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TV & Radio

Dec 11, 2013

Editorial audit: ABC calls in outsiders for news bias probe

ABC chairman James Spigelman says external auditors will vet Aunty for editorial bias, while journalists will be instructed how to report on issues that matter more widely to the general public. But will that satisfy vocal ABC critic Andrew Bolt?


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.”


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47 thoughts on “Editorial audit: ABC calls in outsiders for news bias probe

  1. Limited News

    Here is an example of the ABC pulling its punches in coverage of the Abbott govt: 7pm ABC News in Canberra dropped the childcare funding announcement to a filler item after the finance report…. every other news outlet thought it was a top-ranking story.

  2. Alex

    Do you think News Limited, or Andrew Bolt et al, might put themselves under a similar audit? Not likely!

    BTW, please note, that the ABC telecast Rupert Murdoch’s Lowy Institue Lecture when no other free-to-air did. They also heavily promoted it prior to the event, and afterwards on their website and it’s still available to listen and download. Not bad for a “baised” entity, given that Rupert’s one of their most ardent critics.

  3. SusieQ

    To be fair, Limited News, its been a big news week and the govt did announce the changes on the same day as the Mandela memorial service, plus, here in Melbourne, a couple of other big local stories.
    I hope the constant whining by Blot and Co has not bought about this review, otherwise he might start to think he is important.

  4. Bort

    I wouldn’t be shocked if it was found that the ABC had a right wing bias despite all the bleating from Bolt et al.

    They weren’t very hard hitting towards the Coalition in the lead up to the last election, possibly out of fear of what was to come with the obvious Coalition victory.

  5. klewso

    I hope they’re going to look at “bias” across their stable.
    We can get Murdoch’s Conservative protection racket/”tabloid entertainment” from his Limited News and his Con-troll freaks.

  6. mikeb

    Convention says you never call for a review unless you already know the findings. The ABC is in a no-win situation. If bias is found those claims will be validated – if no, or limited bias is found, then those who oppose the ABC will call it a white-wash. Hacks like the Bolter and Knakerman won’t change their tune, and the Govt will continue to look for reasons to stick the boot in. On top of that having an ex BBC’er in charge of the 1st audit will be a red flag for the conservatives. Nothing short of Rupert himself would have been considered trustworthy in their eyes.

  7. Itsarort

    I consider myself to be an ‘ordinary Australian’. I like Chev Impalas, burnouts, Summer Nats, beer (lotsa beer…), Rugby, horse racing, Vivaldi, violin concertos, target shooting, Umberto Eco, William Blake, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas,… and Aunty. Do we have to be Nietzsche’s ‘botched and bungled’ to be an ordinary Australian. WTF is Bolt’s problem?!

  8. Suziekue

    I’d like to see News Ltd man up and conduct an independent audit of the same issues as the ABC audit will cover, and then to publish the results unadulterated.

  9. Dion Giles

    In a review called for by News Ltd (and you can bet your shirt this one has been) “bias” will consist of covering views and issues the company would rather not be covered and not covering views and issues the company would rather rather be covered.

    If the audit is dinkum in focusing on electricity prices it will seek a thorough review – e.g. on Four Corners – of ALL the inputs into rising electricity prices to the householder. Not just the carbon price.

  10. JimDocker

    Bolt was on The Insiders until he left under his own steam.
    Nicki Savva, Piers Ackerman, Gerard Henderson… are all still regular contributors.

    Look through the list of contributors on The Drum website to see the wide range of views allowed as op-eds.

  11. Suzanne Blake

    Any balanced auditor, will not have to dig at all to find bias, and indeed rampant biase at the ABC.

    They key is……is the auditor a quick coverup patsy or someone who will be genuine and honest.

    Will be interesting to see

  12. Suzanne Blake

    Look at how the ABC did NOT cover the Judgement in Melbourne this week on the AWU / Gillard / Slater & Gordon matter , where the Judge called it “fraud”

    Any other time a non Green / Labor PM or former PM would have been mentioned, accused etc of fraud, the ABC would be all over it.

