The term “objective reporting” is thrown around newsrooms and in public life as though it were a simple thing, easy to judge and obtain.
But recent events at the ABC have led to angst at the most senior levels, plus a great deal of internal soul searching about what it might mean in practice.
An official complaint has now been lodged with Auntie over the non-publication of an article by climate-change sceptic Marc Hendrickx that was commissioned by the opinion site The Drum.
Another climate change sceptic, Robert Carter, also had his piece rejected, but as he put it to me, has not lodged a complaint “for the simple reason that I don’t have the time to deal with it”.
Meanwhile, the upper echelons of the organisation are in a state of angst over what one person described as chairman Maurice Newman’s “big mouth”. In other words, his speech urging reporters to exercise balance on climate change.
It was a remarkable intervention, calculated to make life harder for the managing director and those responsible for editorial policies. People at senior levels within the organisation are, to put it mildly, discomfited.
For the chair of a major media organisation to speechify on a major political issue — and remember that this is the issue to which Opposition leader Tony Abbott owes his position — is extraordinary.
For the content makers of the ABC, it all presents a problem, and Newman has made finding solutions more difficult.
The ABC has the most exhaustive complaints mechanism of any Australian media organisation. That’s fair enough — part of the territory for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. Yet there is no doubt that whatever the outcome, such processes make it just that little bit harder to publish something you know will inspire complaint.
The effect is not so much chilling, as dulling. You publish or go to air in the knowledge that you have condemned yourself to spending a fair bit of the next few months of your life defending your decision in a bureaucratic process..
But more serious than this is the struggle to get clear guidelines on what IS balance on an issue such as climate change.
Is it necessary for the ABC to give climate-change sceptics equal space?
Or is doing so the equivalent of demanding that every evolutionist be balanced with a creationist, or every public health spokesperson with a person from the tobacco lobby?
Just how settled is the science, and how should journalists respond? What is the role of editorial judgement? These are the issues currently consuming people from top to bottom of the national broadcaster
One thing should be made clear. No political pressure is being brought to bear directly on the content makers. Reporter Greg Borschmann, who covered the Copenhagen climate change conference for Radio National, this week told me that if either he or his producers were given any directives about skewing their reporting “either explicit or nudge nudge, wink wink, I’d be the first to be shouting it from the rooftops. It hasn’t happened”.
Other ABC journalists and producers confirm that there have been no nudges, no winks and no directives.
And yet they want guidance on what, in this context, balance might mean.
The Hendrickx and Carter articles were commissioned by The Drum after it published this five-part series by Clive Hamilton on the rise of climate-change denialism.
I understand that the Drum rejected the Hendrickx and Carter pieces on editorial grounds. Carter’s piece was an attack on scientist James Hansen, who had that morning been interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program. The feeling was that the Fran Kelly interview had overtaken the Carter piece.
The Hendrickx piece was rejected on grounds of quality, I am told. Although that is somewhat more colourfully expressed by my sources.
Now, thanks to the complaint from Hendrickx (one of many, I believe) both those editorial decisions will be held up to question and sifted through.
What constitutes balance on climate change?
Providing guidance on such things is the job of Paul Chadwick, the director of editorial policies, who is currently engaged in revising and simplifying the organisation’s policies.
But any new policies or guidance on this issue will presumably have to be signed off by the board.
The board chaired by Maurice Newman.
What on earth did he think he was doing?