What’s in a Twitter hashtag? An example of institutional ABC bias, according to one Liberal Party senator, sparking a new debate on news and social media.

ABC managing director Mark Scott undertook his regular Senate Estimates grilling yesterday, where he was questioned on everything from expenditure on Lego to the number of Tony Jones interruptions during political interviews on Lateline.

But Senator Mathias Cormann wanted to talk about budgies, of the smuggling variety, and the use of a Twitter hashtag from the ABC News account in reporting Tony Abbott’s Budget reply speech in parliament. The Liberal frothed:

“Are you suggesting that it is appropriate for the ABC to refer to statements by the leader of the opposition as #budgies? I would have thought there is a serious question mark there.”

Scott is looking into it. And his own social media guidelines are ambiguous about whether the @abcnews tweeter has erred in joining Twitter’s Abbott mockery.

Late last year Scott signed off on a new social media policy across all ABC wings, including four standards “the ABC will enforce … as and when appropriate”. They are:

  1. Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
  2. Do not undermine your effectiveness at work.
  3. Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.
  4. Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

The guidelines also reference the ABC’s editorial policies manual, which, on using the ABC brand, states: “Any such use must not undermine the actual or perceived independence or integrity of the ABC.”

Scott — a prolific Twitter user himself, who opted for the more bipartisan #ausbudget hashtag on Budget night — yesterday defended Aunty’s use of social media and need to remain searchable and relevant.

“The argument would have been made for people who were using that tag to search our for commentary around the Budget, that unless we used that tag we wouldn’t be found in that search engine,” he said.

But: “I appreciate that there may be questions as to whether that was an appropriate tag for ABC News to use, and we will look at it in that context.”

The Senate Estimates discussion, naturally, had Twitter talking. As Senator Cormann noted on his own Twitter account: “Turns out mentioning Twitter in #estimates gets people as excited as a bit of latin …”

Most Twits were ridiculing Cormann for his questions: “lighten up people,” said one; “get over it,” said another. Rhiannon Carter urged the ABC to “keep the #Budgies dream alive”.

But the real question for many is whether the ABC should be allowed to use a popular hashtag to reference its Twitter coverage. As one user asked: “Could [the] ABC be excluded from online debate because of ‘inappropriate’ Twitter #hashtags not of their making?”

Scott seems to suggest Aunty should go with the flow.

The ABC didn’t create the hashtag, he noted yesterday, and today on Twitter he points to a poll from @superopinion, which asked which hashtag tweeters wanted to use for Abbott’s Budget reply — #budgies, not surprisingly, won among the 37 people who responded. Does this justify its use?

Other news outlets such as CNN, BBC and SBS don’t seem to use this approach — they tend to play it straight by using their flagship twitter account as more of a traditional headline feed.

ABC News Online social media co-ordinator Gary Kemble — who created his own hashtag storm last week with #askabc — told Crikey today he couldn’t add to Scott’s comments from yesterday.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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