IN THE MEDIA

The ABC cannot be allowed to bury its report into complaints handling until after the election

May 9, 2022 | Allon Lee, Colin Rubenstein

(Source: ABC)
(Source: ABC)

The Australian8 May 2022

As a publicly funded media organisation with the potential to reach and influence millions of people, the ABC often comes under intense scrutiny.

In 2021, the ABC experienced a series of PR disasters that raised serious questions about its capacity to meet its charter obligations to be fair and balanced when delivering news and current affairs  – as well as its willingness to admit it when it gets things wrong.

The most high profile example was a three-part Four Corners report that made serious corruption allegations against NSW Labor Premier Neville Wran’s government –  especially suggestions of a cover-up of the devastating Luna Park fire in 1979.

The ABC’s complaints unit, Audience & Consumer Affairs (ACA) – which claims to be independent from ABC management but is in reality entirely run in-house – investigated and dismissed complaints against the program.

Following widespread outrage about the story, the ABC Board ordered an independent inquiry by former ABC veteran journalist Chris Masters and academic Rod Tiffen, who reached a different conclusion. Yet these findings were rejected by the ABC News department.

The truth is that the ABC routinely rejects virtually all outside findings against it, including all recent occasions in which the Australian Communications and Media Authority has upheld a complaint against the ABC.

Facing mounting political pressure from both sides of politics, in October, ABC chair Ita Buttrose announced an independent inquiry into the ABC’s complaints processes, led by former Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan and veteran media executive Jim Carroll.

According to the Australian, that inquiry has now reported and essentially agreed with the critics of the current set-up, saying it is the equivalent of the ABC getting to “mark its own homework” which denies complainants procedural fairness, and calling for a “complete overhaul” of ABC complaints handling.

This is hardly surprising. Those of us old enough to remember international cricket matches from before the mid-1990s will well recall umpiring decisions often being questioned based on a belief that home umpires were favouring their compatriots.

To remove any suspicion of bias, the International Cricket Council adopted a neutral umpire system. Independent umpires just make sense, as McMillan and Carroll appear to have recognised.

Yet, frustratingly, the Australian said that although ABC Board members received their report last month and the Board discussed it on April 27,  it will remain under lock and key until after the May 21 federal election – and it is not clear when, if ever, it will be released.

This is also not a good look for an organisation that claims to be a proud member of Australia’s Right to Know Media Coalition, dedicated to ensuring potentially embarrassing or damaging information government agencies might prefer to bury sees the light of day.

The ABC’s complaints process is a hotly debated political item, and the public has a right to know the response from political parties to the report and its recommendations – before they vote.

Is the Board apprehensive of the potential reaction by ABC staff who have benefitted from the current complaints system which, if you examine the fine print of the ABC’s own procedures, allows content producers to pretty much veto any adverse finding made by ACA unless the ABC Managing Director chooses to intervene?

This system frequently produces ridiculous inconsistency and logical absurdities from ACA.

For example, in 2016 ACA upheld AIJAC’s complaint which argued the “7.30” website wrongly stated Gaza remained under Israeli occupation even though Israel had withdrawn all forces and settlers in 2005.

Yet in 2021, when the ABC’s Middle East correspondent said in two ABC radio reports that Gaza remains occupied by Israel, the same  ACA staffer who agreed with us five years earlier rejected our complaint,  falsely asserting that Gaza is indeed occupied.

Nothing changed between 2016 and 2021, so why the different outcome? It was clear to us in this case, as in other cases, ACA was only prepared to uphold a complaint when the content provider conceded it was justified. It truly is a system of ABC employees umpiring themselves.

By not releasing the report and denying politicians a chance to respond, the ABC Board is preventing the Australian public from making an informed decision come May 21, and the Board should urgently reconsider.

The loudest voices demanding the Board do so should be the opposition senators who voted in November to suspend a Senate Inquiry into complaint handling at the ABC and SBS initiated by Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, on the grounds the ABC’s inquiry needed to be allowed to reach its conclusions before parliament became involved.

The ABC inquiry has reached its conclusions – but we don’t know what they are. That is bad for the ABC as a public institution and bad for Australian democracy, and should be a major issue in the current election campaign.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director, and Allon Lee is senior policy analyst at Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

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