Elections come and go, but the Australian left continues to regard the ABC as its property and is of the view that no one should interfere with ABC journalists who run the organisation like a staff collective.
Take the recent controversy concerning the ABC board’s intention to establish an ombudsman position to improve the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster’s complaints procedures. This followed a report to the ABC board by former federal and NSW ombudsman John McMillan and Jim Carroll, a former executive with SBS and the Ten, Nine and Seven networks.
The decision to establish the McMillan-Carroll inquiry followed criticism of the way the ABC complaints unit had covered controversial high-profile programs such as Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire (on the Sydney Luna Park fire in 1979), Ms Represented (on women in parliament), Inside the Canberra Bubble (a Four Corners program aimed at senior Coalition ministers) and a Q+A episode that covered the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The McMillan-Carroll report was nuanced in its findings. But it did encounter “examples of a dismissive ABC attitude towards complainants” along with “a related perception … that insufficient action is taken in relation to staff who were found to have breached ABC editorial standards”.
The report’s findings were consistent with the criticism of the ABC’s response to complaints made across several decades. It recommended, among other things, the creation of an ombudsman to consider complaints against editorial content regarding news investigations, current affairs and documentaries along with panel and satirical programs.
On May 17, shortly before the federal election, ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose was interviewed by Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National Breakfast. Buttrose said the board had accepted all of the report’s recommendations. However, she said “we have amended one already”. Namely, that the ombudsman will “report to the board” rather than the managing director (who is also editor-in-chief).
This was a perfectly proper decision in view of the provisions of section 8 (1) (c) of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act. This requires that the board ensure that the ABC “news and information is accurate and impartial according to recognised standards of objective journalism”.
However, Jonathan Holmes, a former ABC TV Media Watch presenter who fronted the ABC Alumni campaign that effectively urged voters to throw out the Coalition government at last month’s election, did not concur.
In Nine newspapers on May 18, he wrote that responsibility for dealing with editorial complaints should rest with the ABC’s managing director and editor-in-chief, currently David Anderson. Holmes also wrote that the McMillan-Carroll report was a Buttrose initiative, not one of ABC management. Quelle surprise.
The debate heated up this week. Writing in the left-of-centre Crikey newsletter on Monday, David Hardaker said Buttrose’s decision to establish the complaints review effectively amounted to the surrender of the ABC to “hostile Coalition governments starting with Tony Abbott in 2013”.
That’s somewhat over-the-top. As Hardaker acknowledged, the immediate occasion for Buttrose’s action turned on The Ghost Train Fire program. It ran the old leftist line that former NSW Labor premier Neville Wran had associated with criminals – notably Abe Saffron. The implication was that the fire was arson initiated by Saffron and that Wran was complicit in corruption, arson and murder.
There was no credible evidence to support any such allegation about Wran. Journalist Milton Cockburn, who once worked for Wran, approached Buttrose after an independent inquiry, set up by the ABC board, criticised the documentary with respect to Wran, but was rejected by ABC management. In short, ABC management refused to accept a finding concerning Wran of a report commissioned by the ABC board.
According to Hardaker, who once worked for the ABC, the existing complaints system (which initially rejected Cockburn’s complaint) is good enough. If not, a complainant can appeal to the bureaucratic Australian Communications and Media Authority. He added: “Apart from that there are the defamation courts (and) there is the ABC’s Media Watch”.
Turn it up. You have to be a multi-millionaire to seriously consider suing the ABC, which has its own large legal department and the capacity to spend considerable sums on outside legal advice. Moreover, all the presenters of Media Watch since its inception in 1989 have been leftist or left-of-centre types and do not present as vehement critics of their colleagues.
Last Wednesday, Denis Muller, a former Fairfax journalist, wrote in The Conversation that the decision to establish an ombudsman was “an outright betrayal of editorial independence”. He suggested the ABC was on its way to being destroyed. Even so, Muller acknowledged the claim about Wran was unjustifiable and that “there is truth” to the claim that the ABC “often resists criticism”.
The success or otherwise of the ABC’s ombudsman initiative will depend on who is appointed. It will take an intellectually courageous man or woman prepared to stand up against the fashionable left-wing ethos that pervades the ABC to make a difference.
Not only is the ABC a conservative-free zone, without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. It also has a record of attacking Labor governments – from the left. This was the experience of the Hawke, Keating and Gillard governments and could well be the case with Anthony Albanese.
In recent times the ABC has been accused of unjustified attacks on Wran, former Hawke government minister John Dawkins, former Coalition minister Christian Porter, Catholic Cardinal George Pell and more besides.
The invariable reaction to such criticism is for the ABC to go into denial – or to “cancel” discussions. Take Frank Brennan’s book Observations on the Pell Proceedings, which was published last year after the High Court’s unanimous decision in 2020 to quash the cardinal’s convictions for historical child sexual abuse. The ABC led the media pile-on against Pell. But Brennan was told by an ABC journalist that it was unlikely his book would be covered by the ABC since this would upset some ABC types. And so it came to pass – censorship funded by the taxpayer.
It’s unlikely the ABC will cease to be a staff collective anytime soon – irrespective of what an ombudsman might do.