The last few weeks have been more rocky than usual for the ABC. After handing back the now-infamous filing cabinet and then apologising to former PM Kevin Rudd over a story it ran based on something in that cabinet, last week the broadcaster courted new controversy by pulling down an analysis piece by its chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici.
And, even before that last blunder, one former ABC foreign correspondent and senior journalist, who asked not to be named, told Crikey the situation at the national broadcaster was “diabolical”.
“I thought it was the worst couple of weeks in the ABC’s modern era, and that was before Emma,” he said.
The veteran journalist was angry at the way Alberici was treated, especially after she was trotted out to help explain the decision to axe Lateline last year, while she was host.
“They’ve burned her. She was a great asset. She couldn’t have been more gracious when they booted Lateline,” he said. “They used her name and expertise, and that’s why it grates even more.”
He said the fact that the ABC hadn’t backed one of its big names by pulling down the piece meant that Alberici would now find her work picked over. “Whatever it is that went wrong, you need to back your talent and back the ABC.”
The decision to put a relatively junior journalist on the cabinet files story, rather than handing it over to the investigative unit, was surprising, he said. As was the fact that the Kevin Rudd story in that series didn’t face the scrutiny it should have before it was published.
“It’s beyond belief. The way they dealt with those cabinet files is almost a metaphor for today’s journalism. To give your stuff the sexy, arty treatment and spend so little time doing the basic craft of journalism.”
He said the last few weeks had been so demoralising internally that senior journalists he’d spoken to were even considering leaving.
“The very pillars of their craft are being white-anted and everything they’ve ever been told about the ABC is that they’re fearless. Any of them can quote battles in the past where management and staff have been united against political pressure, right up to the managing director. You aspire to be an ABC journalist for a lot of reasons and the best of the journalists do it for that respect of fearless journalism.
“But now they might not think they’ve got the backing, might not go as hard. And that’s a slow decay of the craft, especially at the ABC.”
While political pressure is not new, he said there was a feeling that the threat is now being treated differently.
“A lot of us have had the feeling that even though with Mark Scott (as managing director) there was a lot of deference to the powers that be because of the threat over the funding, that has always been there and you just have to ride it out,” he said. “You can’t have pockets of excellence. It’s the everyday output that matters.”
Former Stateline host and staff-elected board member Quentin Dempster, who is now contributing editor to The New Daily, told Crikey that even if the ABC had not bowed to political pressure in any of these recent matters, it still sent a message to journalists that they might not be backed by their editors and managers.
“There’s always a danger of self censorship if the staff see senior journalists being hung out to dry like this,” he said. “Whatever the faults of Alberici’s work, they should not have left her stranded like this by removing the article completely from the website. By all means, revise it if necessary, but get it back up … its duty is to engage the audience in what is called the clash of ideas.”
For John Menadue’s website, Dempster wrote that Alberici’s piece had been through eight checks before it was published, and was rewritten last week, ready to be republished (which it has not yet been).
Meanwhile, the ABC’s staff engagement survey has been reported back to employees with an even lower engagement than the last survey, with engagement dropping from 52% in 2015 to 46% late last year. In an email to staff, managing director Michelle Guthrie said the feedback “tells us we haven’t been doing a good job at listening to you and making you feel valued”.
In response, Guthrie said management had been running focus groups, sent a link to the recent annual public meeting and is “launching a program to cut bureaucracy and red tape”.