The ABC is the most scrutinised media outlet in the country, and within the ABC, perhaps nothing is more scrutinised than the balance of its coverage.

But balance is a tricky thing to achieve. The ABC’s editorial policies require it to achieve editorial balance, and its guidance notes on the subject spend much time going through what this means in theory. But when Crikey grilled current and former ABC journos on what balance constituted in a particular case, the consensus quickly splintered.

The issue has again flared with the ABC’s treatment of its former technology editor Nick Ross, dragged into the spotlight after Ross took redundancy from the public broadcaster. In a meeting in 2013 that Ross secretly (and perhaps illegally) recorded, ABC current affairs head Bruce Belsham directs Ross to write a story critiquing some aspect of Labor’s NBN plan before he would publish a piece critical of the Coalition’s plan. The conversation has since been leaked to and transcribed by New Matilda, which described it as showing a clear example of “false balance”.

According to the transcript of the conversation published by New Matilda, Belsham told Ross that given recent stories had been critical of the Coalition’s NBN plan, it would be good for Ross to write something to provide “insurance” against allegations of bias.

“Just in terms about the latest piece [which is critical of the Coalition plan], I don’t have anything per se in terms of objections to the piece, but … what I would suggest, to give yourself a bit of capacity to be able to do a few more of these is to, to just turn the vision around a bit and just find some element of the, you know, of the Labor plan, of the NBN plan, which is up for debate, because I mean, and purely focus on that,” Belsham is reported as having said.

While providing Ross with several possible angles on what the article could say, Belsham ultimately leaves the decision up to Ross. He describes this as good for Ross’ journalistic muscles.

Was the conversation routine, and if so, was it appropriate? Crikey asked several journalists who have long worked under the ABC’s editorial policies. Those who agreed to comment were not in one mind about the issue. All said the ABC’s requirements for political balance were a good thing, but opinions differed on the appropriateness of achieving that balance through directing a journalist to find a negative story.

One veteran journalist says that outside of formal election campaigns (when the ABC meticulously charts the relative time and tone given to different sides of politics), balance should arise organically — through letting a story play out with an open mind to exploring the flaws in the arguments of both sides. Directing a journalist to write a negative story negated their ability to investigate an issue with an open mind — starting out with a preconceived conclusion doesn’t gel with how journalism is done at the ABC, the journalist says.

But others say discussions like that Belsham had with Ross happened all the time. And not all thought that was a bad thing.

David Salter, a former executive producer of Media Watch, says that provided none of the reporting was false or misleading, proactive balancing is part of good journalism.

“I don’t think it’s suppression or coercion — newspaper editors do that sort of stuff all the time,” he told Crikey. “When someone’s been going hard on one issue, you often see a balancing piece run after coverage has fallen all one way. And I think that’s good responsible editorial management. In long run, individual bylines aren’t important, what’s important is impression the media consumer gets. That’s what a good ed exec keeps uppermost in their mind.”

Many were reluctant to pass ultimate judgement on the conversation as its context is unknown. No doubt Belsham would have had many informal discussions with Ross about how best to execute NBN coverage, and the colloquial comments from one conversation don’t give a full picture of what happened. But there’s enough to raise concerns, says former ABC journalist and staff-elected board member Quentin Dempster. He believes the ABC needs to “clear the air” on the issue “through an external procedurally fair inquiry”.

“There are precedents for this: The Coleman inquiry [barrister Phillip Coleman appointed by then MD Brian Johns] into journalist John Millard’s evidence of  backdoor sponsorship of ABC infotainment programs in the early 1990s. In Nick Ross we have a highly qualified but distressed technology writer with a prima facie cause for complaint.”

“ABC journalists are meant to work collegially with management to produce the best possible fearless  journalism,” Dempster added. “Often the production process involves robust conversations about both the facts to be discovered and exposed, advantageous timing to build the audience impact and handling inevitable complaints.

“I cannot express an opinion on the Belsham/Ross taped conversation unless all the context is known. That is why an external inquiry in which all the players can be questioned about their actions and motivations in a procedurally fair process should be conducted. This will protect the ABC and the integrity of its editorial policies.”

When it comes to the ABC’s balance, the lack of easy answers is not unexpected. The ABC has for decades grappled with exactly what is required by its balance requirements, and different managing directors and heads of news and current affairs have had different understandings on the issue. “Outside of election periods, it’s pretty loose,” said a retired ABC journalist. “But over time it does work.”

The issue of balance has also become more complex as the broadcaster has increasingly published analysis and opinion as well as basic news. Understandings of appropriate balance have also shifted in journalism more broadly — critics like American journalism academic Jay Rosen have for some years, and to an increasingly receptive audience, critiqued “view from nowhere” journalism, meaning journalism where the reporter offers no context or guidance to the audience about what statements are correct and which are not.

“In the bad old days at ABC, there was terrific pressure to have contemporaneous balance,” Salter said. “If you have Labor guy on, you need a Coalition guy on. We argued for balance over time. Unless you let issue play out, you can’t be effective in terms of balance — what you get is a synthetic balance.”

Balance is also difficult to achieve when the facts of an issue themselves don’t give much opportunity to establish balance. The ABC’s guidance note on balance urges balance “following the weight of evidence”. It gives the example of the vaccination debate, where the evidence is largely on one side, and so journalists are under no obligation to give both sides a fair hearing.

“My dear old colleague Tony Joyce — who was killed while working for the ABC in Africa — used to say 50% truth and 50% bullshit isn’t balance,” Salter said. “It’s a good thing to keep in your mind.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey