Two ABC audits have found no widespread bias in the national broadcaster's news coverage. But a clean bill of health for the ABC is unlikely to soothe its detractors. Last December, ABC chairman James Spigelman said the public broadcaster would begin conducting four audits a year looking for bias in its news coverage. Spigelman told the National Press Club:
"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. Every news and current affairs program endeavours to ensure balance, whilst avoiding the pitfall of irrelevant dullness."
This morning, the first two reviews were released, and they pose little to worry about for the public broadcaster. One of this morning's audits, by the BBC's former chief editorial policy adviser Andrea Wills, dealt with ABC radio's coverage of the 2013 election. While it made some suggestions, it concluded that the ABC had done no wrong:
"On the whole interviewers asked well-informed and relevant questions that their audience would reasonably expect to hear, and they were robust and consistent in their dealings with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. I have to say that it was impossible to detect any actual ‘pre-judgement’ or personal positions of interviewers in this sample. "Finally, I concluded that the 23 items analysed for this editorial audit were duly impartial within themselves and complied with Section 4 of the ABC’s Editorial Policies."
Another audit, by former SBS director (and Coalition appointee) Gerald Stone, dealt with the ABC's coverage of asylum seekers on Lateline and 7.30. This review was more critical -- finding four reports (out of a total 97 examined) where editorial standards appeared to have lapsed -- but it also cleared the ABC of biased reporting on the issue in its conclusion:
"In the course of this audit I have routinely checked for indicators of bias as typical TV viewers might believe they have detected it. Were interviewers tougher on some and notably softer on others? Did there appear to be an uneven distribution of time given to one topic or another? One political side or another? To academics and other expert commentators espousing humanitarian views as opposed to those more concerned with the practical need to protect Australia’s borders and deter people from resorting to people smugglers? "As an independent observer, I found no grounds for concern in any of those measurements. "The overall coverage of both programs included as wide a range of opinions as practical. Meanwhile, the air time given to any particular topic was in keeping with the newsworthiness of the asylum seeker debate as it progressed through the weeks nominated for this audit."
Most concerning to Stone was a 2012 Lateline report in which Helen Brown visited an impoverished Indonesian fishing village, home to people smugglers held in Australian jails. "The segment appeared to have only one purpose -- to exploit the bias of imagery to evoke sympathy for crew members of people-smuggling vessels," Stone wrote. He also criticised the interview with the people smugglers' lawyer, who he said made dubious claims without being questioned on them. "It portrayed them -- without any semblance of proof -- as frequently misled as to their real mission and too naive to understand why they are offered more money for one voyage than the average Indonesian fisherman makes in a year," he wrote. ABC news director Kate Torney accepted the criticism that more scrutiny should have been applied. Another Lateline story came in for criticism from for supporting the claim that Australia's treatment of Tamil refugees is so inhumane that it should not sit on the UN Security Council (Stone said many countries with far worse human rights records sat on the council). Another segment, aired on 7.30, was deemed not to have made it clear that a Tamil asylum seeker's claims about being tortured by Sri Lankan intelligence officers had not been proven, with the asylum seeker himself saying he couldn't be sure who tortured him. Stone said the story should have used the word "alleged" in relation to the claim -- the program responded that it wouldn't have fit its conversational style. Another segment, also with Tamil asylum seekers, did not probe their responses enough, Stone wrote. Stone's review only considered reports aired from August 2012 and December 2013. This means the most controversial ABC story on the issue -- George Roberts' piece reporting claims that the Australian navy had burnt the hands of asylum seekers en route to Indonesia -- was not examined in the audit. It aired on January 22 this year. Spigelman has welcomed both audits, saying they showed "95% of the content examined attracted no criticism or concern":
"Consistent with other processes, these reviews have once again demonstrated that against the background of thousands of stories produced ... The error rate is quite small."
The next review, the chairman revealed, will be into how well the ABC's daily radio programs cover the issues that matter to their audiences. Michael Gawenda, a research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, says it's no wonder the ABC is happy with the result. "And why wouldn't they be? The radio review basically said everything was hunky dory. The other one found four programs had some problems. But even with those, once the reviewer went back and spoke to the executive producers, there were explanations for a lot of the problems," he said. This raises another question. The audits were released by the ABC, and while the people writing them weren't ABC employees, how much can we trust reviews commissioned by the organisation being reviewed? Matthew Ricketson, professor of journalism at the University of Canberra, says that self-scrutiny doesn't come easily to many people, and that's especially true for media organisations. Nonetheless, he told Crikey: "The ABC does it better than any other mainstream media organisation in this country." Will this be enough for the ABC's critics? Gawenda reckons: not a chance. But Ricketson thinks we shouldn't be so cynical. "The ABC's critics are not a monolithic group. A large news organisation will always have critics because of the sheer volume of material created, because of the difficulties of creating journalism against tight deadlines and because of the contentious subject matter that serious journalism necessarily delves into," he said. "Open-minded critics will, I believe, welcome the ABC's commitment to reviewing and improving its practices. Close-minded critics of the ABC will find material that is grist to their mill.  As Daniel Okrent, former public editor of The New York Times, once put it: such people are able to identify all biases except their own."