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Feb 4, 2014

Should the ABC apologise? It's far from black and white

The ABC is under a lot of fire for its story on asylum seekers' burnt hands, but was the story false? And should Aunty apologise? We ask current and former staffers, and opinions are mixed.

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“We believe ABC News got it wrong,” Media Watch host Paul Barry declared on ABC1 last night, “and if so it needs to admit it.”

That assessment has heaped more pressure on the ABC to apologise for how it reported allegations that the Australian navy wilfully burnt the hands of asylum seekers by forcing them to hold onto hot pipes, given growing doubts about the alleged version of events. A senior ABC source told Crikey Media Watch‘s analysis was “pretty fair”, and would no doubt contribute to the internal discussions the ABC board and management are having on the issue.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated yesterday he wanted an apology from the ABC. He told The Australian that though media outlets make mistakes from time to time, “a news outlet’s credibility is enhanced, not diminished, by acknowledging the error, correcting it and apologising for the offence caused”.

The question of an apology has divided opinion among friends and foes of the broadcaster. Former Media Watch executive producer David Salter defends the ABC, saying if management made a mistake it’s in being overly slow and cautious in defending the story. Previous Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes disagrees, telling Crikey that while the ABC wasn’t necessarily wrong in broadcasting the allegations, the manner in which it did so didn’t meet its editorial standards.

Salter says reporters “were careful to point out they were reporting the allegations”. “That is a basic journalistic device that’s legitimately employed when you don’t have the means or opportunity to find a primary source. Every journalist knows it doesn’t cease to be a story because you can’t find an eyewitness,” he told Crikey.

“These stories were part of a pretty conventional journalistic genre where you have to report the allegations of a third party. As long as you say they are allegations, there’s nothing to apologise for. You can be honestly mistaken, and that will be reported. Eventually the truth will out.”

But Holmes says while the ABC’s scripted news programs were careful in their phrasing of the story, some of its radio and talkback programs played it far closer to the line. “I thought [ABC Indonesia correspondent] George Roberts had gone too far, but on the whole, I thought it was fairly sombre reporting. But for Media Watch to come to its conclusion, it would have looked at a lot more than I did,” he said.

Holmes says that as the story has developed, he’s unclear where that leaves the allegations on which the ABC originally reported.

“I don’t think the ABC necessarily have to apologise for reporting. The allegations were out there, and the navy wasn’t countering them at that point. But when the ABC returned to the story, it then aired interviews that said the burns were sustained after a tussle involving capsicum spray, which saw the asylum seekers accidentally get burnt,” he said.

“… discussion of an apology is now impossible to have without reference to the political situation surrounding the ABC.”

“I’m not clear whether that version of events has replaced the original allegations. As far as I understand, from reporting in The Australian, there are still some people from a different boat sticking to the original claim. So, those claims are still out there, and to my understanding they still haven’t been addressed. I think the reporting has been sloppy.”

The ABC source says discussion of an apology is now impossible to have without reference to the political situation surrounding the ABC. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said on radio that many believed “the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own”, and has since announced an inquiry into the efficiency of the ABC.

Salter says the ABC could have done more to defend the story, particularly in light of the political situation. “I think the ABC is notoriously bad at responding to concerted political pressure and pressure from their colleagues in the media. They crouch into this defensive position much too soon,” he said.

In this, Salter applauds ABC boss Mark Scott for “holding the line”. Yesterday, the ABC’s editor-in-chief said criticism of the ABC was “not fair and not correct”, adding it was an important story for the ABC to report.

Holmes says issuing an apology would be difficult in this charged environment. “It has now become very hard for them to back down … And with News Corp pushing this so hard for their own reasons, with their army of columnists, it pushes the ABC to be more defensive of itself,” he said.

“That’s why I think Media Watch was pretty brave to make the call it did. It certainly won’t be popular within the ABC.”

If an apology is politically impossible, Holmes says what the ABC can do is pursue the truth surrounding the original allegation.

Of course, both Salter and Holmes point out that the pressure being put on the ABC to correct itself vastly outweighs the pressure put on other media outlets. “Obviously, if you compare this to some of the reporting from News Limited, for them to be accusing the ABC of bias is kind of laughable,” Holmes said. “But we do hold the ABC to a higher standard, and frankly, it should be held to a higher standard.”

But journalism, Salter said, is always a “slather and whack occupation”: “Some of us might present to operate at a higher ethical level. But day-to-day, it’s a pretty rough-and-tumble world.”


The ABC has issued a statement on its reporting, acknowledging that the wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise. The statement read:

“The video obtained exclusively by the ABC, showing asylum seekers with burns, along with reports that Indonesian police were investigating the matter, raised further important questions… The video also established that the injuries were real. This was a significant development.