  13. klewso

    “Experts” like Downer, Reith and Vanstone, regularly sought out for their unchallenged views, softly elicited without reference to their embarrassing “personal hisTories”? As if the epitome of “the Right stuff”.

  14. Tom from Sydney

    News Limited, a private broadcaster, should not be compared with the ABC, a publicly funded broadcaster. End of story.

  15. klewso

    Leaving aside their market domination and their influence on public/voter perceptions, they have PCPs and such but they don’t have to comply with them?

  16. Dion Giles

    By the same token, Tom of Sydney, the setting of criteria for and conduct of an inquiry into a public broadcaster should be as open to public scrutiny as the setting of criteria for and conduct of any inquiry into a private broadcaster. There has already been more than one public inquiry into the same private broadcaster who exercises as much authority over public life in Britain as in Australia. We Australians are lagging! It’s not “end of story” at all.

  17. bluepoppy

    The ABC does a pretty good job at bipartisanship. Probably the only exception would be the climate change debate as far as documentary programming. However the criticism against the ABC from the Left and Right is pretty even (if Twitter is any indication) and probably means it is doing it’s job. Given the tribal nature of Aus politics, the ABC is considered biased depending on which politician is getting a grilling.

  18. Suzanne Blake

    Examples of ABC Bias would take a few weeks to put together, but here is a start:

    1. Insiders program, with ex Bob Hawke host and a skewed left panel every week, always host and two lefties, sometimes three lefties. You had to laugh one week, when the host was interviewng a Labor Minister just before the election and the host said “We…. I mean the Labor”

    2. Q&A Host always tougher on the non lefties. The tweets displays are 95% left leaning

  19. Jim Wright

    I was a foundation member of the Victorian Branch of the Friends of the ABC and was on the Committee at the time (1996 or thereabouts) when Senator Richard Alston launched a huge and largely unwarranted attack on the ABC, alleging all sorts of bias. Later, Bob Mansfield was asked to conduct an independent inquiry into the matter. With regard to the bias question, he found very little evidence, but he did raise a few issues about management processes. One example of the bias which Alston raised was that the labour spokesperson was given much more time than the liberal. This turned out to be true. However, the discrepancy arose because the labour spokesperson was a great waffler, while his opposing counterpart was much more succinct. Both sides were able to present their case to their satisfaction.
    There have been many allegations that the ABC favours the left wing of politics. In one sense this is true, but only if you define the left wing as seeing what is wrong with the world and wants to improve it, while the right wing sees what is right and wants to protect it.
    I cannot speak for the ABC now, but when i was in contact with some of their people, the consensus semed to be that the role of hte ABC was to hold up a mirror to the nation, so that everyone was aware of how things were and what was happening.

  20. Tom from Sydney

    Dion Giles, I will spell it out for you. Political bias is acceptable when a broadcaster is not owned by the taxpayers. However, it is not acceptable when the broadcaster is owned by the taxpayers. Am I going too fast for you?

  21. Joel

    Yeah, like Andrew Bolt is going to let a mere study get in the way of his beliefs.

  22. Are you free?

    There may be the odd journalist who displays a socialist/activist bias, but the systematic bias from the top is in a conservative direction. For example, in one interview prior to the election, the chief LNP Salesperson (on 7.30) treated Senator Milne like a criminal, shrieking at her and cutting her off before Milne was able to answer questions. The viewer could have been forgiven for thinking that Sales was an LNP, rather than ABC, employee. She was, in consequence, treating all the citizens who voted Green with contempt. Sales and Uhlmann have behaved completely unprofessionally on numerous occasions, such that I don’t waste my time with their partisan drivel any more.

    There has obviously been a concerted corporate media campaign since Abbott became LNP leader to bring down the democratically elected Labor government and to “destroy the Greens”. The Slipper and Thomson travesties of justice are examples of the lengths to which this cabal will go for power. For the truth I recommend reading Independent Australia.

    The other reason for the anti-ABC campaign to be running at present is that the Abbott Government is completely out of its depth in so many areas. Hence the attempt to distract the public from the serial incompetence damaging our national interests that has Abbott’s dabs all over it.

