Flat White

The ABC’s vibe needs correcting

17 December 2021

4:00 AM

17 December 2021

4:00 AM

Without even having listened to the IPA’s documentary podcast Their ABC, ABC board member Joe Gersh criticised the podcast but made an interesting admission – that the ABC’s vibe is more left than right. Given that admission from a member of the board, one would have to question what, if anything, the ABC is planning to do about it.

The ABC knows it has an inner-city focus. Outgoing news chief Gaven Morris has said as much and polling by the IPA found that a third of Australians believe it is too focussed on inner-city issues. 43 per cent believe it is unfair that those who don’t watch the ABC are forced to pay for it.

The ABC must know it has a big problem with middle Australia and its treatment of conservative views – or a ‘lack of conservative voices’, as Mr Gersh notes. If it truly wants to represent the ‘cultural diversity of Australia’ as its charter obliges, it must address this. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If the ABC is as trusted as it says it is, then it shouldn’t be afraid of scrutiny and reform.

The evidence of issues in its complaints handling is overwhelming, while the management of editorial failings in error-ridden documentaries The Ghost Train Fire and Juanita Nielsen: A Family Mystery has left a lot to be desired.

The ABC’s 2020 Marine Heard a Pop story suggested there was an active criminal investigation into a commando platoon and accused it of a war crime in Afghanistan in 2012 – a claim rejected by the Department of Defence and Heston Russell, the platoon’s former commander. His parliamentary petition for an independent review by the Parliament has received over 25,000 signatures. The ABC then published a news story alleging Mr Russell had consensually sold nude photos online for charity – hardly newsworthy at the best of times – but gives the allure of deliberate revenge piece from a taxpayer-funded behemoth with context added.

Then there was the targeting of Coalition Cabinet Ministers via Four Corners, where the ABC was forced to admit it didn’t actually expect anyone to believe its allegations about Christian Porter could meet any legal standard. This, coupled with its strange reporting into a Qanon link with Scott Morrison’s wife’s friend’s husband and Fox News, leaves an increasing number of Australians wondering who is in charge…

The ABC decided that a complaint from Ms Danya Mani was outside the remit of its ‘consumer affairs and audience’ division because it related to a (yet another) tweet from high-profile reporter Louise Milligan, rather than official ABC content. Ms Milligan’s boss, Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour, dismissed Ms Mani’s complaint leaving no room for review because it wasn’t editorial content.

Yet Louise Milligan had her legal costs covered by the ABC for tweets not related to ABC editorial content when legal action was brought on by Liberal MP Andrew Laming. But other legitimate complaints about her tweets, like Ms Mani’s, have nothing to do with the ABC – makes sense, right? Liberal MP Nicolle Flint made six separate complaints about ABC programs and editorial, none of which received satisfactory responses. These included an ABC Radio host writing under an ABC by-line in the Adelaide Advertiser criticising Ms Flint’s ‘pearl earrings and a pearly smile’ and ‘vast wardrobe of blazers, coats and tight, black, ankle-freezing trousers, and stiletto heels’. She still has not received an apology from the host or the ABC.

These kinds of incidents go a long way to explaining why Senator Andrew Bragg’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling process was, and still is, so necessary. Anyone who thinks it’s not should ask why even the ABC believed it was necessary to commission their own review.

ABC Chair Ita Buttrose’s statement in response to the initiation of a Senate Inquiry by Senator Andrew Bragg claimed that an inquiry initiated by the Senate will create a ‘parallel process’ which will ‘threaten the ABC’s independence at the expense of the integrity of this irreplaceable public service’.

Ms Buttrose accused the democratically elected senator of ‘political interference’, then in the next breath demanded the Senate ‘terminate’ a senate inquiry. Labor and the Greens were all too happy to assist the ABC in avoiding scrutiny because they know that the ABC reflects a world view most similar to theirs.

Could you imagine the outrage if the Australian Tax Office or the Australia Council for the Arts under a Labor government demanded the Senate vote a particular way? This was a transparent attempt by the ABC to avoid scrutiny.

The government should use this defeat in the Senate to commission a broader review into the ABC – as suggested by Senator James McGrath. There hasn’t been a proper broad review into the role of public broadcasting since The Dix Inquiry in 1981.

The government should show some courage and make this happen.


Evan Mulholland is the Director of Communications at the Institute of Public Affairs and presenter of the IPA’s documentary podcast Their ABC: What’s wrong with the ABC and how to fix it. www.ipa.org.au/theirabc

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