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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1511


Mr MacKELLAR(11.10 a.m.) —-This Budget has cut funding to the ABC over the coming year by $11.8m, a decrease of 2.3 per cent in dollar terms and about 7 per cent in real terms. As a result of some quite convoluted financial manoeuvring, the Government has attempted to convince us that the ABC will really suffer only a 1.4 per cent decrease in total available resources. To offset this bad news the Government attempted to placate the ABC by committing itself to what it calls `three years of guaranteed real funding'.

If I were the ABC I would want to know a little more about what the Government means by `real funding', and about the relationship between that term and the percentages shown in the Budget Papers. Despite the cutbacks in the current year, the considerable publicity by the ABC, threats to reduce some services, and the partial implementation of that threat, Mr Hill might be interested to know that the steady flow of correspondence I receive in relation to the ABC is not concerned so much with funding as with programming standards.

I have here a petition signed by 891 people expressing their concern about broadcasting standards and the ABC's apparent ability to consider itself aloof from properly addressing and responding to those community concerns. These petitioners are calling for the ABC to be made subject to the Commonwealth Ombudsman's jurisdiction. That is a call which I heartily endorse because, as you may recall, Mr Deputy Chairman, on 30 May last I introduced into Parliament a private member's Bill entitled Ombudsman Amendment Bill 1991. Its purpose was to allow the Commonwealth Ombudsman to investigate any action that relates to a programming decision of the ABC. What I sought to do was redress the present unsatisfactory situation where there is an identifiable public concern about aspects of the ABC's programming standards but no creditable independent review procedure available to investigate those complaints.

It is true that in recent months the ABC has announced the establishment of an independent complaints review panel but, despite that title and a respected membership, it is nevertheless an in-house body which will leave the effective control of complaints actions in the hands of ABC's management. In any case, the panel is a belated and, I believe, inadequate response to pressure from the Government for action by the ABC to deal with what the Government considers to be growing disquiet about the ABC's programming decisions and its presentation standards.

Those pressures came to a head in January last following the ABC's refusal to have Radio Australia transmit personal messages to troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and by the ABC's perceived bias in its coverage of the Gulf War. But the Gulf War was only the final straw for many Australians. The ABC's obsession with higher ratings is taking it towards the lowest common denominator factor. We are seeing comedies that confuse crudity and vulgarity with humour; an increasing reliance on emotional exploitation and trivia in current affairs programs; objectionable sexual emphases and bad language, particularly in prime viewing time; a lack of professionalism and downright bias during interviewing by leading commentators; and, above all, too much sheer bad taste and a disregard for common decency.

Perhaps this was also in the Government's mind when it made its threat on 19 February that the ABC should either establish an independent body to investigate complaints or be subject to the control of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. The pity is that the Government did not offer the ABC a third option, namely, for it to come within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The Ombudsman offers every advantage; it is a review mechanism which need not directly interfere with the ABC's right of independence; it is a truly independent adjudicator; it is highly respected by the public; and it is an established authority which could take on ABC complaints at a fraction of the cost of setting up the ABC's new review panel. Furthermore, successive ombudsmen have indicated a willingness to undertake this function and have expressed the opinion that their Act already gives them the power to investigate ABC programming decisions. The ABC, for its part, has consistently denied this on the grounds that the Ombudsman's jurisdiction relates to administrative matters and that programming is not such a matter.

The practical effect of this piece of convenient evasiveness has been to deny the general public any effective independent review of their complaints about the ABC. The ABC has been unique within the media industry in this regard and there can be no justification for such a privileged position. Not surprisingly, the ABC has not supported my proposal. In fact, the position is quite the reverse. After presenting my private member's Bill in the Parliament, I received a letter from the ABC's management complaining that I had been neither accurate nor fair in my tabling speech in describing the ABC's newly established independent complaints review panel as an in-house body. The letter stated that panel members are `free to investigate complaints as they see fit and to adjudicate with absolute independence'.

What the ABC's management had obviously overlooked was that only some weeks prior to my receiving its letter, it had sent to all members of parliament a 48-page document dated July 1991 and titled `Editorial and Program Policies'. Section 10 of that document deals with program complaints and subsection 10.3 with the role of the independent complaints review panel. What is clear from this document is that the ABC envisages most program complaints being handled by the relevant program area, as set out in section 10.1.1; that complaints of alleged error of fact and invasion of privacy are to be handled by a community affairs officer, as in section 10.2; and that the panel will `review only those written complaints which relate to allegations of serious bias, lack of balance or unfair treatment arising from an ABC broadcast or broadcasts', as stated in section 10.3.1.

The phrase `serious bias' is of particular importance because section 10.1.1 requires that written complaints are to be handled by the ABC's corporate relations department in conjunction with the appropriate program department. This begs the question as to the nature of the internal ABC procedures that will determine whether a complaint is sufficiently serious as to warrant its being referred from the corporate affairs department to the independent complaints review panel.

The document offers some comment on this. Section 10.3.3 tells us that either the managing director of the ABC or the convenor of the panel will make that decision. However, what are we to make of section 10.3.2, which specifically requires that a written complaint about serious bias, lack of balance or unfair treatment `may only be referred to the panel for review once the ABC's normal complaints handling procedures have been completed'? Clearly, rather than being `free to investigate complaints as they see fit', the complaints panel is heavily restricted by the ABC as to the type of complaint it can review and is heavily dependent on decisions by the ABC's senior management as to the actual complaints referred to it.

Add to this the qualification contained in section 10.3.5, the requirement of section 10.3.6 that a complainant must waive the right to all legal claims before the review can proceed, the provision in section 10.3.10 that a panel's report be passed in the first instance to the managing director, and the prerogative of the managing director, as contained in section 10.3.11, to `decide what action, if any, will be taken as a result of the report', and I suggest that it was more than fair of me to describe the panel as an in-house body.

The answer to all this is that the ABC sees accountability as being a decidedly uncomfortable process because it will require a more responsible and sensitive attitude to complaints. From personal experience, such a change in attitude is very much overdue. Let me give one example. On 18 June last the ABC radio station JJJ broadcast a program called Coming Round the Bend. It was a program about changing sexual practices and attitudes in Australia. However, its offensive language upset many people, and members of parliament have received heavy correspondence. Having not heard the broadcast and believing I should be objective and listen to it before responding to constituents, I wrote to the ABC seeking either a transcript or a tape copy. Mr Hill replied:

I trust you will understand that our limited resources do not allow us to meet frequent requests for copies of programs transmitted at a much earlier date.

Some weeks later a senior executive of the ABC phoned my office and offered to make that transcript available. It still has not arrived. But the point is that the nature of Mr Hill's reply and subsequent action by other officers to counter such an abrupt and dismissive attitude need to be taken into account.

Mr Hill will be hearing more from me about the matter of transcripts, but what is of real importance is the dismissive attitude indicated by the ABC to what was a straightforward inquiry by a member of the Federal Parliament of Australia. One would have thought that such a request from any member of the Federal Parliament should have received a more accepting and rapid response than was provided by Mr Hill. Can Mr Hill wonder why there is rising public disquiet about the ABC's handling of complaints and inquiries, why there will be considerable public cynicism about the effectiveness of the ABC's newly created independent complaints review panel and why the only acceptable solution is for complaints to be investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman? (Time expired)