On 11 and 12 November, the ABC aired the docudrama Devil’s Dust about the James Hardie asbestos case. As drama it was very high-quality with uniformly excellent performances, direction and cinematography. From my limited knowledge, it seemed generally accurate.
One striking element of the production was the depiction of veteran ABC journalist Matt Peacock. Peacock is a fine journalist and a likeable man, but the portrayal of him not only as a crusading journalist but as one who was an active player, coaching Bernie Banton and his wife and publicly barracking for them, should be a cause for concern for the ABC management and board. I doubt that it will be.
Of course, Devil’s Dust is drama and therefore necessarily simplified and possibly exaggerated, but even if Matt Peacock really did play such a partisan role over the years it is unlikely that the management of News and Current Affairs will concern themselves. Such partisanship is now probably commonplace, even admired.
The outraged staff reaction to the address last year by former chairman Maurice Newman when he questioned the groupthink on anthropogenic climate change would suggest so. There was a time when we were proud that the ABC was modelled so closely on the BBC; if such a similarity is now the case then that poses a grave danger.
The BBC’s twin catastrophes of canning a program about Jimmy Savile but screening a program falsely accusing a former leading Conservative of child sexual abuse are almost perfect in their symmetry. It sounds like a textbook case: suppressing a child abuse story about an (inexplicably) much-loved BBC insider but gleefully running a child abuse story about a senior Conservative. Much more fun, but it is fun that has brought down a director-general who had scarcely got his feet under the desk. Although it seems he won’t go hungry in his enforced retirement.
It is possible that as the then head of BBC Vision, George Entwistle also had some connection to the killing of the Savile story.
Both the ABC and the BBC are incredibly self-regarding institutions daily giving thanks like the Pharisee that they are not as other men are. But they are both very highly regarded by many, probably the majority, of their audience. Not just highly regarded but loved, especially in the case of radio.
Of course, people love other radio networks, so that might tell us more about the intimate impact of radio. People took Andrew Olle’s death personally and much more recently took to the streets of Melbourne in amazing numbers to express their sadness at the murder of ABC employee Jill Meagher.
Personally, I don’t quite understand grief over a stranger, but then that’s probably the point: they don’t seem like strangers. Is it Princess Diana syndrome? Or are they like Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull, who says: ‘I am in mourning for my own life. I’m unhappy’.
All that aside, the high regard in which program-makers and presenters are held can feed into the self-regard or self-righteousness that is a risk in all journalism. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. So there must be structures to minimise the risks to the corporation and its staff. If the managing director is also editor-in-chief then they must actively perform that second function, not just take the fall when something goes wrong. They must require that certain specified programs inform them in advance of forthcoming contentious elements.
Naturally, adherence to editorial standards and procedures is fundamental; there must be channels in place to ensure this happens. There will be some program-makers who regard a managing director fulfilling the role of editor-in-chief as a form of interference, an attack on the independence they see as fundamental for publicly-funded broadcasters. This is to misrepresent that independence. The corporation must be independent from the government (and opposition) but programs are not independent from the corporation itself as embodied by its management and board.
There is a statutory obligation placed on the board to ensure accuracy, fairness and impartiality; it discharges that obligation through the managing director and the structure below that position. The notion that journalists and programs are independent of the board and management should have no place in public broadcasting.
Having noted that the corporation must guard its political independence and integrity in the presentation of news, it is important to recognise this also applies to independence from special interest groups, however worthy they or their objectives might be considered to be. This brings us back to the asbestos story. Like all other news coverage, it had to be fully informative and accurate, but impartial. Achieving impartiality might have been the hard part. If the depiction in Devil’s Dust of the ABC journalist was factually accurate, then impartiality would indeed have been very difficult for that journalist to maintain. Many people will find it difficult to criticise the role of the ABC in the long unfolding of this story.
But impartially really matters and not just to ensure adherence to editorial guidelines. What matters is doing a fully rounded job on behalf of the owners of the corporation, who happen to be the citizens of Australia.
Casting the manufacturer James Hardie as the dominant villain may well be missing other targets or letting them off with glancing blows. For example, surely governments had a role to play, not just with regard to compensation, but in controlling the use of asbestos? It is unclear to me when the deadly potential of asbestos was first recognised, but the material’s use over decades in government buildings including countless thousands of housing commission houses suggests a culpability at least in parallel with that of the corporation which was making and marketing a legal product.
More balanced reporting less concerned with depicting goodies and baddies might have shed more light on other aspects of this whole sad matter.
Donald McDonald was chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1996 to 2006.