They’ve done it again!

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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26 thoughts on “They’ve done it again!

  1. Thankyou. I have been enraged today by these tweets, especially as it appears to now be a fairly regular ‘game’ inside the ABC to throw insult at the PM. Not to mention a large percentage of the Australian public. Then we get Mark Scott tweeting that the trolls are out! This, from the head of the ABC, displays extremely juvenile behavior, not fitting for his role, and he should be sacked or step down. And, to add insult to injury they block tweeters purely for questioning, or disagreeing with their agenda. I am so pleased you made a formal complaint to the ACMA Barry, and I should (will) do the same. The more the merrier.

  2. Scott Stephens’ bias on the tax-payer funded ABC is unforgivable. His “schoolteacher” comment flies in the face of any Charter of impartiality.
    His appearance on the Drum very recently, while often quite implausible and hysterical, showed, very clearly, his hard right bias. He has no defendable position in the ABC’s Charter of objectivity and impartiality. He’s on my list of complaints to ACMA.

  3. Never thought I would see the day when a public broadcaster allowed their staff to show such rampant bias for one side of politics without sanctions. It is absolutely disgraceful & a new broom needs to be used to sweep through the ABC & return it to its rightful position of fair, honest, balanced & impartial reporting of news & events without the current prominence given to right wing conservative viewpoints. Imagine the PBS in the US behaving the way the ABC is right now?

  4. Thank you for that and I hope some good comes from your complaint. It really infuriates me that they get away with this. Imagine if the insult had been to T. Abbott.

  5. “His boss, ABC MD Mark Scott, (whose religious affiliation I am unsure of) is a fan”, well, he’s a fundamentalist Christian of the Hillsong variety. Read Marion Maddox’s book, ‘God under Howard’ to see for yourself:

    • Already done Gabby. Senator Stephen Conroy is responsible Minister. Mr Albanese represents Sen Conroy’s portfolio in the lower House. I’ve also copied to my local Member, now a Minister (Dr Mike Kelly, Defence Materiel).

      Thank you for your interest in the matter. We are watching a once great institution being corrupted and ruined.

  6. Accidentally strayed to a very Right Wing blog when I Googled Mark Scott. The comments there were from some really rabid rightwingnuts who firmly believe that both the ABC & Mark Scott are in the thrall of the far left. “Fabian Marxist Scum everywhere” & in a very stern comment “There is clearly an undeniable and strong Socialist/Communist and Feminist slant to the vast majority of everything that emanates from the ABC”. Good grief!!

    This includes QandA. They feel the left bias of the ABC is extreme. These people are so far right it is scary. Their comments depressed me as there is no possible way they will ever be persuaded by facts or decent arguments to think any other way. Their beliefs are deeply rooted & cannot be eradicated even by producing proof for your arguments. They are blindly bigoted. .

  7. Yet another appalling example of how the right in politics are trashing democracy in Australia. If there are no restraints on them, and it appears there are none, where does it end?
    I think we have a fair idea from history what that might look like.

  8. I have submitted a complaint to the ABC about the tweet. I also submitted a complaint about the “Juliar” incident. I found their ‘it’s just a typo’ response less than satisfactory and they did not address my call for an apology to the Prime Minister. Pathetic.

  9. I’ll give you the “Drum” on Auntie infiltration.
    1: Hillsong=Liberal (Scott,Morrison…list is very long)
    2: IPA=nondisclosure astroturfer for the right (Drum and Q&A)

    First MSM now the ABC. The right are well connected in the media.

  10. I was reading somewhere (Crikey perhaps?) where the ABC is terrified of facing the Tory Torquemadas who populate the Senate Communications Committee. Apparently this (at least in part) is put forward as a reason why Aunty is so craven in the face of LNP complaints.

    • For those unfamiliar with the expression Torquemadas, it refers to Tomás de Torquemada, a 15th-century Spanish Dominican friar and the first Grand Inquisitor; a hideously unjust and cruel period of Catholic Church history.

  11. Thank you Mr Tucker for your work re the increasingly appalling ABC.
    Since Murdoch was unable to wrest the overseas broadcasting arm of ABC there has been a concerted effort to ‘privatize’ it, from the inside. Part of this plan is to diminish the former good standing of the ABC until the public start to call for ‘something to be done’. Hence, it’s easier for a new government to say the public demanded it and to set a breakup and sell off in motion.
    In the meantime Mr Scott allows for plenty of factual evidence of anti government bias to accumulate. Does this have an impact as to his inability to run the broadcaster? Should he be made and kept accountable for each instance?
    Any staff, after investigation, recognized as having breached their charter, code of conduct and/or demonstrating disreputable behaviour should be dealt with. (I’m not talking about the official response to Mr Faine, although his treatment by management could be construed as an arbitrary abuse of power, disguised as supervision.)
    Bringing the ABC into disrepute is only one area. There appears to be multiple examples of ‘misconduct’ that should be investigated with findings and reasons made public imo.
    Clearly the religious bloke does not apply ethics, in this regard. If he feels it ok to say and do these things now, what of the build-up towards the next election? Citizens, recognizing the loss of standards, will be demanding the ABC be privatized. Will Howard’s task will be that much closer to being accomplished?
    The ABC must not be allowed to be a Fox-like warmongering Murdoch tool. Happy to claim my bias in that regard.
    Good luck with your work Mr Tucker, which I fully support.
    Mr Scott must be made accountable, required to stand down or be dismissed. His use by date is up. Although tricky for government to deal with, it should be confronted here and now.
    Stroke of the pen Mr Conroy – please fix it!

