NOOSA - I worked twice for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in my 22-year media career.
The first time was in Papua New Guinea between 1966 and 1970, when I wrote and produced schools broadcasts from the ABC’s studios at Boroko, which are there still, tired by age as I am.
In the second stint (1985-88), I was the executive responsible for the ABC’s relationships with government, media and community, along with other duties. The job title was Controller of Corporate Relations.
When I arrived in my new office in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, in late January 1985, the ABC’s stocks were at a very low ebb with the organisation and its leadership under constant condemnation from government and mockery from the media.
An immediate small compensation for me was the discovery in my new office was a mock oak-panelled cupboard door behind which was a bar fridge loaded with beer and wine, replenished each week by an orderly.
Before, during and since my ABC career, like most Australians I have been a strong supporter, and a stern critic when I believe it is failing in its responsibilities.
Or to be more precise, when it is falling short of its duties under Section 6 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act (frequently referred to as its Charter), Section 8 of the Act (the duties of its Board) and its voluntary (that is, non-legislated) Code of Practice.
These laws and regulations are designed to protect the ABC and to protect the quality of information it provides to us, the listeners and viewers and these days internet warriors who use it.
In recent times, in my view, the ABC has been in breach of these duties, so seriously that the Board’s obligation to protect its independence and integrity could be called into question.
Likewise can the failures of duty and integrity of a number of its key employees in the News Division be similarly criticised. They who have not “upheld the fundamental journalistic principles of accuracy and impartiality”.
Under Section 6 of its Act, the ABC is instructed to be “an independent national broadcasting service” and in Section 8 the ABC Board is told its duty is “to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation” and also “to ensure that the gathering and presentation … of news and information is accurate and impartial.”
And in the non-legislated, self-regulated Code of Practice, the ABC itself proclaims in the Preamble that “the ABC belongs to the Australian people”, that it must “uphold the fundamental journalistic principles of accuracy and impartiality” and be guided in its broadcasting by the “hallmarks of impartiality: balance that follows the weight of evidence; fair treatment; and open-mindedness”.
Two days ago, the ABC Board showed it shares my and many other people’s concern about such matters.
Last month it had announced an independent review of the ABC’s complaints system, the terms of reference of which include investigating whether “the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial”.
It was surprising therefore that, after this initiative was instigated, a government senator, frequently seen to be a mouthpiece for the prime minister, announced a Senate inquiry into the same matter.
But I’ll let the ABC chair, Ita Buttrose AC OBE, take up the story.
The emphases in red are mine, and illustrate that this is perhaps the ABC Board’s most robust condemnation ever of a government in power, and that its chair’s statement stands alongside the Eight Cents A Day campaign of 1988 as a fierce rejection of a government’s approach to the national broadcaster.
‘An act of political interference’: ABC Board defiant
SYDNEY - The inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling process announced by Senate Communications Committee Chair, Senator Andrew Bragg, appears to be a blatant attempt to usurp the role of the ABC Board and undermine the operational independence of the ABC.
As Senator Bragg is aware, in October the ABC Board initiated an independent review of the ABC’s complaints system by two eminent experts, Professor John McMillan AO, former Commonwealth and NSW Ombudsman, and Jim Carroll, former SBS Director – News and Current Affairs. The terms of reference for the review are comprehensive and wide-ranging.
This review is consistent with the duties of the Board under the ABC Act. Under Section 8 of the Act, the ABC Board has the legal responsibility for developing codes of practice relating to programming matters and to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial.
The fact that these powers are given to the Board, not to the Government of the day, is a key pillar of the ABC’s operational independence.
This review is well underway and members of Parliament, including Senator Bragg, have already been interviewed as part of the review process.
An issues paper will be released shortly and the review will then be seeking public submissions. The review will be rigorous and thorough and its findings will be released by the ABC board in April 2022.
Instead of respecting the integrity of this process, the Senate Committee under the leadership of Senator Bragg has decided to initiate a parallel process.
I will leave it to Senator Bragg to explain his motives but the impact of this action is clear. As Chair of the ABC Board I am duty bound to call out any action that seeks to undermine the independence of the national broadcaster.