  23. klewso

    Conservatives revel in discomfort for Labor created by Conservative media – but aren’t they thin-skinned when called upon to answer questions themselves by anyone with the temerity to question their “Right to Rule Regardless”?

  24. klewso

    As for “bias” – all one has to do is check that list of employees, and what they’ve gone on to post-ABC, compiled by Crikey earlier this year.
    Sarah Henderson, for one, sits behind Abbott in camera shot in parliament.

  25. David Hand

    It’s clear to me that any inquiry into bias at the ABC will find that there is no bias.

    It’s a no-brainer really.

    This is because the terms of reference will focus on actual words spoken on actual news programmes. It will not for example, explore why no one, absolutely no one inside the ABC wants to stop the boats. Or get rid of the carbon tax. Or is concerned that our intelligence services have been completely stuffed in Indonesia.

  26. condel

    No matter, appoint people who have some expertise. That’s code for review expertise and where sympathetic to being even handed (right wing) – just pass, like a US jury selection.

    The cries of ABC bias after tha fact is a better thing to defend than to write about a news hit job – on the back foot. be outlandish, ask for Geoffery Robbertson, Malcom faizer, the high court guy who came down with marbo…………………………………….even the UN guy Goldstone, he can’t be bought.,

    Ask Chomsky for a referal.

  27. mikeb

    @suzanne blake. If you actually believe that you are severely deluded. What you are saying is demonstrably wrong – but don’t let facts get in the way of a rant.

  28. Suzanne Blake

    @ mikeb

    Everyone knows the ABC bias, when you raise it, the lefties raise Murdoch etc. Thats fine. What is not fine, is that the ABC is 100% taxpayer funded and therefore they have a special obligation to be completely impartial, balanced, informative / balanced and not biased. They fail miserably on all three counts now, when it comes to political, current affairs and science related programs, and do a good job with rural and sporting related programs.

    The ABC review will be a whitewash, they will limit the scope and select a panel that will assist with the outcome. Its needs a FULLY independent review. This won’t happen.

  29. katas

    Would be foolish to attack our ABC especially at present when this government is in such a shambles; but with this assortment of oddbobs anything could happen-nothing would be surprising from the righteous of the far right.

  30. Merve

    I love to see an audit of all media outlets.

  31. Suzanne Blake

    @ Merve

    “I love to see an audit of all media outlets.”

    Go for it. I just care about a fair / thorough audit of the Australian media outlets that AUSTRALIAN TAXPAYERS fund 100%.

  32. alan speers

    Right on Merve.

  33. Dion Giles

    Tom from Sydney’s line has much in common with that of the libertarians: Big bully government, or nanny state, must not be allowed to limit the freedom of predators to abridge the rights of their prey. Say a very influential predator’s power interests require that the city burn down. Fire-fighters and arsonists would form sides. The predator would buy influence (lobbying, publishing. heavying the networks) to invent a pattern of “facts” favouring arson and reach into every home with a relentless drumbeat of lies. But fire-fighters would insistently broadcast the truth. An infuriating buzzing, using news outlets the fire-fighters don’t even own and control, drat their cheek. The solution: muzzle them. Set up an inquisition, measuring the fire-fighters’ outlet against the criteria set by the predator. Declare that it falls short. Use purchased influence on government to curb it.

    But that’s paranoia. surely. Nobody would want to demonise the vocal fire-fighters and lie the community into burning the city down. No? Think of the role of News Ltd in Britain, America and Australia in lying up a blitzkrieg on Iraq. Think of the demonising of Andrew Wilkie, and the BBC, and the whole French nation, and the “suiciding” of Dr David Kelly, as News Ltd’s torrent of lies flooded relentlessly across the world.

    The state has a responsibility to defend, first and foremost, unfettered community access to the truth. No matter who owns what. End of story

  34. oldskool

    @ Suzanne Blake-
    The ABC in reality should have no requirement to be ‘balanced’- merely to be accurate and evidence based in its reporting. For example, the overwhelmingly vast majority of scientists looking into global warming note that a) it is real, and b) it is man made; therefore the ABC should not be required to be ‘balanced’ because their is no balance. It is not unlike ensuring that creationists and flat earthers get their say on an these issues.

    What you seem to be asking for is a logical fallacy- ‘the false middle’ this would be neither informative, nor accurate and not worthy of pbulic funding.

    Your biggest problem is summed up in the old adage-
    ‘reality has a distinct left-wing bias’…

  35. Suzanne Blake

    @ oldskool

    Do you know what makes the World go round? Yes Money
    Most of these scientists have their snouts in thr trough to pickup extra cash from Governments and others around Global Warming.

    Remember Tim Flanney (the $200k a year for 3 days work a week Gillard / Rudd ‘scientist’ who had a waterfront on the Hawkesbury River) – “Sydney’s Dam would be dry by 2009”, the silly Labor Government spent billions on the de-sal plant that has never been used and costs $20m a month to maintain. The Dam has overflowed many time since then.

    It is a left wing conspiracy.

    The latest evidence is that the global temperatures in the last 15 years have not risen and are within 0.1 degree of the 1998 readings.

    The lefties are pushing global warming, as its their agenda.
    Same with wind farms, that cause medical issues for people living close to them, not to mention the 1000’s of birds killed.

    Look at the Labor solar scheme, costing the rest of electricity consumers $300 a year in increases to power bills.

    Please take an open view.

  36. klewso

    Too Right.
    What this country needs is less diversity of opinion and presentation of views of the news.
    What we need is greater concentration of information Con-troll – in the hands of fewer politically active media owners, with their particular primary interests and protection from negative PR.
    What we need is a viewsmedia dominated by less players, controlling dissemination of what they judge in the “public interest”.
    A media content to sit on Conservative cock-ups and willing to publicise and spin those of the Left.
    Influencing opinion so that we can all think the Right way and vote accordingly.
    “Freedom of the Right press” to spin news their way – without fear of contrary ideas.
    Because the Right is always.
    What we need is a grater Murdochracy.
    And a blissful ignorance of why “foreigners” might look at us askance?

  37. klewso

    Joe Kelly – NPC – after attacking the ABC for it’s irresponsibility – if that story about the bugging of the Indonesians had come to light during Labor’s tenure would your Australian have sat or run on it?
    I think we all know the answer to that.

  38. oldskool

    LOL @ Suzanne,

    Standaerd rightard lunacy- Scientists are only saying it for the money…

    Meanwhile, any ‘scientist’ who has offered something even remotely approaching a reasonable argument- generally disproven within hours, is funded by oil companies.
    But, they’re not in it for the money- no, they are hero’s!

    The latest evidence shows that the warming is being absorbed by the ocean, to a greater extent than expected.

    Grow up.

  39. Suzanne Blake


    “Scientists are only saying it for the money…”

    Yes you are right. With the cutbacks at Uni’s and the CSIRO etc and other similar public service establishments globally, these scientists need to find alternative income sources, so they go for low hanging fruit and jump on the global warming bandwagon.

    They are paid for by Governments,left wing UN, some corporate etc. The ABC laps it up.

    Look at Flannery – massive pay for 3 days a week.

  40. Adrian Watkins

    I’m really concerned that ABC management has allowed itself to be sucked in by the likes of Andrew Bolt. Fancy conducting a review because of his criticism! Wear it like a badge of honour, I suggest, & save the tax payers’ dollars.

  41. Suzanne Blake

    Hi @Adrian Watkins

    Unsure what Bolt is saying, wasn’t he ex ABC and / or ex Labor staffer?

    In any case, the bias at the ABC is rampant, and deep. Look at how many ex ABC staffers are Green / Labor MP’s or ex Green / Labor MP’s or how many use to work for the Labor Party and or Greens.

    The rampant bias at the ABC is probably being investigated because its is such a commonly held view now, and because with a 100% taxpayer funded entity, its not appropriate use of taxpayers money.

  42. Jimmyhaz


    The ABC is only deeply biased in the minds of the lunatics that occupy the extreme right wing in Australia. In reality, they are the most trusted news source we have for a reason, for the quality and breadth of coverage that they offer.

    The public holding a majority opinion is not a reason to do something, ever, we have a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy for a reason, as these people are supposed to do things for the benefit of every member of the public, rather than those privileged enough to be born into the majority.

    Also, this ‘scientists are doing it for the money’ rubbish has to stop, there are order of magnitudes more money in denying climate change than their is in pushing it, even you can do that maths.

    Climate change is real, the ABC is as unbiased as they come, and the current government in power is atrocious. Welcome to reality, enjoy your stay.

  43. David Hand

    Well Jimmy,
    You display the classic defence of the ABC bias by making an argument that few people disagree with but which is a non sequitur.

    The ABC is most trusted because Commercial news and current affairs has sold out to infomercials, cross promotions, celebrity gossip and tabloid stories in its death-spiral chase for ratings. So the ABC can be more trusted and biased at the same time.

    The same can be said about your point re climate change. Few people disagree that the earth is warmer. The raging debate today is what policies to follow. We should argue about an ETS or direct action, not the CSIRO versus a token lunatic fringe sceptic which is normal practice at the ABC.

    Please name one ABC news and current affairs personality who believes the government’s direct action policy has merit. The previous government’s Carbon pricing scheme was a simple wealth transfer to Labor voters and nil extra money was actually channelled to green power generation. Please point out the ABC personality who has expressed any criticism of this outrageous wealth transferring bribe.

    Did you watch Barrie Cassidy’s soft focus interview with Peter Slipper during the election campaign where he allowed Slipper to blame Tony Abbott for his wife’s miscarriage and failed to ask one, only one penetrating question about Slipper’s conduct?

    You only think the ABC is unbiased because it shares your political views.

  44. Suzanne Blake

    @David Hand

    Very well said in your response to Jimmy McTernan.

  45. Suzanne Blake


    “The ABC is only deeply biased in the minds of the lunatics that occupy the extreme right wing in Australia. In reality, they are the most trusted news source we have for a reason, for the quality and breadth of coverage that they offer.”

    The ABC does have breadth of coverage – agreed, but is hopelessly filled with lefty wing and some extreme left wing journanlists, editors and script writers. You know that, everyone knows that. The inquiry they are having now is a scam, white wash and broom over, to look like they are investigating.

    Look at how many ABC journalists are ex ALP, ex Union, ex Green and how many LEAVE the ABC to become ALP of GREEN candidates and MP’s. Laughable you dont see that.

    “The public holding a majority opinion is not a reason to do something, ever, we have a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy for a reason, as these people are supposed to do things for the benefit of every member of the public, rather than those privileged enough to be born into the majority.”

    ….next you will be supporting State run media in North Korea or China?

    “Also, this ‘scientists are doing it for the money’ rubbish has to stop, there are order of magnitudes more money in denying climate change than their is in pushing it, even you can do that maths”.

    Incorrect, the bandwagon is with the paid climate change scientists.

    Dont forget, it was Global Warming until that lefty fraud was uncovered. They they quickly adapted to Climate Change.
    Its a fraud, look at how much has been spent and wasted on Green scheme, following lefty Governments using it as an excuse to shift money to their voters!!!.

    “Climate change is real, the ABC is as unbiased as they come, and the current government in power is atrocious. Welcome to reality, enjoy your stay.”

    Live 20 years ago, when Keating was found out and left a $98b deficit and the new Government had to cut back to fund savings, the same will have to happen now, the current Government will be unpopular as it cuts and then Labor will come in again and history will repeat. However, I think now, voters can see the cycle and what is happening.

    Happy New Year

  46. mikeb

    “next you will be supporting State run media in North Korea or China?”

    That’s what we’ll get as old favours are called in …… and our dear leader will be Rupert Murdock.

    Welcome to a future where the only Australian news and opinion you’ll see outside of the internet will be as directed and advised by a US citizen and his acolytes. What’s more – we’ll have to pray for the privilege.

  47. mikeb

    “we’ll have to pray for the privilege”. I meant pay – but then maybe pray is appropriate as well.

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