By Zoe Samios and Rob Harris
The cordial conversation between ABC managing director David Anderson and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher in a quiet corner of the Sydney Institute’s annual dinner this week was more telling than a year’s worth of public spats between their two employers.
The pair, who stood among ABC’s deputy chairman Peter Tonagh and interim news director Gavin Fang, showed that even when things seem bad, some semblance of a constructive relationship between the federal government and the national broadcaster can be found.
Even Aunty’s strongest supporters would admit it has been annus horribilis for the organisation. Two high-profile defamation cases – one against former Attorney-General Christian Porter and another over tweets made by star journalist Louise Milligan about another Coalition MP – attracted the kind of attention the ABC prefers to avoid.
ABC’s managing director David Anderson says this year is one of the best on record for the ABC.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Tensions were exacerbated again when Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, a vocal critic of the national broadcaster, attempted to start an inquiry into the way it handles complaints, a month after the ABC commenced its own review of the system. It prompted scathing remarks from ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose, who accused the government of political interference. While that inquiry has now been postponed, it reopened a festering sore.
“[The relationship] is pretty poisonous,” former Media Watch host and ABC alumni chair Jonathan Holmes says. “It’s just as bad as I can ever remember it being between a government and the ABC, and it’s very concerning.”
But the ABC will be hoping to put that aside as it enters its 90th year on air broadcasting. It happens to be a federal election year, and the ABC’s next three-year funding deal is also set to be decided. The last triennium funding deal included an indexation freeze totalling $84 million that was blamed for widespread cuts to programming and redundancies in June 2020.
The ABC has also appealed to the coalition government for special funding tied to local and outer-suburban news to be made permanent.
The enhanced news-gathering initiative is set to run out next financial year after $14.8 million has been allocated to the program.
For his part, Anderson does not think the relationship between the ABC and the Morrison is government is unusually bad. “Of course, with the ABC, in any government of the day, it can be strained,” he says. “I meet with the minister regularly. We don’t talk about what the critics are raising, we talk about the importance of the ABC and the value it provides the Australian people.”
He also rejects claims that this has been one of the ABC’s worst years. “This year has been one of our most successful years on record,” he says. “There are more people who watch and read content from the national broadcaster than ever before, driven by the audiences on the ABC News website and its online platform iview.” Its work, particularly from 60-year-old flagship program Four Corners, has led to important change in Australian politics and other sectors of the community. Even its entertainment programming such as children’s show Bluey have contributed to more than 60 awards given to the ABC over the past 12 months.
The ABC’s future, in part, lies in the hands of the winner of the next federal election. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has committed to ditching the triennium funding model for the ABC and SBS in favour of five year-terms, in a move aimed at increasing budget certainty by taking it beyond the electoral cycle.
But Anderson says he is equally optimistic about what lies ahead for the broadcaster if the current government stays in power. “My expectation is that I can see indexation returning to the ABC in the next triennium in line with all other government agencies,” he says. “Of course, that’s not guaranteed until a decision is made and the budgets handed down.”
Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese has made a commitment to funding the ABC should his party win the next election.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Missteps and oversight
While the ABC’s year started with controversy over defamation proceedings (since discontinued) lodged by Porter over a story from February, the later part of the year was focused on errors and misleading claims made by the national broadcaster in its reporting.
In early September the ABC upheld a complaint by former conservative Senator Cory Bernardi about a program by Annabel Crabb called Ms Represented, who said it included misleading and false allegations about him, and that he was not given a fair opportunity to respond.
Later that month, a two-part ABC miniseries that investigated the murder of missing Sydney heiress, journalist and activist Juanita Nielsen was removed from the ABC streaming platform iview after new information cast doubt on some of the program’s claims. These two programs were both independent productions, outside the purview of its news division, which until October was led by long-serving ABC executive Gaven Morris (the ABC has since started a widespread search for his replacement).
“The problems have come from independent productions and that’s a much trickier area,” Holmes says. “They’re the people that commission documentaries from outside producers and on two occasions, the editorial supervision of those acquisitions was not where it should have been.
“The complaints system isn’t the problem. The problem has been that there are some problems with the editorial oversight at the ABC.”
The ABC says it is taking steps to avoid this kind of mistake happening again. Four Corners producer Sashka Koloff is now on secondment to a role in the entertainment and specialist division which requires her to apply to same rigour and standards from news and investigations to other programs.
But there are some that do not believe the failure of ABC’s editorial standards are limited to these two productions.
“When the dinosaur brigade gets together, we lament the dropping standards,” award-winning Four Corners journalist Chris Masters says. “The changing media environment has gobsmacked us all – people are much more inclined to look to the future and predict where to go. But we can’t surrender the standards that gave us the reputation that we’ve got.”
The 1979 Luna Park fire tragedy series, led by star reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna, is an example of what Masters described as lessening standards at the ABC.
The three-part documentary called EXPOSED: The Ghost Train fire, which looked closely at the incident that killed six children and one adult, was heavily scrutinised by former premiers and federal politicians including Malcolm Turnbull because it made allegations connecting former NSW Premier Neville Wran to an underworld boss.
A complaint by the Herald’s former editor Milton Cockburn and adviser to Neville Wran, which was not upheld by the ABC’s internal complaints division, led to an independent review of the program by Masters and academic Rodney Tiffen.
