ABC jewel in the crown

OPINION

By Barry Tucker                    September 1, 2015

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is a jewel in the crown of Australia’s democracy. It’s under threat again.

On the ABC’s Radio National breakfast program this morning federal immigration Minister Peter Dutton complained that Fairfax Media was campaigning “to bring down the government” and Fairfax “was being helped by the ABC”. He didn’t complain when ALL of Australia’s news and entertainment media campaigned relentlessly against the former Labor federal government during its six years in office. The hypocrisy of Liberal MPs and government supporters is almost beyond belief.

The ABC is under threat from the present extreme Right-wing “Liberal” government of Tony Abbott, his policy advisers the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch (News Corp).

Tony Abbott has said the ABC will not be privatised. Abbott says a lot of things and often goes back on his word. On the eve of the 2013 federal election he made several promises. One was “No cuts to the ABC”.

Abbotts lies and promisesAlso prior to the 2013 election, Abbott’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said ABC won’t be sold, but “waste will be cut”. His 2014 Budget used the former John Howard government trick of “efficiency dividends” to cut $254 million from the ABC’s budget over the next five years, resulting in program cuts and staff retrenchments. Other government departments, non-government agencies, programs and commissions also suffered funding cuts, efficiency dividends or defunding.

The IPA has recommended that the Abbott government break up and sell the ABC and its sister operation the SBS (basically an ethnic language broadcaster).

IPA ABCIn the UK, Rupert Murdoch and his son James campaigned against the taxpayer funding of the BBC. They are in reality objecting to public financing of news, comment and public affairs organisations that compete with their News Corp interests in radio, TV and the Press. The situation is exactly the same in Australia, where News Corp journalists and Liberal supporters constantly campaign against the ABC, claiming it is riddled with Left-wing commentators without ever providing a shred of evidence or naming anyone.

Criticism, even occasional criticism, from the Left or the Right, is seen by the recipients as bias.

That is the background and the reality of the situation. I like to provide these details because the MSM, in its relentless grind of deadlines and the 24-hour media cycle, largely processes the Press Release and moves on to the next item, digressing occasionally to deal with the latest scandal. It rarely takes the time to join the dots.

Today’s scandal is that Peter Dutton sees Fairfax and the ABC as running a witch hunt against the federal government. The real scandal is that Dutton should criticise the news media for doing its job. In Egypt today, such journalists would be jailed. The government Dutton represents intends to do the same to journalists, whistleblowers even medical staff who dare release
details of inhumane treatment of asylum-seeking refugees jailed in offshore detention centres. There was some indication today that the government might reconsider its detention centre policy, so the criticism Dutton complains about may ultimately have a positive effect.

The nut of the situation is two-fold. On one hand we have a federal government that cannot tolerate opposition or criticism. That immediately brings to mind a Fascist regime and the government only has itself to blame if that is the impression people have.

A meme that circulates on social media.

A meme that circulates on social media.

The aborted Operation Fortitude in Melbourne last Friday is a pertinent example of this government’s thinking (a Border Force raid on workplaces went ahead in Darwin, almost unnoticed). In fact, what Dutton is complaining about is a direct result of many of his government’s policies. And it is not only some journalists who are complaining. There’s a widely held view that the federal LNP government is failing, is chaotic, lacks cohesion, leaks and is putting out confusing messages about the economy. The evidence is in consecutive opinion polls that have the government and its leader trailing the Opposition.

On the other hand we have a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, who cannot abide opposition either. His approach is to buy up the opposition, incorporate it into his empire, strip some of the assets and improve productivity, efficiency and profitability by merging and minimizing production units. One other thing Hockey’s 2014 Budget did was to defund the Australia Network, which the ABC was operating to broadcast TV into SE-Asia. Murdoch originally won the tender for this service but it was taken off him by the Gillard government.

In this continuing war against the ABC no one is asking what the alternative would look like. With the ABC broken up and probably gobbled up by Murdoch (who can afford it) we would be left essentially with an ailing Fairfax Media, still reeling from the after-effects of young Warwick Fairfax’s catastrophic privatisation bid while trying to adjust to social media and online publishing.

How many would be happy to read the Right Wing views of Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtsen, Andrew Bolt and others of that club spread wide across the nation — to the exclusion of almost all Left Wing views, even moderate and Centrist views?

Apart from that, the ABC is more than news, RN brekkie, the 7.30 Report, Lateline and Q&A. It is a multi-faceted beast, involving city and regional radio broadcasts on various channels and covering a staggering array of programs. Likewise TV, on four channels designed to cater to various tastes, including 24 hours of news and commentary. In addition there is on-line publishing content of news and opinion, another thing that rankles the ABC’s opponents.

All of this costs the community very little, around 14 cents a day. Perhaps we get it too cheaply. One commercial alternative, Foxtel Platinum, costs subscribers $4 a day, and that’s for TV only.

The cost is not the great issue. The range of content and the freedom to express an opinion — even to criticise a government and its policies — is far more important. We must never lose this jewel from our crown.

PS: Meanwhile, a clamour continues for the loosening of cross-media ownership laws (another IPA recommendation). See the ABC’s Media Watch of August 31, 2015, for some background on what’s happening to regional TV stations.

More reporting on Australia’s news media is available on the ABC’s Media Report and mUmBRELLA on-line.

To see what a Fascist government would look like and how it would behave see this long but fascinating article in NewMatilda.com.

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Where the hell is Aunty?

By Barry Tucker                    18 February, 2013

You could say Nancy Cato grew up with Aunty. Aunty stimulated her mind and gave her access to a career. That was then. This is now, and Nancy is asking “Where the hell is Aunty?”

As any Australian knows, Aunty is our affectionate term for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, our ABC. Well, it was ours, but Australians are now saying it’s become “their” ABC, “their” being a reference to the evil forces of Conservative politics.

Nancy explains here, on the citizen journalism website Australians for Honest Politics http://bit.ly/11NS4FK

 

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.