How media organisations handle criticism has been on display over the past few weeks, ranging from the sack ‘em and shoot ‘em approach of the former ABC chair, through to the doubling down by the Herald Sun over that cartoon.

We’ve seen the exegesis of the ABC complaints unit on tax minimisation and the mealy-mouthed apology from 2GB’s Alan Jones over his bullying interview style. The responses tell us where each organisation is attempting to position itself in the face of ongoing media disruption.

In the ABC, there are now four stages of review (and consequent reprimand) facing journalists: there’s editing, checking and review both before and after publication; there’s the internal formal complaints process; there’s external review from ACMA; and now, apparently, there’s the added risk of being sacked or (metaphorically, at least) shot due to chair or board intervention.

The ABC is caught managing a relationship with a Liberal government that never seems to have moved on from Howard adviser Grahame Morris’ analysis (“our enemies talking to our friends”). That’s why the federal government puts so much effort into complaining about the ABC; it’s signalling to its base.

As we learnt in the Guthrie-Milne blow-up, the government’s obsessions were, first, an online analysis by chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici on tax minimisation and, second, the suggestion by political editor Andrew Probyn that then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was involved in the decision to have an eight-week byelection campaign this past winter.

At their highest, these complaints were about those journalistic bugbears: context, perceived partiality and minor errors, which, as the ABC’s inquiry into the Alberici complaint found, were “not materially misleading within the broader context of the article”. But they forced the ABC through the hoops of arguing and defending the detail, with any concession or correction treated as a significant victory.

For the government, it’s never about the details of each complaint. It’s about building pressure to preempt future reports. It’s about encouraging the ABC managers to sustain their decades-long faith that a preemptive buckle best protects the organisation.

The complaints processes are as much about self-protection as they are about protecting the sort of balanced reporting that the ABC’s charter requires of the organisation. They’re great on the detail, but not in dealing with structural challenges.

Following the controversy around the Four Corners Steve Bannon interview, the lack of diversity among news staff has come under heightened scrutiny. Distracted by its internal ructions, the ABC has been flat-footed in response.

Still, compare this to commercial media and, in particular, the Herald Sun’s response to the “Samboesque” caricature of Serena Williams (and concomitant whitening of Naomi Osaka) in their editorial cartoon. In the face of global blow-back, News Corp did not concede an inch, instead devoting a front page and repeated columns justifying the cartoon.

For individual journalists, this sort of backing is valuable. For News Corp, it helps bind the journalist into the News family.

Comments suggest that the approach was embraced by the paper’s aging, white male demographic — the target for News tabloids. Be careful what you wish for: a reader-revenues business model means you have to give your readers what they want. As the US Fox News model shows, this particular market niche may respond best to a steady escalation in racism, particularly accompanied by gaslighting denials of racism.

Alan Jones’ Opera House walk-back indicates that advertising-driven media have to be more sensitive to the broader community, particularly once activist groups start targeting advertisers. The shock-jock model is about building controversy to grow audiences, and cashing in on the advertising dollars that brings. The work by groups like Sleeping Giants challenges that model by forcing advertisers to look at the quality of the content, not just the size of the audience.

As Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic last week, “For a journalist, the fear of getting it wrong is a mortal one.” Foer was writing about the Russia-Trump story, but it’s true of all stories. It’s true both of the general context and of individual details, no matter how small.

With the ABC, the federal government is weaponising this fear through the ABC’s own processes. News Corp is turning it into a tool of managerial culture.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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