  12. As a former typesetter, I can absolutely guarantee there is no way the addition of an “r” to the end of the word ‘Julia’ was a typo.

    Typesetters do make mistakes, but they’re mistakes like ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’ and the like. Those types of mistakes are so familiar that word processing programs automatically correct them.

    The misspelling was deliberate. No ifs, no buts. That person should have been sacked on the spot for partisanship. Much the same as if the typist had have keyed John Coward, for instance.

    It is notoriously difficult to proof read one’s typing, and that is true only with chunks or writing, dense paragraphs, but never in a caption.

    But let’s get back to the origin of the “school marm, slowly articulated” speech of the PM, as the Religious Bloke wearily condescends on an official ABC twitter account.

    It’s another ABC initiative.

    During the 2010 election campaign, John Faine of ABC 774 fame, wasted five minutes of the Prime Minister’s time worrying over her pronunciation of Mr. Abbott.

    Faine grilled Julia Gillard mercilessly about whether she deliberately called Abbott, Mista Rabbott – oh, ho ho it really sounded like she was calling Tony Abbott, Mr Rabbit. Call an ambulance quickly.

    Forget that the PM was there to discuss policy. No, all Faine was interested in was her accent, and her pronunciation of certain words. Along with earlobes, bottoms, etc, of the tabloid press, it was one of the most tawdry examples of trivia on ABC radio I’d ever heard.

    Mr Faine showed dire linguistic ignorance. In all English-speaking countries, in the spoken form any words ending in a consonant followed by the next word beginning with a vowel, the end consonant appears to belong to the beginning of the next word.

    For example, the written “Should all acquaintance be forgot” – linguistically sounds like: ‘Sh d’awl l’kwanet’ns bee f’got’. It’s nothing unusual. It’s a fact of the English language.

    Can you imagine Jon Faine interviewing the Prime Minister of any other country, say David Cameron (and say his opponent is Ms Abboth), and then haranguing him for five minutes that he’s really saying Ms Sabbath and is he really being deliberate about saying “Sabbath” instead of “Abboth” and is he really having a go at Jews by pronouncing her name in this way?

    What bullshit. Faine fed on this glory for days. After the interview ended, Faine spent another 10 minutes waxing lyrical about Julia Gillard calling Tony Abbott, Mr Rabbit.

    He couldn’t believe he’d pulled a hat out of a rabbit. And was being feted by the mindless minions so euphemistically called the keepers of democracy.

    The press went into a feeding frenzy. That’s all we heard about for days.

    The Prime Minister had to slow her speech down after this to make sure there was no hidden meaning in normal pronunciation of English – and thence, from the ABC, came the ‘school marm’ meme.

    Well done, ABC.

    And well done, Barry, for pointing out yet another hypocrisy in the so-called ABC charter of honesty and fairness.

    Faine was recently disciplined for giving two journalists the rounds of the table over the AWU beat-up. I thought he was going to stand up to them [the ABC] but looks like he’s caved in too — by giving the fabled Mista Rabbit a tummy rub today. Even to the point where he’s now convinced the government is going to sell-off the NBN (that was always going to happen) to balance the budget.

    But it wasn’t long ago that Faine was predicting the raiding of the Future Fund for the same target.

    I don’t mind informed opinion by the ABC, but get your biased opinion, and attempts to influence opinion, out of my weeties.

    • Thank you Sarah. I agree with everything you said about typesetting and proof reading. Based on my own experience, I’d trust the knowledge and skill of a typesetter or a proof-reader ahead of any journo, myself included, any day of the week. Unfortunately, we have lost knowledge and skill since the switch from hot metal to electronic typesetting.

  13. Barry,

    I did not mean to imply that my typesetting experience was purely with hot-metal.

    That’s why I called myself a typesetter rather than a compositor.

    My experience was at the coal-face of computer technoiogy. Which makes subbing and proofing all the more in the firing line.

    Nevertheless, the ABC needs to apologise to the PM for the Religious Boke’s partisan commentary.

    But, I won’t hold my breath.

  14. Once upon a time, you could get sacked for using social media at work. Now it seems it is not only being used as part of your work but also to issue insulting comments about your employer, namely the PM.
    Why are there no controls on what is going on in the ABC? It seems that certain social media persons are the only ones concerned about this. Who is the Minister in charge of communications? Why aren’t they doing something about this? The ALP can only take the tactic of not responding so far, there comes a time when they must stand up for themselves.

    • There are controls on what is going on at the ABC, but they are either not being applied or they are not working. A complaint is more likely to be taken seriously if it is anti-government and pro-Opposition. There is ample evidence that the complaint handling procedure is flawed and inconsistent (see the debate on the reprimand of radio journalist Jon Faine as one example).

      The minister responsible for the ABC is Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His email address is: senator.conroy@aph.gov.au

      The ABC is a corporation. In effect, it is run as a business rather than a government agency. Its operations are covered by various pieces of legislation, making it quite challenging for anyone who tries to complain, change or reform. Board members are now appointed (for five-year terms) “at arms length” from government, although the government still appoints some. But the minister’s hands are virtually tied. He cannot suddenly intervene.

      There is a lot of information on this site to help people who want to fight the ABC’s bias. It is not the entire organisation, just key parts of it, such as news and current affairs on TV and in digital media. If you are not satisfied with the outcome of a complaint you can refer it to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). It’s interesting in this context that ACMA can only deal with complaints about an infringement of the ABC Code of Practice in relation to a radio or TV broadcast — not printed material that appears on a website or Twitter feed. This is a serious flaw in the complaints procedure and a loophole that is obviously being exploited.

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