The report was largely positive of Meldrum-Hanna’s work but conceded it had not been fair to Wran. When the report was formalised, Morris publicly said he disagreed with the findings and there were no issues regarding editorial guidelines.
But that wasn’t the view of Masters and Tiffen. They had said the program failed to achieve an editorial standard in a draft version of the report, but were then told they could not make that conclusion as it wasn’t in its terms of reference. It was then deleted. The review divided people inside the ABC with a second draft of the report prompting a nearly 60-page response from the public broadcaster, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity.
Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna and co-investigator Patrick Begley present Exposed: Ghost Train Fire on the ABC.Credit:ABC
“The Ghost train saga said to me that there was a formal endorsement of what I would consider lessened standards,” Masters said when contacted by this masthead. “We would never have defended content that was merely an allegation. I have never wanted to be a person who can’t forgive the organisation for getting on without them – that’s the Stuart Littlemore effect. I’m cautious about saying what I'm saying and it’s not with any intention to deride an institution that to my mind is a national treasure.”
Tiffen shares a similar view:“Gaven’s response to that report was more that of a spin doctor than a news editor.”
“The Ghost train saga said to me that there was a formal endorsement of what I would consider lessened standards.”
Anderson, however, stands by the journalism. “Could the program have been better? Yeah, it could have been for this one element that was called out by the reviewers,” he says. “But otherwise, I’m standing by the program – the program is still available, and we can learn what the reviewers came back to us with.”
The social media debacle
Through his new role as Senate communications committee chairman Senator Bragg enraged the organisation by proposing a “surgical inquiry” into the complaints handling processes of both the ABC and SBS, Australia’s public broadcasters. The organisation has already begun reviewing its complaints handling system, with the help of two external experts, which ABC insiders believe was instigated off the back of the Ghost Train series. It will hand down its findings in March.
But that review will not encompass complaints made about comments on social media, which has also been a sore point for the ABC. Morris said at a Melbourne press club lunch in his final week as news director that the national broadcaster would implement a more rigorous approach to the use of social media by staff. He said his time dealing with the issue was similar to “wrestling an octopus”.
Senator Bragg tackled Anderson in Senate estimates earlier this year over the behaviour of ABC staff, including a legal adviser, on social media. The staff member, who later left the company, had referred to the Morrison government as “fascist” and the Prime Minister as an “awful human being.”
Senator Andrew Bragg and Anderson during a hearing.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“To his credit, Mr Anderson admitted it was disappointing and promised to look into it,” he says. He said the ABC’s social media code was “a good initiative” and it was clear there’d been “fewer outrageous transgressions” since.
“But there’s more to do. It needs to be clear that the taxpayer will not pay for transgressions. Consequences of failure to comply must fall on the ABC employee, not the taxpayer,” he says.
The behaviour of several high-profile ABC journalists and presenters on social media has not only enraged those in government but also within the organisation. Milligan, her executive producer at Four Corners Sally Neighbour and chief political correspondent at 7.30, Laura Tingle, have come under scrutiny for their comments on Twitter in the past year.
Dr Laming sued Milligan personally over four since-deleted tweets published on March 28 this year from her personal account, including one that incorrectly suggested he had admitted to the criminal offence of taking an “upskirting” photo of a woman’s underwear.
Those inside the ABC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, have said the defamation payout was a one-off and was not a precedent. Other sources have assured an employee is disciplined if a problem on social media is brought to the attention of the national broadcaster.
In August, Anderson emailed staff, warning them were legally accountable for their personal social media accounts, but could still face disciplinary conduct under the ABC Code of Conduct for their posts.
Monica Attard, a five-time Walkley winning journalist with the ABC, foreign correspondent and former Media Watch host,says controlling the behaviour of journalists on social media is “really problematic” – from an industrial relations perspective as much as a freedom of speech point of view.
“Personally, I find it odd to see journalists (ABC and others) tweeting their personal political and other opinions,” the now professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney says. "I think it erodes trust, even amongst those who may agree with those political viewpoints. Part of the problem, as far as I am concerned anyway, is that advocacy journalism seems to have been deemed a genre of respectable journalism.
“It legitimises the public expression of opinion by journalists whilst de-legitimising the notion that you can, in a balanced and scientific sort of way, look at what’s before you and report, even whilst remaining a human being with an opinion.“
Anderson says that he has led the way with his “robust” social media policy – which tries to distinguish personal use of social media from obligations to an employer.
“It is the most robust policy certainly within media when it comes to your staffs personal use of social media,” he says, adding that is it being introduced by other government agencies. He says he has taken his social media policy one step further – amending contracts for new employees to make it explicitly clear the national broadcaster won’t be liable.
The 90th year
As Anderson looks to the next year he remains wary of the government’s commitment to the ABC even if he is optimistic about the broadcaster’s plans. This is clear from the way he and his team struck two commercial deals with Google and Facebook to hire more than 50 journalists in rural and regional Australia. But the roles are only in place for 12 months.
“For those additional 50 plus roles that we’re putting into regional Australia – they are in there for a 12-month period only, in part to trial where we are, but also in part… having the flexibility to rethink that should the $14.8 million of enhanced news-gathering funding not be in our budget because it will be a whole of ABC problem,” he says. “I don’t have a contingency plan.”
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