Once again, an elected representative has chosen to threaten the ABC’s independence at the expense of the integrity of this irreplaceable public service.
Any incursion of this kind into the ABC’s independence should be seen by Australians for what it is: an attempt to weaken the community’s trust in the public broadcaster.
This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism.
If politicians determine the operation of the national broadcaster’s complaints system, they can influence what is reported by the ABC.
A fundamental democratic principle underpinning the ABC has been its independence from interference by those motivated by political outcomes.
Politicians, like all citizens, are welcome to criticise anything they find wrong or objectionable that is published by the ABC but they cannot be allowed to tell the ABC what it may or may not say.
Transparency and accountability are important and the Senate Committee performs a vital role. The ABC attends Senate Estimates hearings on multiple occasions every year and answers hundreds of questions on notice.
It is extremely regrettable, however, that the Committee has, on this occasion, sought to undertake a task that is not only already underway but also is the legal responsibility of the ABC Board.
When Parliament resumes later this month, I respectfully ask the Senate to act to defend the independence of the ABC, as Australia’s national broadcaster, by passing a motion to terminate or suspend this inquiry until the independent process commissioned by the ABC Board has been completed.
The ABC must not let itself be bossed around. End of story
Ranald Macdonald is a former managing director and editor in chief of The Age newspaper. I first met him in late February 1985 when he was chairing the independent Election Coverage Committee which reported on the adequacy and fairness of the ABC’s coverage of the 1984 federal election.
My diary of the time reminds me: “Visit Ranald Macdonald at his huge South Yarra home. He is just recovered from two weeks in bed with a slipped disc and is feeling depressed because, this afternoon, he jarred his back hurdling a low fence. He is a pleasant and charming man and we discuss the Election Coverage Committee Report without rancour.” [My emphases in red as previously]
MELBOURNE - Some plain speaking is needed over the government’s call for a Senate inquiry into the ABC and SBS’s complaints handling processes. It cannot be allowed to happen.
The prime minister and Senator Andrew Bragg liken the proposal to just a normal case of scrutinising a “government entity”.
They and others casually brush aside any question of it representing interference with the independence of the ABC, its board and its management.
The Coalition repeatedly sees little difference from the operating role of our public broadcasters and handling government departments.
Little recognition is given to the fact that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 established legislatively that the ABC is independent of government decision or interference.
Specifically, the minister for communications can raise questions and issues with the board, through its chair and the ONLY requirement is that the ABC should give consideration to the matters raised.
Certainly not that it should allow itself to be bossed around. End of story.
In my view, there has never been a time when clear separation from government is more important.
A key aspect of journalism is to hold those in power, organisations and other entities in our democracy up for public scrutiny, to “hold their collective feet to the fire”.
The government appoints the chair of the ABC and of recent times has made many “captain’s choices” about the appointment of other board members, often rejecting recommended candidates put forward by a special independent panel in favour of rewarding friends or allies.
Despite all the obstacles placed in its path, the ABC soldiers on with widespread public approval.
The Australian taxpayers, who fund the operations of the ABC, enthusiastically sample the wide range of offerings from news and current affairs, to the arts, music and drama, sport, children’s programs and, of particular importance, its emergency services.
All of which are available in every state and territory through both television and radio.
It goes without saying that the ABC could do better — but it could also do more if the government would stop squeezing its funding. And don’t forget that approaching $200 million is spent on transmission costs annually.
I have been open, as a former broadcaster and newspaperman, in my support for ABC chair Ita Buttrose and her executives when they stand up for their journalists and try to find ways of doing more with less.
As I support her speaking out against the proposed Senate review of its handling of complaints.
Though, privately, I continue to wonder whether perhaps a Faustian pact with Scott Morrison, who personally appointed Buttrose, might just possibly have been alluded to along the lines of: speak out as much as you like about your journalism and independence, but do not push too hard for budget restoration.
The right wing of the party and Morrison supporters (and of course the Murdoch empire) would not accept any budget largesse whatsoever towards the ABC. Even though it is most certainly in the public interest.
Sadly, our PM, just as Tony Abbott before him and a slew of communications ministers do, myopically sees the ABC as “just another government department” to be controlled.