The ABC’s radio division has dismissed suggestions the ABC needs to “embed” itself within businesses to improve its reporting of the area, citing fears concerning the impartiality of its reporters, after an independent review suggested the organisation take steps to improve its engagement with the sector.

A review of the ABC’s business coverage — conducted externally by TV producer-turned-consultant Kerry Blackburn and former ANZ boss Mike Smith but commissioned by the ABC — encouraged external bodies to make submissions about the ABC’s business coverage. Some mentioned the variable knowledge of business among the ABC’s reporters.

An unnamed company sent in a submission complaining about the fact the fact that the 70 approaches they had had from the ABC in a year came from many different journalists, some of whom didn’t appear to understand the industry, while at News or Fairfax, a core group of two or three journalists with very good knowledge of the industry were the ones most often getting in touch. In a bid to address this, the review suggested ABC reporters take steps to build this knowledge by spending more time within businesses.

“Actively reach out to business leaders: invite them to lunch; consider short staff swaps with industry,” the review suggests.

The notion that ABC business reporters are not already building contacts within the industry was met with ridicule by ABC staffers Crikey spoke to this morning. And the notion that business coverage would improve with “short staff swaps” has been queried in the ABC’s official response:

“Radio has reservations about the recommendation that the ABC ‘improve engagement’ with business by a variety of means including ‘staff swaps with industry’. We would like greater detail on what is actually suggested here, including an explanation of what is meant by ‘business’ and ‘industry’ in this context. There are also many issues around ‘embedding’ journalists within any enterprise on which they are then expected to report with full impartiality, and this would require very careful attention.”

Despite some suggestions for improvement, the review was largely positive, finding the ABC’s coverage to be broad and impartial, despite Smith’s stated initial reservations about ABC coverage, which he feared was “anti-business”. Given Smith’s comments and initial attitude, many within the ABC had expected the review to be far more critical.

One area that did come in for criticism was the huge corporate logos often featured behind industry spokespeople when they delivered market reports. The issue has long been controversial — in 2009, the ABC took steps to reduce the size of logos behind spokespeople after a critical Media Watch report, but, the review noted, this now appears to have been abandoned.

“The reviewer considers it odd that on whatever basis the ABC decided in 2009 that the logo was unduly prominent and needed to be reduced in size, no longer apparently applied,” the review states. It also says the Dell Direct logo used in a segment was “also excessive”. “While the visuals do not imply an endorsement by the ABC of either entity, she nevertheless considers it breaches clause 12.2 of the Editorial Standards regarding undue prominence: it was hard to see how either logo could have been any more prominent.”


In its response on this issue, the ABC says there’s no issue in a company gaining “incidental commercial benefit from its association with the ABC as long as the ABC’s independence and integrity are not undermined”:

“ABC News has taken a pragmatic approach to this question. It agrees that diligence is required to ensure that references do not become unduly frequent or prominent but ABC News does not believe the size of logos in this context materially affects the perception of our independence.”

The review also noted acknowledgement from ABC managers that the ABC has often undervalued the development of its own on-screen business talent, instead going outside the organisation for expertise. “Although he is not an ABC employee, Alan Kohler’s is ironically the first name most Australians would come up with if they were asked to identify a business reporter on the ABC,” the report noted. Kohler presents a nightly finance segment on the news. Blackburn writes that she was told the ABC was now focused on growing the business knowledge of all its reporters.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey