ABC journalists have been advised on the best way to maintain balance while covering the Northern Territory election campaign – keep lots of notes and check with the lawyers if any legal issues crop up.

Paul Chadwick, ABC Director of Editorial Policies and chairman of the broadcaster’s NT Election Coverage Review Committee (such committees are set up for each state and federal election by the ABC), sent out an 8-page missive consisting of equal parts corporate cheerleading and statements of the bleeding obvious, as the broadcaster moved into its coverage of Saturday’s Northern Territory election.

Chadwick’s note, like much of his activity at the ABC, is part of the ABC executive’s determination to be seen to be doing something about balance – brought about by persistent carping from Richard Alston and John Howard (neither of Alston’s successors, Daryl Williams and Helen Coonan, had anything approaching Alston’s problems with the ABC).

The ABC’s election coverage was not usually the problem in the eyes of the Coalition leadership. Indeed, ABC Local Radio, which unlike commercial radio in regional areas takes current affairs and local issues seriously, tends to provide a platform for conservative local MPs that would otherwise be struggling to be heard. It was the general coverage of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs in between elections that got people like Alston angry, although his 68 complaints about its Iraq War coverage in 2003 was directly prompted by Russell Balding cancelling the ABC Kids multichannel without telling him first.

To the extent that Chadwick reinforces internal structures that further encourage the ABC’s quality journalism, all power to him, but he and ABC management should understand that in trying hard to look balanced to the Coalition, they are on a hiding to nothing.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ABC’s corporate area worked hard to improve its accountability and transparency to government – integrating its corporate plan and annual report, harmonising its data collection to provide better time series data, and being more upfront about its failures. There was still a basic problem that the ABC didn’t seem to know quite how much each of its programs cost, but by 2002, it was producing high quality annual reports that were frank, clear and provided considerable data about the ABC’s efficiency and effectiveness.

And while there were no disputes between the Government and the ABC, the Government was willing to acknowledge the improvements. But as soon as a problem cropped up, the Government reverted to its reflexive ABC-bashing. The openness of its annual reports would then became a tool for the Government to use, with media leaks about damaging information, which was inevitably described as “the ABC has been forced to concede that…”

The ABC Kids/Iraq War complaints dissolved any remaining goodwill between the Government and the ABC, even after Alston left in September 2003. The ABC was willing to negotiate a genuinely independent complaints handling panel with the Government, but discussions foundered on the fact that the Government didn’t want to nominate (or pay for) independent members, for fear of it being seen as a Government-stacked panel it couldn’t disown if it found in favour of the ABC.

With Labor back in power, that simply means that the ABC will cop it from both sides rather than just one. Indeed, even Bob Brown joined in last year, criticising the ABC’s bias – admitted in Chadwick’s note – toward the major parties.

Meantime, the ABC Board continues to “run a little light”. Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy has yet to announce the long-promised ABC/SBS board appointments process or new ABC Board members.

Disclosure: Bernard Keane formerly worked in the National Broadcasting area of the then-Department of Communications.