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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 11408

Senator SANTORO (5:01 PM) —I rise to also speak on the matter relating to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It is the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens that have politicised the issue that we are debating today. They have got up in this place today and they have run a straight political line, asking the Senate to debate the ABC motion. There is no question of the independence and integrity of the ABC being under threat from the government.

The ABC, under its own act, is required to maintain editorial balance in its news and current affairs reporting. No-one, least of all the majority of rank and file journalists who work there, would want it any other way. In 2003-04 the ABC will get $760 million to meet its legislated requirements. It is important that the ABC be fully accountable to the government for the taxpayer dollars it spends. The minister has asked the ABC to report annually to parliament on how it is meeting its obligations. The ABC is considering this request. It is a reasonable proposition. It is not interference; it is just ensuring accountability. It is another reasonable move to ensure accountability.

The matters that I raised during estimates, like those that Minister Alston raised, were not about having a go at the rank and file. The matters raised at the estimates committee hearing on 19 May were legitimate issues that should be canvassed and were quite properly canvassed in that forum. As honourable senators know—and indeed as Senator Cherry stated—I asked those questions. The managing director of the ABC, Mr Russell Balding, took most of the questions on notice. Like all members of the committee, I await with keen anticipation the answers to my questions and those put by the minister. The evidence I presented speaks for itself—no pun intended. My questions were asked in the public interest, and it is the public interest that the Senate and this parliament should at all times strive to protect.

News judgment and current affairs analysis are complex questions and complex issues. But let us take one example of the remarks of Max Uechtritz, Director of News and Current Affairs at the ABC. Where is the objective public interest in some of his comments? This comment was just weeks after the horrific barbarism of the World Trade Center attack:

Max Uechtritz ... pointed out that at least 1,000 fewer people had died in New York than perished at Srebrenica, when “people were taken out and shot” in an even more horrific manner than the instant deaths on September 11. “Because it was a western capital, the scale seemed bigger” ...

Commentator Errol Simper wrote in the Australian on 29 May that Mr Uechtritz, whom he described as `an old-fashioned foot-in-the-door reporter', was about as ideological as a wardrobe. But Mr Simper, like many in the media on this issue, misses the point.

As the ABC's director of news and current affairs, Mr Uechtritz has a direct responsibility to ensure that the ABC complies with its statutory obligation to provide an accurate and impartial news and current affairs service. In that role it might be fine to have your foot in the door—or even the wardrobe—but you need to be careful you do not put it in your mouth. At the very least his comments playing down the horror of New York just weeks after the event were distasteful and inappropriate. Fewer people died on 12 October 2002, as a result of the Bali bombings, than on 11 September 2001 in New York. Would Mr Uechtritz make similar comments in relation to Bali? To my mind and to the minds of many people, his judgment of a contemporary terrorist outrage that was the biggest and the worst in history was simply horrific. On the basis that such views were publicly expressed by someone on the public payroll and, at the time of speaking, representing an Australian public entity, the Australian people have plenty of reasons to ask whether they are actually getting value for money.

Many people contacted me following publicity about the questions that were put to the ABC at the estimates committee hearings and since then. Many of them say that they too have serious concerns about the balance—or lack thereof—and implicit bias of some ABC reporting. The Labor Party apparently would like people to think that everyone is happy with their ABC; sadly, that is not the case. And it is sad. The ABC is a national institution. Public broadcasting has an honourable place, an honoured place, in our country's history, and I want to see that continue. The people of Australia want to see that continue. The danger is that perceptions of unbalanced reportage and bias in commentary will damage the ABC. That is the bottom line. No-one wants the ABC to be damaged. That is why we need to ensure that there is corrective action and that it is taken swiftly and firmly.

There are two issues at stake here. One is whether the ABC is getting the best possible value from the way it spends the taxpayers' dollars. The other is the ABC's lack of balance in reporting news events. Whether the ABC is spending wisely is clearly a matter for the estimates committee; indeed, that is why we have estimates committees. That is why, at the estimates hearing, I asked Mr Balding if he could provide to the committee a detailed costing for each overseas trip taken by ABC staff since November 2001. That is why I asked who had travelled and for what purpose. That is why I asked where they went, how long they stayed, what their travel costs were, where they stayed, what their accommodation costs were, what the conference participation costs were and whether there were any other costs paid by the ABC. That is why I asked what was the ABC's annual corporate and stakeholder entertainment budget and why I asked for a detailed list of all employee benefits provided to ABC staff during the last financial year. That is why I asked how many reporters were currently employed or contracted by the ABC and how this compared with the figures for 1999 and 1996, and why I asked the same question about program producers.

These are accounting questions. These are auditing questions. They are not `get square' questions. I ask honourable senators opposite to consider that point objectively. I ask honourable senators opposite who sit on committees to look at the hundreds, probably thousands, of pages of committee Hansard that transcribe forensic questioning of government departments and agencies that is designed, quite properly, to tease out the most minute detail of expenditures, and then to examine their own consciences in relation to the implicit claim by themselves and others that the ABC is somewhat different—that it is somehow exempt from close scrutiny. It is because the ABC is not exempt, because it is rightly subject to the same level of scrutiny as any other public entity, that I also asked how much the ABC received in depreciation funding from the government. Funding that was not made available before the move to accrual accounting in the late 1990s and funding that since has been an annual financial benefit to the ABC—`How much?' I asked.

And that is why I asked how much the ABC expected to receive from the sale of its Gore Hill establishment in Sydney when it first made the decision to sell it and how much that estimate differs from what the ABC now anticipates it will receive from the sale. That is why I asked what the current budgets were for the ABC's Stateline programs that run in place of the 7.30 Report on Fridays and how much it would cost to run nightly state based 7.30 Report programs—as used to be run—rather than a national program.

As the minister pointed out earlier in question time, this business is not about complaints; it is about accountability. As Senator Eggleston clearly put in his contribution, accountability is simply different from complaints—and Senator Cherry should take particular note of that. Senator Cherry cannot be serious when he says that the minister's and my own statements about bias that we have observed in the ABC are a response to the ABC abolishing its funding priority of digital channels. If Senator Cherry had read the transcript of the committee hearing where I raised issues of bias in the ABC, he would have noted that I asked dozens of questions at that hearing and had placed several dozen more on notice by mid-afternoon on the day when the announcement was made about the funding cuts to those digital channels. The minister, a couple of days after that hearing, also placed dozens of questions to the ABC.

How could we have prepared those dozens of questions within a few minutes of the ABC's managing director announcing the funding to digital channels had been cut? It is ludicrous to suggest that this was a knee-jerk response to a statement—a prepared statement, I should add. What got me going was the first question being asked, the folder being opened and the prepared dorothy dixer being read out. That is what particularly riled me. But we spent weeks and months researching our quite justifiable claims of bias in the ABC, and the spending questions came on top of that. (Time expired)