I’m with Ita on ABC oversight

Comment from Peter Saxon.

Although Scott Morrison and his cohort may now disagree, his choice of Ita Buttrose as ABC Chair is arguably the best captain’s pick that any PM of any party has ever made, since Federation.

Her board’s latest decision to implement recommendations from the McMillan-Carroll inquiry and appoint an independent ombudsman, to keep Aunty ‘fair and balanced’ is a good one. Not because the ABC is in desperate need of recalibrating towards either the left or the right – after all, it continues to be the most trusted news brand in Australia – but because it is the quality of our consumer watchdogs that underpins the confidence and trust we have in the products we buy and the services we use.

Further reading: Why the ABC will never be ‘Fair and Balanced.’ And won’t be sold either.

The fact that the tech giants such as Facebook, Apple and Google are subject to little or no official oversight is at the heart of the issues we face in regard to the spread of misinformation, the improper use of our personal data and the difficulty in getting them to delete harmful material.

Neither the ABC’s supporters or its critics should despair nor celebrate the appointment of an ombudsman because I doubt that the net result of their investigations into ABC content will be much different to those we are getting now. But the optics will be better. And that’s important.

Provided the ombudsman is truly independent and the processes they put in place are transparent, it should work to everyone’s benefit. To paraphrase the old aphorism: “Justice will not only be done, but will be seen to be done.”

Critics will, nonetheless, point to the ABC’s leftist leanings and cry foul. Some mistakenly accuse it of contradicting its own Charter. In reality, the ABC Charter – which represents a small portion of the ABC Act, 1983 – says nothing about political balance. In fact, the Act mentions a bit about the government broadcaster’s journalistic independence but has a lot to say of its need to remain free of advertising. And for good reason.

It’s nigh impossible to determine what is “left” and what is “right” or to benchmark the “middle” as it is entirely a value judgement that every individual makes according to their own beliefs. On the other hand, banning ads is easy. And by eliminating the need to make a profit, you eliminate the negative influences that come with a commercial imperative. At least, that was the idea.

It’s unlikely that the framers of the ABC Charter could have foreseen the impact of social media or the phenomenal value of the detailed personal data that big tech would collect in the “information age.” What was clear, though, was that by its nature, commercial media would strive to appeal to the broadest possible audiences which would, more often than not, translate to the lowest common denominator – while avoiding content that was less commercially viable.

The Charter calls for content such as children’s programs and those of “an educational nature” along with programs that “contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.”

Poll after poll shows that most Australians reckon that Aunty does a pretty good job of all that and scores higher on the question of ‘trust” than most commercial media. But that doesn’t mean that the ABC is perfect, or even close.

The McMillan-Carroll inquiry looked into a number of high-profile programs on ABC TV including a Four Corners episode on the 1979 Ghost Train Fire at Sydney’s Luna Park, “Ms Represented” about women in politics, and “Inside the Canberra Bubble” which focused exclusively on Coalition ministers as well as a Q+A episode that covered the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Each of those programs had drawn a number of complaints. Having seen them (the shows) myself, I can understand why. But the issue at hand is not so much what was wrong with the content, as the process of handling complaints.

 The report found “examples of a dismissive ABC attitude towards complainants.”

The opaque nature of the ABC’s internal investigations has long been the subject of criticism. Then again, I’ve yet to come across any internal corporate investigation that doesn’t look to be suss and somewhat self-serving.

That’s why I believe that an ombudsman who will become the gatekeeper for complaints, weeding out those without merit while being supportive of those with substance, will take some of the load off ABC management. At the same time, it will make the process more transparent and blunt much of the criticism levelled against it by its detractors.

Peter Saxon

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