Editorial independence is little more than a noble concept sitting on a shelf until it is put to the test.
Yesterday the chairman of the ABC, Australia’s most important independent media organisation, took the concept off the shelf, placed it on the floor and trampled all over it with muddy boots.
In a speech that has become very public, Maurice Newman told senior ABC staff that the media — including the ABC — had displayed “group-think” on the subject of climate change, describing it as an example “where contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked”.
Later in the day, in an interview with ABC Radio’s PM program, he elaborated his views in the personal context of being a climate sceptic:
“… Climate change is at the moment an emotional issue but it really is the fundamental issue about the need to bring voices that have authority and are relevant to the particular issue to the attention of our audiences so that they themselves can make decisions … Many of the people who have a different point of view on the climate science are respectable and credentialed scientists themselves … I am an agnostic and I have always been an agnostic and I will remain an agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me. I think that what seems fairly clear to me is that the climate science is still being developed. There are a lot question marks about some of the fundamental data which has been used to build models that requires caution …”
Coming out of the mouth of the most senior person in the organisation, Newman’s comments are a direct and visceral attack on the professionalism of the ABC’s journalists. They are a direct attack on the elaborate notion of editorial independence at the ABC — which is laid out in hundreds of pages of documents and policies. And they are a grotesque distortion of the role of the chairman of an independent broadcaster.
Newman — a former stockbroker and businessman with no professional experience as a journalist or broadcaster — has not only insulted the editorial judgement of his senior staff, he has used warped logic to do it.
Given his argument that “I … will remain an agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me”, imagine if instead of climate change he had used another topical subject — atheism –as his example of “media group-think”. Under the Newman doctrine, ABC journalists would now be systematically skewing their coverage of traditional religion “to bring voices that have authority and are relevant to the particular issue to the attention of our audiences so that they themselves can make decisions”. What kind of furore would that cause?
With just one speech, the ABC’s chairman has returned the national broadcaster to the days of having a politically interventionist board running a culture wars agenda — and he has done it by trashing the editorial independence of some of this country’s finest journalists.
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