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ABC bias – fact or fiction?

I dispute my former chairman’s accusations of prejudice

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

When a former chairman of the ABC launches an attack on the ethics and accountability of its news and current affairs programs, people are liable to sit up and listen. Yet in his essay in last week’s Spectator Australia, Donald McDonald proffers barely a skerrick of actual evidence that anything is awry at ABC News and Current Affairs.

He bases his observations, almost entirely, on a two-part television drama, Devil’s Dust — a fictional interpretation, by an independent production company supervised by the ABC’s head of fiction, of the long battle by sufferers of asbestos-related diseases to secure adequate compensation from James Hardie. It was loosely based on the book Killer Company by ABC journalist Matt Peacock.

The operative word is ‘loosely’. Writers of television drama fashion reality to their own dramatic ends. Matt Peacock is portrayed not just as a reporter but as an activist, on occasion actually coaching Bernie Banton, before and during the NSW government inquiry into James Hardie’s move to the Netherlands.

In fact, for much of the period covered by the drama, Matt Peacock was not even living in Sydney. And, as he says in a letter to The Spectator Australia this week (see page 19), the scenes showing him coaching Bernie Banton were dramatic inventions.

McDonald could easily have found that out by putting in a telephone call to Matt Peacock. He didn’t. Instead, he wrote this:

…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.

‘Probably commonplace’? Does McDonald have any evidence for such a claim? If so, we’re not told of it. Does he give us even one example of a real-life ABC journalist whose partisan activities are ‘admired’ by their colleagues and superiors? No, he does not.

The only ‘evidence’ we’re given is a reference to ‘the outraged staff reaction to the address last year by former chairman Maurice Newman when he questioned the groupthink on anthropogenic climate change’.

Actually, it wasn’t last year, it was in March 2010: a trivial error, but indicative, perhaps, of the care that McDonald devotes to factual accuracy. As it happens, the ‘outraged reaction’, at a supposedly private function for ABC ‘leaders’, came primarily from me, and from one of the ABC’s specialist science journalists, not from ‘staff’ in general.

I was outraged at the suggestion, by its own chairman, that the ABC’s reporting on the science of climate change was influenced by some internal ‘groupthink’, rather than by the undoubted fact that every major, reputable scientific body in the world has endorsed the conclusions of the IPCC that anthropogenic climate change is a real, and potentially dangerous, phenomenon — not to mention the evidence of the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed publications in the scientific literature.

The job of the ABC’s program-makers is to report the science as it is. They had been doing that. They deserved better than Maurice Newman’s patronising homily about ‘groupthink’.

That was my view, and still is. I was entitled to express it in that forum (and this is the first time I have written about it in any other). But that is no evidence that ABC editors (and I am not now one of them) tolerate, let alone admire, reporters who play a partisan role in matters of political or social controversy.

Next, McDonald segues effortlessly into a discussion of the troubles afflicting the BBC — an entirely different organisation at the other end of the world:

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…

Gleefully? More fun? There is no question that Newsnight stuffed up, especially in the second program. But more fun? That McDonald thinks that programs make serious allegations about senior political figures — even when, as in this case, the figure was not actually named — because it is ‘fun’ is not just bizarre. It displays a contempt for the motives of the BBC’s (and, by implication, the ABC’s) journalists that is breathtaking.

In any case, what Newsnight’s problems have to do with the ABC is a mystery that McDonald does nothing to illuminate.

What we get instead are airy insults. ABC program-makers and presenters are full of ‘self-regard and self-righteousness’, and need a firm hand lest the gods, or the public’s acclamation, drive them mad.

In support of that curious claim, McDonald writes that ‘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’.

As it happens, I am one program-maker who has recently argued publicly that it is unwise for the managing director of the ABC, or the director-general of the BBC, to adopt the title ‘editor-in-chief’. Anyone interested in my detailed arguments can find them on The Drum. It’s true that I point to some occasions in the past when a managing director has intervened in programs prior to broadcast, and when that has been seen by ABC staff and by many outsiders as ‘a form of interference’. My point is not that they were necessarily right to do so, but that such intervention is, in practice, so unusual that it is almost always controversial, and frequently counter-productive.

I, like every ABC program-maker I know, accept that the managing director, and through him or her, the board, have not only a right but a duty to ensure that the ABC’s journalism abides by the corporation’s charter and editorial policies — and that, when mistakes are made, those who make them are held responsible. But the MD cannot be consulted, or even forewarned, about every controversial decision: often controversy erupts only after the event. To adopt the title ‘editor-in-chief’ implies to outsiders, including politicians, that the MD should know about, and take responsibility for, everything the ABC puts to air. That can lead — as we have just seen at the BBC — to the departure of a chief executive because of bad decisions and bad journalism by subordinates, about which he had no prior knowledge.

It’s an argument, no more. There are sound arguments to be made in favour of the status quo. What it does not demonstrate (at least in the opinion of its author) is a belief that ‘journalists and programs are independent of the board and management’. Of course they aren’t.

In conclusion, McDonald returns to Devil’s Dust to make some anodyne observations about the need for journalistic impartiality. He displays no understanding of the determination required to uncover facts that powerful people, and powerful companies, wish to keep hidden. And there’s no sign that he has bothered to read any of the 50 or so reports that Matt Peacock actually filed for ABC programs on the asbestos issue over the years, many of them during McDonald’s chairmanship.

So much more fun, one is tempted to say, to express lofty contempt, without evidence, for the organisation he presided over for a decade — with, if his own account of its current state is to be believed, singularly little effectiveness.

Jonathan Holmes is the presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch.

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