By Barry Tucker 13 February, 2013
Another member of the ABC’s online staff has insulted the Prime Minister in a public Tweet — in fact, he did it twice in 17 minutes. This time it was the editor of the ABC’s Religion & Ethics program Scott Stephens.
One of the Tweets has been apologised for. Both were passed off with lame excuses.
How can the editor of a religion and ethics program justify two gratuitous insults to the Prime Minister, neither of which has anything to do with either religion or ethics? Any ethics involved here are those of Mr Stephens, especially when he has a private Twitter account, on which he can say pretty much anything he likes.
His ABC Religion & Ethics program Twitter account is supported by the Australian taxpayer, as is Mr Stephens (I’m assuming he’s a paid employee). His ABC program blog site says: “Before joining the ABC he taught theology for many years, and even did a stint as a parish minister with the Uniting Church in Australia.” Recent Tweets seem to be preoccupied with Catholic affairs, but that may be due to the Pope’s resignation.
The following is the Twitter history of today’s incident:
Note that the profile above says: “Religion and ethics news, opinion and programs from the ABC.” The two insults in the following Tweets have nothing to do with the stated purpose of the Twitter account. I emphasise “from the ABC” — Mr Stephens’ Tweets are official ABC statements.
1) The first Tweet is quoting a remark the Opposition’s Communications spokesperson, Malcolm Turnbull, made during Question Time in Parliament today. It has nothing to do with Mr Stephens’ job or the function of this Twitter account. This Tweet was relayed to a Question Time discussion feed on Twitter by the #QT hash tag.
2) The next Tweet is irrelevant to this discussion.
3) The second insulting remark. That Tweet was relayed to the #QT feed and also to the #auspol (Australian Politics) discussion feed. Clearly disparaging, irrelevant to the stated purpose of the Twitter account, and hardly “ethical”. This is an official ABC Twitter account — not Mr Stephens’ personal account.
Here’s some of the reaction. There’s more, but it’s mostly unprintable. There was also one Tweet critical of those who complained.
The second last Tweet above is irrelevant to this discussion, but does relate to what seems to be an ABC willingness to accept complaints by Liberal National Party Opposition MPs while being dismissive of those submitted by Labor Party supporters. Following reactions like those above, Mr Stephens made an apology and his excuses.
The last Tweet above, the apology, appeared first, followed by the two above it. “No disrespect or gender implication was intended.” Well, Mr Stephens, I find that hard to believe. I mean, why even bother to issue such a Tweet on an account where it has absolutely no relevance — except as a snide and gratuitous insult.
Then you dismiss the matter, moving on “to more important things”. The more important thing is that you merely thought Mr Turnbull’s insult was “rather a nifty phrase. That’s all.”
Really, Mr Stephens? Just a nifty phrase? Then why bother repeating it, on a Twitter account where it has no relevance whatsoever? Three questions for you there, Mr Stephens. Can you give a mature answer to any of them?
Mr Stephens might be a bit biased towards Australia’s first female Prime Minister. He’s not alone. There is a core of ABC staff who feel the same way. Mr Stephens is well protected, however. His boss, ABC MD Mark Scott, (whose religious affiliation I am unsure of) is a fan:
The second Tweet above is a Reply to the first Tweet, so in this case the order is reversed. @scottabc is Mr Stephens’ personal Twitter account.
Late last month the Prime Minister’s name appeared as “Juliar” Gillard in a picture caption on ABC News Online. It was corrected and passed off as an accidental “typo”. No apology was made. I have lodged a formal complaint with ACMA (the last resort of complaints about the ABC) over that incident. [16 Feb, 2013. I have since learnt that complaints against the ABC can be submitted to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.]
On 29 January, 2013, in “Outrageous slur appears on ABC News website“, I wrote:
“The management of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) appears to have lost control of at least some of its staff.
“The fact that this could happen on the public face of ABC News Online, a taxpayer funded and supposedly independent, fair, balanced and unbiased news service, beggars belief.
“A spelling ‘error’ simply does not excuse or explain this behaviour. At least one member of the ABC News staff is out of control, irresponsible, lacking in self-discipline and decency.”
A few days later, singer Gotye’s name was misspelled in an ABC News Tweet. That was corrected, explained and apologised for within 21 minutes, along with the expression of hope for Gotye’s forgiveness.
It is now obvious that more than one ABC staff member is out of control. Something is seriously wrong with the management or oversight of those who are publishing material on ABC websites and Twitter accounts.
UPDATE: Tuesday, 19 February, 2013
The above incident was covered in some detail by Jonathan Holmes on the ABC’s Media Watch last night http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3693024.htm @ABCMediaWatch @jonaholmesMW
While watching the broadcast, I thought the coverage was fair and comprehensive. However, after a close reading of the transcript this morning I am confused.
As you can see from the transcript, Mr Holmes refers to “those two Tweets hit the nail on the head”. But he can’t be referring to the two Tweets immediately above that remark because one of them is an insult to the Prime Minister.
Towards the end of the story Mr Holmes reproduces this Tweet:
The ABC’s Social Media Policy applies to all ABC staff, regardless of an individual account’s naming convention or any disclaimer used.
Kate Dundas, Director of ABC Radio, 18th February, 2013″
And then comments:
“Well it seems to me that that’s perilously close to individual censorship – and that ABC staff are now entitled to feel puzzled: because it appears that the Social Media standards that apply to their personal Tweets are more restrictive, not less, than the Editorial Policies which apply to official ABC accounts.”
I believe he is wrong on this point. All the relevant ABC documentation I have read seems to indicate that ABC staff should refrain from making remarks that could bring the ABC into disrepute, regardless of whether the employee is using an official ABC account or a personal account. In other words, the directions apply equally to either account.
The ABC’s Code of Practice does not apply to Twitter accounts or ABC websites. Therefore, breaches or complaints cannot be referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). And yet, certain behaviour on an ABC website or Twitter account could be seen to be in breach of the overall aim of the Code, which is to protect the organisation, its staff and its audience and consumers from conduct that could bring the ABC into disrepute.
There are numerous documents and procedures involved in the ABC’s complaints handling domain. I do not know at this stage why Twitter accounts are the responsibility of the Director of Radio. That seems to imply that Twittering is tantamount to radio broadcasting.
And ACMA, whose responsibilities include broadcasting and the internet, cannot deal with complaints relating to ABC websites or Twitter accounts.
It is a confusing situation and, I think, one that allows the ABC to duck and dodge. I think it’s time for the organisation to lump all of its dissemination of news, social and current affairs into one basket and cover the lot with an easy-to-follow single document.