August 2022

Comment

What’s gone wrong at the ABC

By Josh Bornstein
Journalists Maxine McKew, Quentin Dempster and Kerry O’Brien

Journalists Maxine McKew, Quentin Dempster and Kerry O’Brien at a press conference following ABC cutbacks in 2000. @ Dean Lewins / AAP images

Years of government attacks over funding and balance have left the national broadcaster in desperate need of repair

On the eve of its 90th birthday, the ABC received some unambiguously good news. The incoming communications minister, Michelle Rowland, publicly committed to a new five-year funding term from 2023, a move intended to provide the public broadcaster with financial stability beyond the three-year election cycle and, in Rowland’s words, “safeguard against those arbitrary cuts and political interference that we’ve seen”. This was followed by more good news in the form of a pledge to establish a proper system to appoint ABC board directors on merit.

Notwithstanding its enormous contribution to Australian identity and culture, and its exalted status as the most reliable source of news in the country, the celebration of the ABC’s milestone birthday will be muted. The sight of popping corks might otherwise unleash a Murdoch tirade against “champagne socialists” running amok. Sky News has already announced that it will try to spoil the party with an upcoming documentary helmed by anti-ABC commentator Chris Kenny, promising new examinations of those perennial News Corp questions: Is the ABC is still fit for purpose, is it effectively serving mainstream Australians and does the public broadcaster unite or divide us?

American journalist Masha Gessen argues that we live “in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying … lying as a way to assert or capture political power – has become the dominant factor in public life”. The need for a robust, independent and fearless public broadcaster is more urgent than it has ever been.

That need explains why a growing body of distinguished former ABC journalists has been voicing concerns about the public broadcaster in recent years. They include Kerry O’Brien, Quentin Dempster, Ian Mannix, Patricia Barraclough, Barrie Cassidy, Alex Sloan and Max Uechtritz. Their criticisms are hard to ignore; they worked during a golden era of ABC journalism that shook up a staid conservatism and ushered in a dynamic era of courageous reporting and commentary.

Their criticisms vary but many lament the framing of news and current affairs reporting, which they claim is distorted by a culture of fear and appeasement. Interviewed in February this year, Kerry O’Brien was asked about the notorious federal police raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters in 2019. He described “a creeping depression” infecting the ABC, intimating that some of its journalists were “intimidated”. Put plainly, O’Brien’s concern was the erosion of the ABC’s core mission: to fearlessly report the truth.

O’Brien is reluctant to criticise his old colleagues (or the institution, for that matter) for fear of undermining the broadcaster that he loves. He tells me that all of the ingredients exist for the ABC to succumb to “the most insidious form of censorship – self-censorship”. Those who self-censor may not be aware that they are doing so. O’Brien attributes the damage to “an unremitting crusade” to transform the culture at the ABC by the Coalition and the Murdoch media. He is particularly worried about the ABC’s political coverage.

Barrie Cassidy is far more blunt, urging the ABC to “reset” and stop being “cowed”.

In fact, the unremitting crusade was instigated by the Howard government. During the 1996 election campaign, then Opposition leader John Howard promised not to cut the ABC budget if elected. Within four months of assuming power, he delivered a 2 per cent cut. He appointed his good friend Donald McDonald as the board’s chair. McDonald was succeeded by arch conservative Maurice Newman. Howard also appointed political conservatives Michael Kroger, Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle to the ABC Board.

By 1998, journalist Errol Simper wrote that the ABC was facing “the most persistent orchestrated campaign of vilification” in its history, both from the Howard government and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The ABC was repeatedly accused of left-wing bias.

The legislation that governs the ABC requires that “news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”. The idea of objective journalism has long been deeply controversial. The ABC guidelines recognise its complexity, stating that: “The concept of ‘objectivity’ recognises that everyone has different values and particular perspectives on disputed facts and issues. Objectivity in this context means testing information through disciplined, evidence-based, open-minded and fair journalism.”

Responding to complaints of bias is time-consuming and difficult for a broadcaster. Determining whether the complaint has merit can require consideration of detailed evidence and voluminous argument. Decisions on what “due impartiality” requires can be devilishly difficult, even taking into account the tone of voice and demeanour of a journalist. There is no universal formula to apply; instead, a judgement call is required to be made. Even then, you can disappear into a black hole of permanent contestation about whether a report was “open-minded”, “fair” or “disciplined”.

In 2003, John Howard sent Australians to war in Iraq based on false claims that the Iraq government was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. The then minister for communications Richard Alston infamously compiled a dossier of 68 allegations of anti-American bias by the current-affairs radio program AM over its coverage. Alston’s strategy of flooding the ABC with vexatious, time-consuming complaints was a taste of what was yet to come.

The Coalition, which was in office for 20 of the past 26 years, engineered funding cuts, job cuts, program cuts, the stacking of the ABC board, multiple inquiries and dubious reviews, boycotts of particular journalists or programs, the installation of a new breed of management and the seemingly eternal quest for a “right-wing answer” to Phillip Adams. All the while, the Murdoch press has used its power to relentlessly attack the public broadcaster, publishing a constant stream of aggressive anti-ABC propaganda day after day, week after week.

During the life of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government, the dam wall broke. The art of swamping the ABC with complaints of bias was perfected by Tony Abbott in Opposition. There was no let-up when Abbott swept to power in 2013 and his ministers began to game the system. Formal complaint protocols were ignored in favour of ministers directly contacting ABC managers to air their grievances. The ABC was swamped with government complaints of bias.

