“We believe ABC News got it wrong,” Media Watch host Paul Barry declared on ABC1 last night, “and if so it needs to admit it.”

That assessment has heaped more pressure on the ABC to apologise for how it reported allegations that the Australian navy wilfully burnt the hands of asylum seekers by forcing them to hold onto hot pipes, given growing doubts about the alleged version of events. A senior ABC source told Crikey Media Watch‘s analysis was “pretty fair”, and would no doubt contribute to the internal discussions the ABC board and management are having on the issue.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated yesterday he wanted an apology from the ABC. He told The Australian that though media outlets make mistakes from time to time, “a news outlet’s credibility is enhanced, not diminished, by acknowledging the error, correcting it and apologising for the offence caused”.

The question of an apology has divided opinion among friends and foes of the broadcaster. Former Media Watch executive producer David Salter defends the ABC, saying if management made a mistake it’s in being overly slow and cautious in defending the story. Previous Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes disagrees, telling Crikey that while the ABC wasn’t necessarily wrong in broadcasting the allegations, the manner in which it did so didn’t meet its editorial standards.

Salter says reporters “were careful to point out they were reporting the allegations”. “That is a basic journalistic device that’s legitimately employed when you don’t have the means or opportunity to find a primary source. Every journalist knows it doesn’t cease to be a story because you can’t find an eyewitness,” he told Crikey.

“These stories were part of a pretty conventional journalistic genre where you have to report the allegations of a third party. As long as you say they are allegations, there’s nothing to apologise for. You can be honestly mistaken, and that will be reported. Eventually the truth will out.”

But Holmes says while the ABC’s scripted news programs were careful in their phrasing of the story, some of its radio and talkback programs played it far closer to the line. “I thought [ABC Indonesia correspondent] George Roberts had gone too far, but on the whole, I thought it was fairly sombre reporting. But for Media Watch to come to its conclusion, it would have looked at a lot more than I did,” he said.

Holmes says that as the story has developed, he’s unclear where that leaves the allegations on which the ABC originally reported.

“I don’t think the ABC necessarily have to apologise for reporting. The allegations were out there, and the navy wasn’t countering them at that point. But when the ABC returned to the story, it then aired interviews that said the burns were sustained after a tussle involving capsicum spray, which saw the asylum seekers accidentally get burnt,” he said.

“… discussion of an apology is now impossible to have without reference to the political situation surrounding the ABC.”

“I’m not clear whether that version of events has replaced the original allegations. As far as I understand, from reporting in The Australian, there are still some people from a different boat sticking to the original claim. So, those claims are still out there, and to my understanding they still haven’t been addressed. I think the reporting has been sloppy.”

The ABC source says discussion of an apology is now impossible to have without reference to the political situation surrounding the ABC. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said on radio that many believed “the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own”, and has since announced an inquiry into the efficiency of the ABC.

Salter says the ABC could have done more to defend the story, particularly in light of the political situation. “I think the ABC is notoriously bad at responding to concerted political pressure and pressure from their colleagues in the media. They crouch into this defensive position much too soon,” he said.

In this, Salter applauds ABC boss Mark Scott for “holding the line”. Yesterday, the ABC’s editor-in-chief said criticism of the ABC was “not fair and not correct”, adding it was an important story for the ABC to report.

Holmes says issuing an apology would be difficult in this charged environment. “It has now become very hard for them to back down … And with News Corp pushing this so hard for their own reasons, with their army of columnists, it pushes the ABC to be more defensive of itself,” he said.

“That’s why I think Media Watch was pretty brave to make the call it did. It certainly won’t be popular within the ABC.”

If an apology is politically impossible, Holmes says what the ABC can do is pursue the truth surrounding the original allegation.

Of course, both Salter and Holmes point out that the pressure being put on the ABC to correct itself vastly outweighs the pressure put on other media outlets. “Obviously, if you compare this to some of the reporting from News Limited, for them to be accusing the ABC of bias is kind of laughable,” Holmes said. “But we do hold the ABC to a higher standard, and frankly, it should be held to a higher standard.”

But journalism, Salter said, is always a “slather and whack occupation”: “Some of us might present to operate at a higher ethical level. But day-to-day, it’s a pretty rough-and-tumble world.”


The ABC has issued a statement on its reporting, acknowledging that the wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise. The statement read:

“The video obtained exclusively by the ABC, showing asylum seekers with burns, along with reports that Indonesian police were investigating the matter, raised further important questions… The video also established that the injuries were real. This was a significant development.

The ABC’s initial reports on the video said that the vision appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims. That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point. We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims. The ABC has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation.”

The full statement is on the ABC website.