Just when you thought no further apologies or settlements would be required by the ABC for some time at least, the ABC communications department was busy again this week.
On Tuesday, ABC communications released a document by Peter Munro titled “ABC Statement on Ms Represented”.
The documentary, which aired for a total of two hours across four episodes from mid-July to mid-August, was written and presented by Annabel Crabb. On July 28, former Liberal Party and independent senator Cory Bernardi lodged an official complaint with the ABC audience and consumer affairs department in Canberra, which is headed by Kirstin McLiesh.
Now, Bernardi was a high-profile politician who is currently a Sky News commentator and occasional presenter. In other words, he is unlikely to be a vexatious complainant. Even so, it took McLiesh until September 6 to resolve this complaint – a period of close to six weeks. Yet in an efficiently run media organisation – where the editor-in-chief acts as the editor-in-chief – the matter could have been resolved in a day.
In the second episode of Ms Represented, Crabb interviewed Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The ABC concedes that Hanson-Young alleged that on the night of December 4, 2014, “Mr Bernardi moved closer to her during the parliamentary proceedings and whispered to her nursery rhymes and inappropriate personal remarks and suggested that he (Bernardi) may have been inebriated at the time”. Hanson-Young’s recollection of the (alleged) occasion was told to Crabb more than six years after the event.
A journalist would be expected to put such serious allegations to Bernardi and seek his response. But Crabb failed to do this. For the record, Bernardi has emphatically denied the claims – but the details of his refutation were not attached to Munro’s statement. Anyone interested has to go to the ABC iview listing for the episode, or to the ABC’s corrections and clarifications page online, to locate this.
Also, the ABC has placed a brief comment Bernardi made on Sky News denying Hanson-Young’s claims into the iview version of the program. It looks like – and is – an amateur attempt to resolve a professional problem. Moreover, the clip has been inserted without explanation. Unhappy with the way his complaint was handled, Bernardi had launched legal action.
It took the ABC nearly six weeks to concede that, in this instance, Ms Represented breached the relevant ABC editorial standards. Quelle surprise! If it didn’t, what would? However, Bernardi was not the only former politician sinned against in the program.
In episode two of Ms Represented, Crabb also aired an interview with former Liberal Party politician Kathy Sullivan. She alleged that, during a House of Representatives dinner in October 1989, one-time Labor cabinet minister John Dawkins bumped into her so hard that it “damn near dislocated my shoulder”.
It might be thought that if a man like Dawkins bumped into a woman like Sullivan on a crowded floor of the House of Representatives with sufficient force to nearly dislocate her shoulder, then it would have been noticed and commented on at the time. But there is no evidence of this.
Dawkins told The Australian on July 27 that he was not conscious of having made contact with Sullivan but accepted that it “may well have happened” and apologised to her at the time. And there the matter rested until, more than three decades after the event, the matter surfaced on Ms Represented.
As with Bernardi, Crabb did not approach Dawkins to seek his response to the allegation with a view to including it in the program. Another breach of ABC editorial standards. It appears that Dawkins did not lodge a formal complaint. Nevertheless, he is entitled to an apology since Ms Represented will live on for years and is likely to cause continuing reputational damage to the living and, eventually, the dead.
Crabb’s Ms Represented provides a convenient case study of the faults and failings of the contemporary taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. The first is the tendency for key ABC journalists to criticise political conservatives (the Coalition) and social democrats (Labor), but from a left or green-left perspective. The second is the tendency of the likes of Crabb, Louise Milligan, Sarah Ferguson and Caro Meldrum-Hanna to believe what they want to believe.
This kind of journalism, which leads to a position that a person’s testimony is so compelling that it must be accepted without question, fails to comprehend the fallibility of memory. Some people have “recollections” of events that never happened, some fantasise, some exaggerate and some mislead – that’s why allegations should always be checked.
The family and friends of Neville Wran, a one-time Labor premier of NSW, also have not received an apology. In the ABC TV recent documentary Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, reporters Meldrum-Hanna and Patrick Begley effectively alleged that Wran was complicit in the 1979 Luna Park fire that led to the death of six boys and one parent. No other view was canvassed.
According to senior ABC executive Gaven Morris, it was OK to run material linking Wran to an association with crime boss Abe Saffron and an arson attack because it was only an allegation. This is the latest ABC rationalisation for destroying reputations of the living and the dead without evidentiary proof.
Former Sydney Morning Herald editor Milton Cockburn complained to ABC audience and consumer affairs about Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire’s coverage of Wran. His complaint was dismissed – no surprise, really, since this is the fate of almost all complaints. However, on this occasion, an inquiry set up by the ABC board and undertaken by Chris Masters and Rodney Tiffen (neither unfriendly to the ABC) found the documentary had provided “no solid evidence” for its most serious claims about Wran.
In this instance, Morris put out a statement that the ABC “doesn’t accept” the opinion of the Masters-Tiffen report. The program remains on iview without any correction or qualification.
Little wonder that the likes of Crabb believe it’s OK to publish untested allegations against the living like Bernardi when the ABC reckons it’s OK to do the same with the deceased Wran.