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Commonwealth Offices, 4 Treasury Place, Melbourne, Monday, 27 April 1998: transcript of doorstop interview [ABC]

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Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts

Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate






ALSTON: I want to say a few words about the ABC's handling of the waterfront issue and particular a very clumsy memo that was circulated yesterday to effectively try and limit coverage of an anti MUA strike being organised in NSW. What we've got here is the ABC being caught red handed in being selective in its coverage of the waterfront dispute (inaudible) pretend after the event that somehow the ABC doesn't cover political promotional activities defies all of the practice to date. It's certainly not consistent with the ABC track record and is clearly nowhere provided for in the guidelines. The guidelines (inaudible) by the ABC to provide proper coverage of all events of current interest and that includes political events and it also requires them to do it in such a way that they don't take sides and they ensure the public is well informed. And today we have 2 classic examples of the ABC breaching those guidelines. The first is an interview conducted by Carolyn Tucker on ABC radio in Queensland this morning where she went out of her way to interview a church leader in order to promote a rally that was being organised in support of the MUA and her words were very clearly along those lines - she said - "the church and local Catholics can demonstrate their support for the Maritime Union members who are sacked from their jobs - in a public gathering tonight at St Mary's Church in South Brisbane, now if that isn't a very clear promotional advertisement for a demonstrably political activity - I don't know what is. Second is from the World Today where the Mayor of Burnie, Steve Kons was interview and Mr Conns went out of his way to say that people of Burnie were outraged at the behaviour of the Federal Government and its role in the waterfront dispute and the ABC allowed Mr Kons to say 'I'm a conservative person by nature". At no point did they inform the public that in fact he is the endorsed ALP candidate for the Federal seat of Braddon and in no circumstances, I think it's very clear indeed that the ABC's handling of the waterfront issue has been extraordinarily one sided. We're aware because we've had many calls and representations about the strong depth of feeling the way in which Peter Reith was harassed on the 7.30 Report last week, I've read the transcript he was interrupted on no less than 12 occasions and it is simply not acceptable for the ABC to be in flagrant breach of its own guidelines to make up rules to justify its actions after the event.


JOURNALIST: Isn't it a fact that bias is in the eye of the beholder?


ALSTON: No, it's not. You see you can't have one rule justify not running anti MUA rallies but another rule that justifies you in promoting pro MUA rallies. Either you promote them or you don't. In fact this distinction between promotion and coverage is one that as far as I can see has only been dreamed up today after the event to justify what is clearly a quite unacceptable intervention in the political process.


JOURNALIST: (inaudible) public relations?


ALSTON: No, I think what's happened is that there have been a succession of events that have caused a lot of people to take a very jaundiced view of the way in which the ABC is operated on this issue and to then discover today 2 flagrant examples I think just bring to home that the ABC needs to take a very good hard look at themselves.


JOURNALIST: (inaudible)


ALSTON: Well, I haven't had complaints about the commercial so all I can say to you is that I've watch the ABC on a regular basis and I've seen for myself and I've also read the reports of the memo that was circulated by ABC management and given the other events that I've just brought attention to I think it's (inaudible) upon management to act to enforce its own guidelines to ensure that the public get an unbiased account of a very difficult and controversial issue.


JOURNALIST: (inaudible)


ALSTON: Well, I'm saying to you I can't watch everything simultaneously and I can't spend all my time watching these things but I can respond to public complaints I have had. And the complaints I have had have related to the behaviour of the ABC and it is now a matter of controversy that there are stories being run in the media about ABC coverage and as you know there were some hundreds of phone calls protesting about Jennifer Byrne's treatment of the Minister for Industrial and Workplace Relations last week.


JOURNALIST: (inaudible)


ALSTON: It was strongly discouraging journalists from giving free publicity even though in subsequent correspondence we've had from the ABC it's made clear that they have in fact given promotional coverage by way of interviews, in other words they've interview not only the incoming Chief Executive of the National Farmers Federation but they've interviewed the Chief Executive Officer of the NSW Farmers Federation, local representatives of the State NFF and to now somehow pretend that there's a valid distinction between coverage and promotion seems to me to be an entirely (inaudible) and dubious exercise.


JOURNALIST: But is it fair to tar the entire organisation for the actions of certain individuals?


ALSTON: No, I think that is a valid comment. I think it is clearly not the case there's an across the board determination to only present one side of the issue. Where examples do arise and I think it's very important that you do have management taking action. In the article in today's paper dealing with the memorandum there was an unnamed ABC employee expressing concern at those actions. So clearly there are people within the ABC who are doing their very best to ensure that their guidelines are properly adhered to. But when you get flagrant examples then that's when actions require to be taken otherwise even a few rogues can tarnish the reputation of the ABC. I think people expect high standards from the broadcaster we all understand it's important and clearly in an issue such as the waterfront the ABC has a very important role to play and it's got to play that (inaudible).


JOURNALIST: What will you do?


ALSTON: Well, representations will be made to the Managing Director of the ABC but I think in the first instance its up to the ABC to ensure that these sorts of practices don't occur and to spell out that everyone's expected to behave in an ....


JOURNALIST: When you say representations will be made to the Managing Director is that involving being ....?


ALSTON: Well, I've given you two other examples today and I think all of those letters should be the subject of consideration by the ABC. There have already been discussions with ABC management and we've already had a brief reply drawing this I think quite (inaudible) distinction when coverage (inaudible) but I think the ABC has .....................


JOURNALIST: (inaudible)


ALSTON: Well, that's not a bad start is it. We can have all those dealt with and assurances that they don't happen again and I think we'll be getting back on track.


JOURNALIST: So Jennifer Byrne...?


ALSTON: No, I think what Jennifer Byrne ought to do is to ensure that all interviewees are treated independently that they each have an equal opportunity to express their point of view no matter what extent she might disagree on but you do not interrupt people and constantly tell them that they have had enough time to make their point and then effectively ask them to agree that the only role of Government is to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. I think just as important to stress that the role of Government is to ensure (inaudible) and to make it very clear that it is a legitimate aspect of this issue rather than simply sweeping everything else aside and putting the onus on the Government to resolve the issue by effectively throwing (inaudible). So what I hope to see in the future is not questions like (inaudible) asking them how much they want by way of damages but if you're going to probe you probe even handedly, you allow everyone to have an opportunity to express their point of view and you don't create an impression in the mind of very many people that somehow you're barracking hard for one side. If you do that then you won't get 100's of phone calls.