IN THE MEDIA

Aunty’s complaints process is an absolute farce

Jul 1, 2021 | Allon Lee

(Source: ABC)
(Source: ABC)

Australian Jewish News, July 1 2021

 

In the best tradition of protecting its paymasters, the response to AIJAC’s complaint by the ABC complaints unit – aka Audience & Consumer Affairs (A&CA) – finding that the May 27 episode of Q&A did not breach the ABC Code of Practice’s “impartiality standard” proved yet again why a genuinely independent complaints system is long overdue.

To recap, one of the advertised topics for that episode was the “Israel-Hamas conflict”.

High-profile pro-Palestinian advocate Randa Abdel-Fattah was included as a panellist with pro-Israel advocates relegated to the audience.

It’s particularly galling that A&CA decided this deliberate choice constitutes balance under the code.

A&CA’s response fudged the truth, saying acting Israeli ambassador Jonathan Peled was approached to participate but couldn’t travel from Canberra to Sydney.

AIJAC understands he was not invited to be a panellist, merely an audience member who could potentially ask a question.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s Alex Ryvchin subsequently declined a similar offer.

The A&CA defended the program by saying its “editorial obligation … was to present a diversity of relevant perspectives on the issue, and to not unduly favour any one of those perspectives over any other” and that former Australian ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, had challenged Abdel-Fattah by “provid[ing] an informed perspective on Israel’s actions and decisions”.

This sounds almost reasonable. Until you look at the other panellists, who included Jennifer Robinson, who has represented Palestinians at the International Criminal Court; Labor MP Ed Husic, an MP who stressed the need to recognise currently non-existent Palestinian statehood; and performer Mitch Tambo, who admitted he didn’t know much about the conflict but felt Israel was at fault. So, Palestine – 4, Israel –1.

The result is unsurprising – winning a complaint lodged with A&CA is practically impossible.

Out of 6057 complaints A&CA received in 2019-20, it upheld a pitiful six per cent!

The reason for this appalling rate is because the ABC has created a complaints system where the “house always wins”.

Contrary to ABC claims, A&CA is not separate and independent. It sits alongside ABC content providers who make the programs.

And the lofty sounding “Code of Practice” A&CA uses to evaluate complaints is an ABC document.

Over many years, AIJAC has learnt there are many ways A&CA can reject complaints.

Perhaps the most astonishing is that the code allows A&CA to refer complaints to the content provider who is the subject of the complaint to evaluate whether “the complaint makes a valid point” – turning the complainee into judge, jury and executioner.

And yet, according to the 2019/20 ABC annual report, this is what A&CA did in half the cases.

In the rare instances when A&CA partially or fully upholds complaints, an on-air apology or correction is not required.

Instead, it’s listed on the “resolved complaints” webpage and an editor’s note is placed on the program’s webpage – the wording decided at the ABC’s discretion.

Following a partially successful AIJAC complaint in early 2019, an editor’s note on the relevant Radio National Breakfast webpage acknowledged Egypt enforces the Gaza blockade, with the tart coda, “but Israel controls most of the border and also enforces a maritime blockade”.

And not unusually, this upheld complaint failed to achieve lasting change. Later that year, ABC Radio National’s Correspondents Report again talked only of Israel blockading Gaza.

And there is no consistency – A&CA can summarily overturn its own past decisions.

In early 2021, it allowed ABC Radio AM and World Today reports that said Gaza remains under Israeli occupation – contradicting its own 2016 finding against 7:30 that Gaza was not occupied.

Another “get out of jail free card” A&CA can use to reject complaints is the code’s balance “over time” test.

This means a one-sided report on a flagship program can be deemed to be “balanced” by a fleeting reference buried in an online story months later.

With the aforementioned AM and World Today reports, AIJAC also complained they did not explain why Israel said it was not obligated to vaccinate Palestinians against COVID. A&CA used the “balance” clause as one of the reasons why the programs hadn’t breached the code, yet did not cite a single balancing report!

It’s hardly surprising that dispirited complainants do not exercise their right of appeal to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – the only remotely independent part of the process.

Even if they do, there are major disincentives. In 2019/20, ACMA finalised only two investigations into ABC complaints, compared to seven in 2018/19. The turnaround is also painfully slow. In December 2020, ACMA finally partially upheld a National Farmers Federation complaint relating to a July 2019 episode of Four Corners.

The finding was publicised and that was that. No real action taken.

The current system is clearly broken. A bipartisan federal inquiry or initiative is urgently needed, leading to legislation creating a user-friendly, genuinely independent, properly funded, complaints process.

The ABC will likely resist change as an unjustified attack upon its editorial independence. It is nothing of the sort.

In fact, it has the potential to improve editorial standards across the board and confidence in our public broadcaster, something everyone should surely support.

Allon Lee is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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