Labor MP Andrew Leigh

What on earth is going on at the ABC? After the debacle of handing back its trove of cabinet papers, censoring its chief economic journalist for stating some simple truths about company tax, last night’s weird 7.30 interview with prominent golf choker and Trump enthusiast Greg Norman and publishing a bizarre encomium about the super-rich, its “Fact Check” unit has launched a peculiar attack on Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh over the earth-shattering issue of … whether the Australian Public Service is larger than Woolworths.

In a piece on the APS more than a month ago during the sleepy holiday period, Leigh noted “there are more people working for Woolworths than in the public service.” It was an en passant remark in a piece primarily about the importance of the public service. But the ABC’s “RMIT Fact Check Unit” swung into action and, more than four weeks later,yesterday published a 1400 word rebuttal of Leigh — 500 words longer than the original piece.

The length is all the more peculiar because the piece admits that Leigh seems to be correct. “The public service employed 152,095 people at the end of June 2017… It appears the wider group [of Woolworths] employed around 183,500 people in Australia at the end of June 2017.”

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But the indefatigable “ABC RMIT Fact Check Unit” decided that in fact Leigh was “unclear” about what he meant when he referred to “Woolworths”. You or I might think that a reference to Woolworths meant, well, Woolworths, but the ABC decided “Mr Leigh did not specify what he meant by “Woolworths”.” (Actually it’s Dr Leigh, courtesy of Leigh’s PhD from Harvard, but, hey, it’s only a fact-check piece striving to be as forensic as possible, right? Let’s not sweat the small stuff).

The ABC decided Leigh could have just been referring to Woolworth’s supermarkets, and they only employ 115,000 people. Not that Leigh mentioned supermarkets anywhere in his piece. But, true, if you or I refer to Woolies, we probably mean the supermarket. Equally, I suspect, few people think Woolies is composed entirely of autonomous supermarkets without any company that owns them, owns or leases the land where they’re located, or the logistical infrastructure to supply groceries, or the contracts with local and foreign suppliers, or might own other businesses as well like liquor stores or other retail outlets, or have partnerships with petrol companies or banks. Perhaps the “ABC RMIT Fact Check Unit” thinks Woolies supermarkets just pop out of the ground by themselves — they don’t specify that they don’t think that. If we’re going to fact check what you think people might have meant, then that’s a fair criticism, yes?

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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