IN THE MEDIA
Your ABC’s complaints process might surprise you
Jul 13, 2021 | Jamie Hyams
An edited version of this article was published in The Age/ Sydney Morning Herald – July 13, 2021
As our main taxpayer funded media network, the ABC is one of Australia’s best known institutions. With its multi-platform presence, across multiple television and radio stations as well as the internet, it is our nation’s most prominent source of news and current affairs.
As a taxpayer funded organisation, it is required to comply with the provisions of its Code of Practice, which, among other things, sets out the standards of journalistic professionalism, impartiality and fairness one would naturally expect of its news and current affairs programs.
These standards are set out under self-explanatory headings, such as “Accuracy” and “Impartiality”. Anyone who feels that the ABC has fallen short of these standards may make a formal complaint. However, they may be surprised to find out who decides if the ABC has met its standards – the ABC does.
The ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit (A&CA) is responsible for assessing complaints, but while it may be a separate unit within the ABC, it is still very much a part of the ABC.
Even worse, what it often seems to do so is take complaints back to the ABC employee who produced the item in question, get their response, and then pretty much send that to the complainant as the ABC’s official response. So if a journalist who compiles a biased report says they weren’t biased, then so does the ABC.
The Code is, by necessity, open to interpretation, but A&CA sometimes takes “interpretation” of the Code to extremes. For example, the Code requires a diversity of perspectives to be presented “over time”. A&CA findings suggest this means a program can exclusively present one side of an argument as long as, somewhere on the ABC at some time, part of the opposite argument also gets air time, however brief.
Using the above techniques, the A&CA rejects almost all complaints. Of the 6057 complaints it received in 2019-20, it upheld, at least in part, six percent of those that it investigated!
A case in point was the May 27 “Q & A” episode that in part focussed on the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. It featured, on its panel, not only pro-Palestinian activist Randa Abdel-Fattah, but also lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who has represented Palestinians at the International Criminal Court, and no equivalent advocate for Israel. According to the program, that perspective was to be given by Federal Government MP Dave Sharma, who was Australia’s Ambassador to Israel. However, Sharma was there to discuss political matters, and was balanced by ALP MP Ed Husic, who also called for recognition of a Palestinian state.
Yet A&CA dismissed complaints that this imbalance blatantly breached the Code requirement that the ABC “Do not unduly favour one perspective over another,” stating that Israel’s acting Ambassador had been invited to “participate” (in fact, he was only invited to sit in the audience and maybe ask a question) and insisting Sharma provided the necessary balance.
To give another, earlier, example, in 2015, a Radio National program “Earshot” featured two unrelentingly one-sided anti-Israel documentaries, produced and narrated by an ABC producer who also happened to be an activist in the anti-Israel BDS movement. A&CA dismissed complaints about demonstrably false claims by saying they were “opinion” so any requirement for accuracy didn’t apply. Furthermore, regarding complaints about bias, A&CA made the Orwellian finding that a belated acknowledgement of the producer’s activism on the website and recording of the program contributed “to the overall impartiality of the program.”
There doesn’t even seem to be a requirement that ABC journalists abide by previous A&CA decisions on those rare occasions complaints are upheld. For example, A&CA found in 2016 that it was incorrect to describe Gaza as “occupied”. However, a subsequent complaint in early 2021 that Gaza had once again been described as “occupied” was dismissed.
Beyond its Israel coverage, these problems apply right across the board. Other famous scandals involving ABC complaints include its unfair treatment of the National Farmer’s Federation in a July 2019 episode of “4Corners”; the controversy over an anti-beef episode of “Catalyst” in 2018; and then Communication Minister Richard Alston’s complaints about the ABC’s frequently unprofessional coverage of the 2003 Gulf war, more than a dozen of which ended up being upheld on appeal.
The only remedy is for Australia’s public broadcaster to have a genuinely independent complaints review body – as many public broadcasters in democracies do, for instance, in Canada and the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.
While the Australia Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) has a theoretical capability to review complaints about the ABC, in practice it does not have the resources and dedicated expertise to fulfill this role, and has no power to impose remedial action. In 2019/20, ACMA finalised a total of two investigations into ABC complaints.
The Code of Practice correctly states that “The ABC belongs to the Australian people. Earning and retaining their trust is essential to fulfilling the ABC’s charter and its responsibilities…”
However, under the current, in house, complaints system, there are justifiable suspicions that those producing news and current affairs content for the ABC get away with either sloppy or agenda-driven reporting.
The ABC likes to say that it’s our ABC, but until the complaints procedure for its news and current affairs is truly independent, suspicion will remain that they really think it’s theirs.