The ABC has moved to tackle concerns of bias in its news and current affairs programs by calling in external auditors to review coverage of contentious topics such as asylum seekers. The broadcaster will also commission detailed polling to ensure it is covering the stories, such as electricity price rises, that ordinary Australians are interested in.
In his most significant speech since being appointed ABC chairman last year, James Spigelman told the National Press Club today:
"Since my appointment I have naturally been concerned with the frequency of allegations of a lack of impartiality. I do not accept that it is systematic, but I do accept that it sometimes occurs ... We are not always as good as our most ardent supporters suggest, nor as bad as our most vocal critics assert."
As a response to the allegations, Spigelman announced the ABC board has adopted a new initiative:
"The ABC will produce and publish a series of editorial audits on particular program topics, by persons of relevant experience who are not employed by the ABC."
The first audit -- already underway -- will probe the impartiality of all interviews on ABC Radio of Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd during the recent election campaign. That audit is being prepared by former BBC journalist Andrea Wills. The second audit will focus on the ABC's treatment of the asylum seeker debate. Spigelman did not speculate on further areas for review in his speech, but the ABC's coverage of climate change is a possibility. So is the partnership between the ABC and The Guardian
on a recent story about Australian spying in Indonesia.
It will be fascinating to see whether ABC critics, including commentator Andrew Bolt and Liberal Party Senator Cory Bernardi, welcome the initiative or seize upon its existence as evidence of bias.
In Spigelman's speech, the former judge also called on journalists to connect with the concerns of the general public rather those of an educated elite:
"The allegations of bias are, I believe, more often a function of the topics chosen for reporting, than of the content. Journalists -- all of you, not just those at the ABC -- tend to have a social and educational background, perhaps particularly in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, that may make them more interested in, say, gay marriage than, say, electricity prices. As a public broadcaster we must endeavour to engage with those sections of our community who are concerned with the latter."
To do this the ABC will work with a leading research team to provide systematic briefings to staff on the issues important to Australians. Spigelman also took aim at conservative commentators who are calling for the ABC to be privatised:
"I am bemused when I notice that some of the critics who wish to tear down this long-lived institution call themselves 'conservative' ... In the case of a 'privatised' ABC, the services would be unrecognisable. To use the word 'privatise' is an Orwellian corruption of language. A commercial mono-culture in the media will either not deliver the broad range of content that public broadcasters have traditionally delivered, or will not deliver such content to the whole community."