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Minister criticises ABC decision to refer his complaints to Independent Complaints Review Panel; Shadow Minister calls for Minister's resignation.

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Friday 25 July 2003

Minister criticises ABC decision to refer his complaints to Independent Complaints Review Panel; Shadow Minister calls for Minister's resignation


MARK COLVIN: The row between the Federal Government and the ABC took a new twist today, when the national broadcaster itself referred the dossier of sixty-eight complaints by the Communications Minister Richard Alston to the Independent Complaints Review Panel. 


The move came after Senator Alston floated the idea of bypassing Parliament, and setting up a new review panel to look at the ABC, which he said would have specialist expertise not available to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. 


But the ABC's move today has highlighted the existence of another review body which appears to have been overlooked by almost all parties in the debate so far. That's despite the fact that the Independent Complaints Review Panel has existed for several years, and that information about it is easy to find on the ABC's website. 


The panel consists of two former Channel Seven executives, a legal academic, a veteran journalist and member of the press council, and the NSW ethnic affairs commissioner. 


The Federal Opposition now says Senator Alston, should resign over his attack on the ABC and the Democrats say he's trying to bully the national broadcaster. But Senator Alston in his turn has hit back.  


As Louise Yaxley reports he's criticised the ABC's decision to refer his complaints to the Independent Complaints Review Panel. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: The Communications Minister says he is looking at options for improving the way complaints about the ABC are handled. He says the current options are flawed. 


The Complaints Review Executive was set up last year and Murray Green has recently rejected 66 of the ministers 68 complaints about the AM program's reporting on the Iraq war. 


Senator Alston says that is not independent at all, because Mr Green is an ABC employee. When the position was created, the Minister was quoted as supporting it, but he says he wasn't totally supportive. 


RICHARD ALSTON: What I said at the time was that it was an improvement on the previous arrangement, which involved a programme manager assessing a complaint against the programme, which I would have thought was the classic conflict of interest. 


REPORTER: Why didn't you say then as you're saying now, but hang on, this is an internal system, it's certainly not good enough and I don't accept it? 


RICHARD ALSTON: It is an internal system. 


REPORTER: But you said you were pleased. 


RICHARD ALSTON: All I said was it was an improvement on the existing arrangement and I would still say that. Does that mean it's sufficient? No, it doesn't. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: There is another option for dissatisfied complaints, which the ABC has called on today. It's called the Independent Complaints Review Panel which is appointed by the ABC board, but made up of experts not employed by or associated with the broadcaster. 


But Senator Alston also rejects that. 


RICHARD ALSTON: The Independent Complaints Review Panel is one appointed wholly by the ABC Board. It's been in place for eleven or twelve years. That is not entirely arm's length; that is a creature of the ABC itself. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: Today the ABC's Managing Director Russell Balding says in light of the Minister's criticism but reluctance to have his complaint further reviewed Mr Balding has referred the matter to the Independent Complaints Review Panel. 


Senator Alston is critical of Mr Balding's move. 


RICHARD ALSTON: What he's now done, without consulting me, is to refer these matters to his board-appointed complaints panel. 


Now, he's done that because he's concerned about this appearance of objectivity and that's precisely my point, that if you think that after seven or eight weeks you can have an internal full-time employee of the ABC passing judgement on complaints and expect the public to say 'well, that's fair and reasonable, that looks like an arm's length process, I'm sure the guy was utterly impartial', then I don't think that's the real world. 


What we've been looking at is a different approach to dealing with complaints generally, not in relation to my complaints, yet Mr Balding seems to think that I've been reluctant to refer the matter further and he's basically taken the matter out of my hands. 


That seems to me to be a pretty extraordinary response, because I have not in any shape or form indicated what response I will ultimately make because I haven't finished working my way through all of those complaints. 


I've had three days, the ABC had almost eight weeks. I would have thought we would be waiting to see what my attitude is, but no, it looks as though the ABC has taken it upon itself to refer it off to an independent body. 


REPORTER: You don't want it referred off? 


RICHARD ALSTON: I'm simply saying that seems to me to be an absolute concession that the internal process is not a good look and the ABC itself is saying hang on, irrespective of what Alston might do, we're going to send it off there quick smart, because we think that's the appearance of objectivity. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: There's now a bitter political stoush over how to handle gripes about the ABC. 


Labor's Lindsay Tanner is calling for Senator Alston's resignation. 


LINDSAY TANNER: He now wants to have a panel that's appointed by himself to sit as judge, jury and executioner on his own complaints. That is absurd, he is turning himself into a laughing stock, he's obsessed with attacking the ABC, while all around him, his portfolio is littered with disasters, like Telstra and like digital television. He should resign. 


The Howard Government is launching a jihad against the ABC. John Howard has become a cultural terrorist, trying to blow up the ABC. All Australians should reject this assault on the ABC's independence, it is designed to cow the ABC into compliance with the Howard Government's political agenda. They just want to make it a propaganda arm of the Liberal Party. 


MARK COLVIN: Labor's Lindsay Tanner ending that report from Louise Yaxley in Canberra.