter only seven per cent of complaints received were actually investigated. Is that correct?
Sunderland: I’m not familiar with that particular statistic and how it’s derived. I’d need to check on that and get back to you. It depends on whether you are talking about that as a percentage of all complaints or as a percentage of editorial complaints.
ABETZ: Of 4,954 complaints received, 374 were investigated. They are the raw figures, and if you could take that on notice I would be much obliged. Could you also advise why so few complaints were investigated? I note that of the 374 complaints investigated, four per cent — only 14 — were actually upheld. So I put to you the proposition: Is it really the case that 96 per cent of complaints during that time period were unfounded? So if you could provide us with an analysis I would be much obliged. Can I also ask: Do you think it’s reasonable that so many Australians take the time to provide feedback, only to have their complaints either ignored — 1,686 complaints were not responded to in the October 2017 quarter — or dismissed, with 4,940 complaints not being upheld? So I would invite you to have a look at that on notice.
Sunderland: I will look at that on notice. I think it is important to make one point, which is that it would be a mistake to assume that a complaint that is not investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs is ignored or dismissed. A complaint may well be investigated and there may even be errors identified and responded to without it needing to be handled through an investigation.
All clear on that, especially in regard to Sunderland’s assurance that “it would be a mistake to assume that a complaint that is not investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs is ignored or dismissed”? Good.
Now read on to see how a recent complaint was not merely “ignored and dismissed” but outright rejected on the grounds that Ms Musto did not like Geoffrey’s “tone and language”. As a consequence, she assures him, future such queries will be ignored entirely! Perhaps, had Geoffrey peppered his missive with f***s and c***s, which the ABC deems perfectly okay for beaming into Australian livingrooms, Ms Musto might have felt more comfortable.
First, Geoffrey’s complaint. It was inspired by an ABC report about the demise of coal in the UK and appeared under the headline “UK conservatives are embracing a future without coal-fired power stations“. Worth noting is that reporter Steve Cannane’s omission-heavy report went to air after the founding of the pro-coal Monash Group. Its opening paragraph:
As Tony Abbott and other prominent Coalition MPs make the case that Australia should be building new coal-fired power stations, Conservatives in Britain are pushing a very different agenda.
Here is Geoffrey’s letter, filed via the ABC’s online form. Readers afflicted with Ms Musto’s exquisite sensitivities might choose to stop reading right here or, in the interest of personal safety, to make sure an accommodating sofa is at hand as they clutch their pearls and swoon.
Subject: Cannane on coal
Comments: Never in the history of the ABC’s London office has such a despicable piece of propaganda posting as journalism been put to air as Steve Cannane’s “report” on the future of coal in the UK.
Nearly fifty years ago, as London Editor, I led a team of Robin Sharpe, Richard Palfreyman and Paul Lynham. Despite opposition to voice reporting by the General Manager, and lack of support from C. News, we broke many stories, including the first TV interview of a British Prime Minister and day-to-day reporting of the beginnings of the Northern Ireland Troubles. In this, Palfreyman was held up at gunpoint by the IRA in Belfast and robbed. Lynham and I were both threatened on the streets of Londonderry.
By contrast, a supine Cannane trots off to Selby and mouths a pitifully distorted tale of the demise of the UK coal industry and thermal coal generation. This was politically positioned to dramatise the difference between British “enlightenment” and the Australians who want coal recognised. Australia has hundreds of years of coal deposits; Britain’s pits are almost exhausted, and coal generation is much dearer than gas.
What Cannane duplicitiously avoided reporting was that Britain gets 18% of its electricity from nuclear generation, and 39% from North Sea gas. Australia refuses to even debate nuclear power, and gas is restricted by political bans on exploration and/or extraction. The biomass (wood pellets) he featured at the Drax plant at Selby contribute an insignificant proportion of Britain’s energy, but a disproportionate amount of “feel-good” prattle about carbon (misleading Green shorthand for harmless carbon dioxide) emissions.
The latest Ofgen report – with which Cannane should be familiar – explains that the increase in renewables contribution to generation to 30% had been largely due to unusually windy weather.
There was no news in the 39% reduction in coal-fired generation since 2012, to the present 9% (not 7%). The fact is that Britain has been saved for the last fifty years or so by the discovery of North Sea gas (in my time) and the forward-looking policy of developing nuclear energy. Together they have supplied 60% of the UK’s power all that time. The British policy of fostering renewables is not new and is well known. What Cannane could have usefully done is examine the economics of that policy. Obviously that was beyond him, and beyond the political objectives of the organization he slavishly serves.
RecipientName – Audience & Consumer Affairs
Geoffrey’s critical observations have definite merit, and his experience as the former head of the same London bureau from which reporter Canane now sallies forth confer a special relevance to a veteran journalist’s critique that no mention was made of coal’s demise being enabled by the preponderance of nuclear- and gas-generated energy.
Here is Ms Musto’s response. She doesn’t like his tone. Arrogant, what?
Dear Mr Luck
I refer to your email of 9 April.
In keeping with the ABC’s complaint handling procedures, your correspondence has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit separate to and independent of the content making areas of the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards, which can be found here: http://about.abc.net.au/reports-publications/code-of-practice/
As you may be aware, the ABC Code of Practice explains that the ABC may decide not to investigate a complaint which is “not made in good faith”, and it is on this basis that we decline to investigate this complaint. Should you wish to reconsider the tone and language used in this email, and resubmit your complaint accordingly, we would be happy to review your concerns. Notwithstanding this, please be assured that your comments are duly noted.
In future, complaints you submit which include insults towards individual members of ABC staff or the ABC more broadly will be noted, but will not be responded to.
Audience and Consumer Affairs
One day we might see a minister in charge who enjoys the backing of his prime minister and has the gumption to respond in kind to such insults and abuse of privilege. This would make a radical change from the current standard, which recently saw Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complain about foul language on a purported comedy program. Like Geoffrey Luck, he was told his gripe just wasn’t worth taking seriously.
Yes, one day. Sigh.