Gerard Henderson, the tables are turned. It seems the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, has a complaint about you. He thinks it is unfortunate and unfair that you tend to personalise your criticism.

On the other hand, one of Henderson’s wishes may be coming true – though not, it seems, due to any action or words by him. The ABC is going to review its complaints procedure.

This story is a complicated little insiders story, but with some important implications. Yesterday Mark Scott contacted me because he wanted to talk about an announcement he made last month, at the same ABC leadership conference where he flagged the automation of ABC television studios and resulting redundancies.

It seems that he told the 200 or so senior ABC staff at that conference that later this year, the Chair of the ABC Board, Maurice Newman, and the Director of Editorial Polices, Paul Chadwick, would conduct a review of Auntie’s four-tier complaints process.

Why was Scott so keen to emphasise to Crikey that he had announced this last month, rather than presenting it as new? Because he wanted to eliminate any impression that he was responding to an article by Gerard Henderson in the March issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly.

Henderson’s critique was reported by The Australian, and has also been the subject of comment and correspondence at Crikey, here and here.

Henderson has, in fact, been a long standing critic of the ABC’s complaints process. The recent piece was merely the latest on the subject.

Scott said yesterday he was “dismayed” that Henderson’s most recent article on the topic had been “personalised” as an attack on the head of ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs, Kirstin McLiesh.

Henderson accused McLiesh of plagiarism because she had responded to him using words that had been written by Media Watch staff in self defence. He accused her of having “simply accepted Media Watch’s defence of its own claims without checking any independent legal authority” and making legal judgements without having had any legal training.

Said Scott: “One of the things that worries me about Gerard Henderson’s critiques is that he personalises them. I worry when criticism about policy gets caught up in attacks on the individual whose job it is to implement that policy.” McLiesh, Scott said, did a “great job toiling away dealing with the thousands of complaints received by the ABC.“

So why the review? The ABC Complaints procedure is, after all, the most exhaustive and multi-tiered of any media organisation in Australia.

Scott said that he wanted the process reviewed when there was no crisis. Normally complaints processes get critiqued and reviewed in the heat of a controversy, and the accusatory atmosphere does the process no good. In this context it should be noted that the complaints process received its most recent renovation amid the acrimony of the infamous Alston complaints, made by the then Minister for Communications, about the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq war.

Newman and Chadwick, it seems, will be considering whether there really need to be four tiers to the process. “Four levels is a lot,” says Scott. They will also look at the time lags between complaint lodgement and resolution, and the degree of independence the complaint adjudicators should have from program staff.

And is any of this in response to Henderson? Scott absolutely denies it, but it is worth noting that in the past, Henderson has called for ABC Managing Directors to take up their role as editor in chief, and to deal with complaints at an editorial level.

So will the review result in a more direct role for Scott?

Watch this space.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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