Flint to step aside for Alston’s ABC bias Inquiry

The ABA has released an official statement summarising events at yesterday’s board meeting. According to the statement which appears in full below, in regards to the forthcoming inquiry into alleged ABC bias in reporting the Iraq war, “The Chairman has decided to take no further part in the consideration of these complaints, in the interest of preserving public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Authority’s decisions”.

Statement by the board of the ABA

The board of the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) recognises the public concern regarding the impartiality of its Chairman, Professor David Flint and the integrity of the Authority’s decisions. Decisions of the ABA involve contentious and controversial issues. The board of the ABA believes that it has maintained an effective and impartial decision making process, and that it will continue to do so.

The ABA’s board is responsible for all significant decisions of the Authority. There are seven members of the board, who all have an equal vote. On many issues the board is unanimous. On others there is vigorous debate and a majority decision is reached.

At its meeting yesterday, the ABA reaffirmed its recent decisions regarding the ownership and control of Sydney radio station 2GB and the content of talkback programs on 2GB and and 2UE. Some of these decisions were majority decisions, but the outcome would not have been affected had the Chairman not participated.

While the Authority found no breach of existing rules in relation to Telstra’s sponsorship of the Alan Jones Program on 2GB, in its report on its investigation the Authority found: ‘Arising from the circumstances of this investigation … the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice … may need to be amended … to provide extra safeguards with respect to accuracy and fairness in current affairs programs’.

In the report, the ABA also expressed its concern that, ‘where an array of communications between a current affairs program and a major corporate sponsor covers both advertising material and program content, it may become more difficult to distinguish clearly between them’.

The ABA found, ‘there may be merit in reviewing the existing regulatory measures … aimed at achieving a clear distinction between editorial comment and advertising material (including live reads)’.

These are major issues for commercial radio, and talkback in particular, and the ABA welcomes public discussion of them.

At yesterday’s meeting of the ABA board, serious concern was expressed at the letters written by its Chairman to Mr Alan Jones on the ABA’s letterhead.

The Chairman expressed his regret that due to his oversight these letters were not disclosed at the time of the hearing into 2UE in 1999. The Chairman explained that during the final preparations for the hearing he raised with the then ABA General Counsel the fact that he had met one of the witnesses likely to be called. No formal procedure had been envisaged for presiding members to make declarations, so it was agreed between them that, for more abundant caution, the Chairman would read a statement setting out those meetings. Due to his oversight, only the meetings were included in that statement.

On the broader issue of public perceptions, a majority of the board reiterated its view that ABA members should not comment on matters of public controversy unconnected to the ABA’s role.

The ABA is considering complaints from former Senator Richard Alston regarding the coverage of the war in Iraq on the ABC’s AM program. Notwithstanding Senior Counsel advising that a court would be unlikely to find a case of apprehension of bias in relation to the Chairman’s participation, the Chairman has decided to take no further part in the consideration of these complaints, in the interest of preserving public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Authority’s decisions.

The board of the Australian Broadcasting Authority believes it has operated fairly and effectively during Professor David Flint’s term as Chairman and believes it will continue to be able to do so.