ABC News journalist Chris Uhlmann

ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann has survived the “pitchfork crowd” (his characterisation) baying for his blood, coming out unscathed after numerous complaints about his coverage of the South Australian power blackout.

The ABC’s Audience & Consumer Affairs division on Friday dismissed at least two of the complaints against Uhlmann filed in late September and early October. The complaints focused on the ABC’s coverage of South Australia’s blackout, with Uhlmann speculating on the role of renewable energy (particularly wind power) in causing blackouts at a time when others (including SA Premier Jay Weatherill) blamed infrastructure failures as a result of a storm.

The ABC has said it received about 180 complaints about its coverage of the blackout — we’ve asked the ABC what’s become of the rest. The public broadcaster publishes summaries of upheld complaints on its website, and there are currently none relating to Uhlmann published online. Any complaint not upheld can be appealed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority — one of the complainants tells Crikey he intends to appeal to the external agency.

[Chris Uhlmann joins Barnaby in blaming wind energy for SA’s blackout. They are dead wrong.]

Uhlmann was pivotal in driving the ABC’s coverage. But the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs division — which operates separately from the content-creation parts of the ABC — said Uhlmann had never claimed renewable energy had caused the blackout, instead providing context around the state’s energy mix, which includes a high reliance on wind turbines. In light of this, the Audience and Consumer Affairs division determined that Uhlmann had not breached editorial standard 2.1, which requires the ABC to “make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context”.

One of the complaints dismissed on Friday focused on Uhlmann’s live interview with SA Senator Nick Xenophon on the afternoon of the blackout, during which both discussed the role of wind power in the state’s electricity mix. A response to the complaint states:

“Through the course of the interview, Mr Uhlmann indicated that limited information was available about what was occurring in South Australia. He therefore explained that he was necessarily speculating about the nature, extent and cause of the electricity outage. Mr Uhlmann and Senator Xenophon discussed a range of issues including South Australia’s power generation mix and its operational status at the time; some of the complexities associated with South Australia’s power grid; the political decision making that lead to South Australia’s energy mix; together with information about the operation of the national electricity market. Mr Uhlmann did not state that renewable energy, particularly wind power, was the cause of the blackout. Rather, he raised a series of newsworthy questions about the State’s energy mix, including about the possibilities of how the power could be out when the wind was blowing, and 40% of South Australia’s power is wind generated.”

The issues covered in the interview, the report says, were “all highly relevant and newsworthy”:

“Given the unique nature of South Australia’s power generation mix, it was appropriate for Mr Uhlmann to question whether the State’s heavy reliance on wind turbines might have increased the risk of a state-wide blackout.”

Another complaint, filed by journalist and academic Ben Eltham, focused on a follow-up analysis piece filed by Uhlmann about the role of wind energy in the state, which “might have increased the risk of a state-wide blackout”.

The response from the complaints division states:

“Given what had occurred in the preceding 24 hours and the unique nature of South Australia’s power generation mix, these issues were all highly relevant and newsworthy. It was therefore appropriate for Mr Uhlmann to address these issues in the manner he did.”

The Audience and Consumer Affairs division says in both letters that while it has not upheld the complaints, it has brought them to the attention of ABC News.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey