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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 comments

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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.

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