The further degradation of Our ABC

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Taking the theatre out of ABC criticism
The ABC’s new policies will give audiences a full range of views, writes Mark Scott. The Age, 18/10/06

IN MY early weeks as managing director, I have called on some of the ABC’s harshest public critics. And almost to a man and woman, they have been at pains to point out how much they love the ABC.

Then comes the but – and as my father-in-law has often warned me, ignore everything before the but. There is a sense that the organisation has issues with balance and fairness, particularly through its news and current affairs content, although some critics would suggest across its entire content. We need to address the criticism carefully and comprehensively. To ignore it or reflexively dismiss it only serves to limit ourselves, and is at odds with the ethos of open debate and discourse that is central to our reason for being.

Instead of facing up to these criticisms, it is easy to take comfort in the market research that suggests the ABC is remarkably popular with its owners: the public. A recent Newspoll indicated 90 per cent of the public believed the ABC provided a valuable or very valuable service. And there is comfort in recent research by Young and Rubicam that said the only brand more popular in Australia than the ABC is Vegemite.

Within the ABC, it is easy to say that people like us, the ratings are reasonable and the critics are the ones who really don’t get it. At times it does appear that criticism of the ABC takes the form of set-piece theatre: everyone knowing their lines and going through well-known rituals. But such an approach is unwise and misses the real point: is there substance in the criticism? Does the ABC have a problem with editorial values? It is an important question. It is very clear to me that this pattern of critique and reflexive defence needs to be challenged.

What I am outlining represents the ABC taking the lead to break this ritual. It is a challenge to both ourselves and our critics to learn some new steps and think afresh about how we deliver balance, diversity, impartiality. It is only reasonable, that as the public broadcaster using public money, the ABC set high standards for itself; higher standards than anyone else in the Australian media.

The public invests its trust in all ABC content, regardless of its source within the ABC. The new policies reflect this reality. The policies will ensure that ABC audiences can see and hear a broad range of viewpoints on matters of importance. The policies are contained in a document that runs to some 50 pages. It says upfront that as a creator, broadcaster and publisher of news and current affairs content, there is a requirement for impartiality. Each news and current affairs story and program must be impartial. For opinion programs or programs of topical and factual content, individual items of content can take a particular perspective, but the ABC must be able to demonstrate that it has provided audiences with a range of different perspectives on the subject under consideration on each platform, be it radio, television or online.

On contentious matters, we need to hear the full range of voices. We have taken another look at fairness and what it means to be impartial. Impartiality is a long-held expectation of our news coverage. Being a responsible public broadcaster is not synonymous with universal public popularity. The editorial policies now require the ABC to be impartial as a broadcaster and generator of content. As we assess the output of each of our platforms – ABC TV, Radio National, local stations such as 702 ABC Sydney – there is now the expectation that there is impartiality. That there is a demonstrated plurality of opinion and perspective.

The new category of opinion will be content presented from a partisan point of view about a matter of public contention. This content will be signposted as opinion and the impartiality test will be: has the ABC presented a plurality of views? And the ABC will expect staff to operate in a way that is reflecting key values of honesty, fairness, independence and respect.

We are looking to have three mechanisms for quality assurance around the implementation of our editorial policies. The first is regular program and performance review. Second, we have our established mechanism for dealing with public complaints.

A new mechanism is through the director of editorial policies, who will be able to commission research to provide better insight into whether we are meeting our own expectations. And when staff are dealing with a difficult decision in light of interpreting editorial policies, or I am concerned about a matter before broadcast or publication, the director of editorial policies will be able to provide independent advice.

Our journalists need to be able to undertake courageous journalism. Our radio broadcasters need to be lively and engaging and provocative at times to win and keep an audience. So, too, with television and online. Our policies promote the spirit of inquiry, not dampen it. As I have explained to our newsrooms, I want them to practise great journalism. To find the big stories and to hold those who seek to lead us to account for the promises they have made and the truths they espouse. But to achieve great journalism, you need to practise good journalism. Journalism that is fair, accurate, balanced and objective.

If there is a deference in these policies, it is to the primacy of ideas, to the intelligence of an audience, to the right of audience members to make up their own minds.

Mark Scott is managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This is an edited version of his speech to the Sydney Institute last night.

The critics that Mark Scott speaks of are, invariably, right-wing, conservative supporters of the Howard government – people like Andrew Bolt, Gerard Henderson (who is the executive director of the Sydney Institute – who happened to host the speech) and Piers Ackerman – people who support Australia being part of the invading forces in Iraq, the locking up of asylum-seekers in detention centres, the denial of climate change and the refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement, the new “work choices” industrial relations legislation that reduces the pay and conditions of Australian workers and the reduction in public funding for the ABC.

And the reason why they are loud, bully-boy critics of the ABC is because the ABC hasn’t played the part of a cheer squad on each of these issues as they’ve arisen and they don’t like being challenged. Mark Scott’s new policy simply panders to these thugs and gives them more air time than they already have to spout their lies and to proselytise for their church of the far right… not to mention the more extreme groups of the right who will be compulsorily included so that we “hear the full range of voices” “on contentious matters”.

For example, this means that if there’s a program that deals in evolution – say Walking With Dinosaurs – which some claim is a contentious matter, the ABC would have to give air time to creationists to argue their case for creationism or, as they’ve repackaged it, Intelligent Design. A similar thing has happened in various states in the US in the schools’ curricula with ‘Intelligent Design’ being taught in SCIENCE classes, in order to refute Darwin’s theory of evolution and consolidate the belief that the Genesis book of the bible is a literal document of how God created all life.

Already, even without any new policy, 774 radio in Melbourne has filled their afternoon and drive programs with Richard Stubbs and Lindy Burns – two presenters that distinctly lack the intelligence of their predecessors who present programs that waste two and three hours every day covering crap like world massage day and whether footballers should be held up to greater accountability because they’re role models.

Already we’ve got Helen Razer cutting off guests because they say that newly appointed, conservative ABC board member, Keith Windshuttle’s denial of the Aboriginal stolen generation is akin to holocaust deniers – because she’ll lose her job.

The new ABC policy marks the beginning of the end of the ABC being anything but an excuse for dead air that acts merely as an exercise in covering its own ass, lest the vocal, far-right, conservatives be offended.

Now let’s take a look at who’s at the controls of the ABC: Mark Scott is the Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was previously the senior political adviser to former NSW Liberal education minister, Terry Metherell.

According to a report by Crikey.com.au, while editor-in-chief of metropolitan newspapers at Fairfax, Scott overturned a decision by the editorial staff at The Age newspaper’s to call for a change of government at the 2004 federal election. Accoding to Crikey, “a decision was taken to call for a change of government. That decision was then overturned by Mark Scott, Fairfax’s head of metropolitan newspapers, who apparently made the rather extraordinary claim that backing [Opposition Leader Mark] Latham wasn’t in the commercial interests of the company.”

  • October 20, 2006