Former ABC radio host Jon Faine remembers how the volume of government complaints ratcheted up during this period. Faine received a stream of complaints from Peter Dutton. On one occasion, in 2016, when confronted by no fewer than five ABC managers demanding that he broadcast an apology to Dutton, Faine fought back and defended his position. The debate lasted 45 minutes before the managers relented. Weeks later, one of them confided in Faine, “We just don’t need another complaint from Peter Dutton.”

Inevitably, the volume of government complaints had a profound impact on the ABC’s culture. It became easier – arguably even necessary – for the besieged and under-resourced organisation to manage it by appeasing the Coalition. But the cost of doing so has undermined the ABC’s impartiality standards and staff morale, and at times has compromised its journalism.

Chris Uhlmann – appointed the ABC’s political editor in 2015 – railed against the Greens, “cultural Marxists” and renewable energy. On September 27, 2016, a ferocious storm struck South Australia, delivering 80,000 lightning strikes and winds of up to 260 kilometres per hour, and bringing down 22 power transmission towers. Much of the state experienced a blackout. That evening, within hours of the storm hitting, Uhlmann went to air on the ABC news asserting that South Australia was too heavily reliant on intermittent wind power and its wind turbines weren’t working because the wind was “blowing too fast”. In fact, the truth was far more complex and took months to determine. The investigation by the Australian Energy Market Operator found that the intermittency of wind was not a factor in the blackouts, but that overly sensitive turbine control settings had contributed. Those flawed settings have since been changed.

Contrast the indulgence of Uhlmann with the experience of former ABC technology writer Nick Ross. In 2013, Ross wrote a series of articles criticising the Turnbull government’s treatment of the National Broadband Network, eliciting complaints from the government. Ross was pressured by Bruce Belsham, the then head of the ABC’s current affairs division, to publish an article critical of Labor’s NBN policy. Belsham confided that he was under both “internal and external” pressure over Ross’s work on the NBN. Belsham then said: “We’ve got to give you some kind of insurance policy, you know. An insurance policy is an article where you are hard-headed about something to do with [Labor’s] NBN failings, or, you know, potential failings.”

Then there is the treatment of others who tested positive for progressive tendencies. In 2017, the ABC parted ways with TV and radio presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied, after the Coalition campaigned for her sacking over a tweet about Anzac Day. Several years later, an in-house lawyer who branded the Morrison government as “fascist” in a tweet, resigned after a disciplinary investigation was launched against him for breaching the ABC’s social media guidelines. Neither case involved a journalist working in news or current affairs. Both were expunged to appease the crusaders.

No such fate awaited ABC Weekend Breakfast presenter Fauziah Ibrahim when, in April this year, it was revealed that she maintained an online list of “Labor Trolls/Thugs” and “Lobotomised sh**heads” that included Tanya Plibersek and Doug Cameron. Ibrahim returned to air after a month of taking “a break from on-camera duties”. In 2018, Justin Milne, then chair of the ABC, reportedly advised managing director Michelle Guthrie to sack journalists Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn because of reporting that was offending the Coalition government.

In the ostensible pursuit of diversity, ABC editorial guidelines emphasise the importance of sourcing commentary from a variety of perspectives. In the early 2000s, Faine was directed to “find more conservative voices” to include on his show and he recruited John Roskam and Tim Wilson from the IPA. The ABC has been recruiting more conservative voices ever since.

After Scott Morrison triumphed in the 2019 election, an ABC-commissioned review of its political discussion program Insiders found that “There appeared to be a substantial shortfall in positive reflection of the Coalition’s prospects, policies or performance compared to Labor”. The review was used to drive further changes to elevate more conservative voices and suppress others. Over time the spectrum of featured political perspectives has shifted markedly to reduce the frequency and intensity of criticism of the Coalition. The ABC Overton window has shrunk to reduce the presence of strong left-wing commentary. A climate-change denialist is more likely to appear on an ABC discussion panel than a trade unionist.

Along the way, “both-siding” bled into hard news reporting. Under the Morrison government, ABC journalists were pressured to “balance” their reporting of government misconduct. Journalists faced disciplinary action for breaching impartiality requirements by factually reporting Coalition scandals. How do you report both sides of the corrupt misuse of taxpayer funds, gross negligence or a blatant prime ministerial lie? There isn’t a good answer and nor should there be. Impartiality is not a quest for balance. It’s a quest for truth.

Writer Richard Flanagan has recently heralded the election of the Albanese government as the end of “the Howard ascendancy”, but Howard’s legacy lives on at the ABC. Just days after the election, Dr Chris Wallace received a call from David Bevan who hosts a morning radio program on ABC Adelaide. He advised Wallace that she would be “let go” from her weekly, unpaid slot because she was “too left-wing”. She asked Bevan about what approach was being taken to other regulars including journalists Chris Uhlmann and Phil Coorey. She didn’t get a response.

The ABC has undergone a cultural revolution over a quarter of a century. The Albanese government has already signalled that it will do what it can to restore its independence and health. Only a concerted, methodical effort to repair its damaged culture from the ground up will work. For the ABC, that requires a strong increase in funding, and a board committed to public broadcasting and secure enough to encourage the fearless pursuit of truth-telling. Even then, that won’t be enough. An organisational culture doesn’t change with the flick of a switch. As Kerry O’Brien is keen to emphasise, “It’s going to need a period of stability. It’s going to need time.”

Josh Bornstein

Josh Bornstein is an employment and industrial relations lawyer and writer.

@joshbbornstein

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