The ABC’s initial reports on the video said that the vision appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims. That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point. We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims. The ABC has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation.”

The full statement is on the ABC website.

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

Myriam has been Crikey’s media reporter since 2014. Before that, she was a business journalist with sister site SmartCompany, covering economics and corporate strategy.

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26 thoughts on “Should the ABC apologise? It’s far from black and white

  1. Electric Lardyland

    Ah, where to start with this one? Perhaps with the egregious Tony Abbott. It seems that the major part of Abbott’s argument, is that the ABC should not have reported the abuse claims, because they were made against members of the Australian Defence Force, and therefore the claims were highly likely to be false, because members of the ADF would never do such a thing. Really? Well, that proposition does rather ignore the fact that since 2012, we have had the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, which has been investigating long running, widespread and often well documented allegations of abuse within the ADF. So what does Abbott expect us to believe here? That members of the defence force do sometimes abuse each other, but they would never ever abuse already demonised asylum seekers?
    Surely any credible news gathering organisation, that is still interested in journalism, instead of just cheering on their ideological partners, would think that there may just be a story there?
    Also, Abbott seems to be running the line, that reporting on possible problems with the government’s asylum seeker policies is somehow un-Australian and everything that comes out has to be 100% verified, otherwise your some sort of traitor to the nation. And inevitably, this line is being shamelessly amplified by the strident headline writers and the rightard columnists of News Ltd. Of course, criticising the government and its policy implementation, was something that Tony and his media pals always scrupulously avoided when there was a Labor government. Why you barely heard a peep out of them on the issue of climate change and the carbon tax. No, not a single unsubstantiated allegation there. Absolutely no quoting of invented data. No trashing the reputation of highly competent scientists working in arms of the government, like the Bureau of Meteorology or the CSIRO. No airing of the absurd claims of climate change deniers.
    Really, the jaw dropping hypocrisy of these people.
    And while I do agree with much of what has been written above, about how attacking the ABC is both politically and commercially motivated, I do think that there is one aspect of this that usually goes through to the keeper. This is to do with the basic world view of the modern right wing ideologue. That is, the most fundamental part of their politics, is the claim that functions performed by private enterprise, is always done in a superior manner, to attempts to perform those tasks by governments and public servants. So, if you believe this claim, then the best thing you can do if you obtain power, is to flog off as much of government that you possibly can. So, the enriching of your corporate friends, by attacking the public service, is strangely seen as a public service. However, every day the ABC subtly contradicts this ideology. Not by running stories that extol the virtues of public ownership, but by producing a service that is demonstrably superior, to much of the stuff dished up by the major commercial media outlets of Australia.
    I mean, can a right wing ideologue working in an outpost of the empire, effectively claim to Australians that the ABC needs to be privatised, when the ABC enjoys an 80% trust rating and the tabloid that they are working on has a 40 something trust rating? Or can a bitter, angry commercial talkback demagogue, convince a majority that they know what’s best for the nation, when turning the dial to the ABC, reveals someone who seems a lot saner and happier, constructively chatting to their talkback audience?
    I could keep going with the examples, but I think the basic point that I want to make, is that the ABC, by consistently providing a high quality cost effective service, contradicts the basic right wing ideology, that private is superior and government is inferior. And I suspect that this really annoys some of the more fundamentalist holders of that belief.

  2. Hunt Ian

    Poor old David Hand can’t resist falling in line with ABC bashing from the Coalition. The ABC is,in fact, a bit to the right of centre, since it chooses on “Insiders” or “The Drum” far right commentators, such as those from the IPA, but hardly ever chooses anyone from a position as far to the left as its right wingers are to the right. “Insiders” regularly has devoted supporters of the Coalition but none for the ALP or the Greens. But the ABC is, perhaps, far left of the right wing propaganda of the Murdoch media, which explains why some think it is left.

    Having conceded that the ABC only reported rather than endorsed allegations by asylum seekers, David Hand wants to say their left wing orientation is revealed by the “prominence” they gave to the story. Well, “prominence” is in the eye of the beholder, and any journalist would have published the story of these allegations. No one knows what actually happened because the government apparently is “at war” with asylum seekers (sorry, people smugglers). The best bit of speculation I have seen is that the asylum seekers tried to wreck the bloat’s engine as the navy engaged them and got the burns that way.

    The ABC did not get anything wrong, it seems to me, despite Media Watch claims that it did, so it has nothing to apologise for and no reason to take the ABC further to the right to save the ABC from cuts that Abbot promised in the election that he would not make and which cannot be excused by claiming that the deficit, which they enlarged themselves, means that none of their promises hold.

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