ABC chair Ita Buttrose and managing director David Anderson (Image: ABC)

If you’re hoping that the ABC’s recent five year plan provides some sort of guidance on how it will address the challenges of budget cuts while it is expected to provide more services as commercial media fails, and simultaneously dealing with the universal media challenge of shifting online, you may be just a little disappointed.

The document, released in June by managing director David Anderson but accompanied only by some pro forma words from chair Ita Buttrose, provides little in the way of intelligible structure for a media organisation, composed as it is of a “Purpose”, a “Vision”, some “Pillars” and “Priorities”, then “Key Initiatives”.

The Pillars, which might be expected to correspond with some sort of description of what the ABC actually delivers, are composed of “Reflect contemporary Australia”, “Build a lifelong relationship with Australians”, “Continue to earn the trust that audiences place in the ABC, safeguarding ABC independence and integrity”, “Provide entertaining, culturally significant, and ondemand content”, and “Make sustainable choices in allocating resources”.

Most of these Pillars have half a dozen or more, well, sub-pillars beneath them. Confusingly, many of the Pillars and sub-pillars sound more like Purposes or Visions, while others sound more like a Priority; the Priority “Be creative, flexible, efficient, and accountable” is more like a Vision or a Pillar. Anyway. It’s a corporate plan. No point complaining about that sort of thing.

Down in the Priorities and Initiatives, though, you can discern the ABC’s attitude to news, and it’s illuminating.

The ABC is required by its act to “develop and maintain an independent service for the broadcasting of news and information” and the board has a duty “to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”.

But the five-year plan frames that obligation in terms of something not mentioned in the charter, “trust”. Trust is a word that recurs dozens of times in the document and which was used repeatedly by Anderson when he launched the plan at the National Press Club in June.

Trust is about the most fashionable thing in journalism now. Since the election of Trump the media, particularly in the US, have obsessed about why they’re no longer trusted by communities.

Journalism school academics and journalism commentators have poured out millions of words on how to improve trust (some examples: a widely-shared piece in The Conversation, or from US journalism academics, or, inevitably, Jay Rosen) on what enhances trust at a time when community trust in journalism is low.

And the five-year plan is a shopping list of  these“how to rebuild trust in journalism” ideas: building connections with communities being served, greater diversity (another frequently recurring word), more positive stories (“counter news avoidance with more stories that go beyond ‘bad news’”), more direct delivery methods, telling more local stories, embracing community-generated stories and more “approachable” language make up the ABC’s plan to ensure it “Remain[s] Australia’s best and most trusted source of news and information”.

It’s easy to mock some of this stuff as faddish virtue-signalling, compiled by a consultant with a brief to tick all the boxes on current journalism research.

Everyone now professes to want more diversity (if the ABC really wants more diversity in news-gathering surely the logical thing to do would be to take some of its news and current affairs budget and distribute to community-based journalists?) and more local stories.

That said, much of it is good practice anyway, and the ABC is actually already better at much of it than many commercial outlets (the ABC’s regional radio network, for example, is far more plugged in to regional Australia than News Corp or Nine could ever be, even before they flogged off their regional papers).

And the ABC is Australia’s most trusted media outlet and one of its most trusted institutions. Maintaining that trust is certainly important.

But where this “trust” based framing goes awry is that trust is only one desirable output of public interest journalism. The ABC charter and legislation don’t talk about trust, but about accuracy, impartiality and independence, concepts that get far less attention in the document and only feature as vague “pillars”.

As a result, the plan doesn’t address the current weaknesses of ABC news under current head Gaven Morris: the failure of the news area to break major stories — a task left up to the Current Affairs area under John Lyons — the growing reliance on clickbait to maintain traffic to the ABC website; the repeated cave-ins to the government (the PM&C files; the attempt to censor Emma Alberici’s company tax story, and the subsequent campaign to publicly denigrate and sack her; the attack on journalist Andrew Probyn by a former chair), and most of all the loss of a large number of talented, experienced senior journalists, producers and editors who have left in recent days or will soon leave.

Dominique Schwartz, Zoe Daniel, Michaela Boland, Elizabeth Jackson, Phillip Lasker, as well as Alberici, are just a small part of the wealth of journalistic talent now departed.

Unsurprisingly, the section of the plan devoted to “Invest in the workforce of the future” is the weakest and most waffly. The initiatives — i.e. the things that the ABC actually commits to doing — include “strengthen the ABC’s learning culture”, “continue to build a workforce culture”, “identify further ways to improve collaboration”, “improve leadership development, talent management, recruitment, and selection practices to attract and retain diverse and talented individuals”.

It’s the worst bureaucratic drivel intended to cover mass sackings.

And, sure, it’s no fault of the ABC that it has had to sack hundreds of valuable staff. But its ambitions for news now seem confined to ticking cultural boxes issued by journalism academics rather than delivering what Australia needs more than ever before.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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