An ABC apology to Coalition front-bencher Scott Morrison over claims he pandered to racist attitudes towards asylum seekers has re-launched debate about the public broadcaster’s forays into opinion and commentary.

On Monday night’s episode of panel show The Drum, ABC economics correspondent Stephen Long said he believed the opposition’s stance on Australia’s border security was “a cynical manipulation of an underlying prejudice in the Australian community and that it has very little policy merit”.

He later said: “I think Scott Morrison in particular as a spokesman in this area has just pushed way beyond acceptability in a way that he is willing to pander and manipulate that level of prejudice in what is essentially a racist manner.”

Last night The Drum‘s host Steve Cannane apologised to Morrison, saying the comments questioned Morrison’s “motives and integrity” and “were clearly inappropriate for an ABC journalist to make”.

Crikey understands some ABC staff  believe the ABC could have stuck by Long’s comments given some of Morrison’s controversial statements about asylum seekers. These include warning that asylum seekers arriving by boat may spread communicable diseases and questioning the appropriateness of using taxpayers’ dollars to fly relatives of victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck to attend a funeral ceremony.

ABC boss Mark Scott would not comment on Long’s specific comments this morning. But he told Crikey his advice to ABC journalists was simple: “Provide insight and analysis where you can and when you can’t, don’t. You shouldn’t be delving into the realm of personal opinion.

“ABC journalists have been offering analysis for over a decade now on Insiders. They’re not meant to be presenting personal opinions. That’s in the guidelines; everyone understands that. The people who tend to be most upset when lines are crossed are other members of staff.”

The ABC’s editorial guidelines for news and current affairs state:

“Context, analysis and comment included in news and current affairs content should be backed by demonstrable evidence, and based on the professional expertise and judgement of staff and not on personal opinion. The public expression of personal opinions of staff has no place in news and current affairs content.”

Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says that Long’s comments were “dodgy” and “way over the line”, but he doesn’t agree with Scott that the ABC’s distinction between opinion and analysis is clear enough.

Holmes questioned the distinction between opinion and analysis in 2009 and said he stands by that view.

“The whole business of putting ABC journalists in a position of expressing a personal position is dangerous,” he said. “Going on The Drum is taking a risk. Someone like Annabel [Crabb] is bright enough to navigate the shoals. You’ll always be torn between expressing an opinion and saying nothing.”

Holmes says he doesn’t believe ABC Radio National host Fran Kelly, for example, should be appearing on programs such as Insiders.

Kelly attracted some attention last year for saying on Insiders that she supports efforts to put a price on carbon.

Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age, told Crikey: “The distinction between opinion and analysis has never been spelt out and I don’t think it can be. In my view, all analysis is a form of opinion. If the ABC still thinks there is a line between opinion and analysis they should spell out where it is.”

Gawenda believes the ABC should be allocating resources to news reporting and investigative journalism — not commentary for The Drum website or television program.

“Stephen is a terrific finance reporter. Whether he should be commentating on areas outside his expertise is another question. I think not,” Gawenda said.

“One of the problem with programs like The Drum is that it’s journalists talking to themselves. If you want to cover these issues have people with policy expertise and people working in the area — not journos talking among themselves.”

Morrison’s complaint to the ABC was sparked by a blog post by conservative News Limited commentator Andrew Bolt. He later tweeted that he was satisfied with the ABC’s apology.

Stephen Long declined to comment when contacted by Crikey today.

Peter Fray

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