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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


CHAIR: We will resume our work and welcome to the table officers from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Ms Guthrie, would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Guthrie : In the interests of time I am happy to dispense with an opening statement and go straight to questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: How important do you regard the transcripts that are published by the ABC concerning their own programs?

Ms Guthrie : Transcripts are important but what we have noticed over time is that, because we have so many programs now available on iview and in other ways, transcripts were originally intended as a way of having longevity of the programs and when you can view them on iview at any point in time then it becomes, frankly in some instances, less important.

Senator KIM CARR: How important is it to have accurate transcripts?

Ms Guthrie : Very important.

Senator KIM CARR: Why do you think that is the case?

Ms Guthrie : If it is not accurate then it does not represent what was actually said on the program.

Senator KIM CARR: And who are the people that you think that are actually using the transcripts? Do you have any information on that?

Ms Guthrie : Not specifically in terms of specific programs. I think we have a service that provides transcripts.

Mr Millett : I could provide some more information on that particular subject.

Senator KIM CARR: If you could please, yes.

Mr Millett : There is an automated service which is used to actually do the transcripts and they are normally reviewed by producers of programs afterwards to check against what is actually delivered.

Senator KIM CARR: But, Mr Millett, would you regard it as important to have accurate transcripts?

Mr Millett : I think it certainly assists in the process, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: What about critical? What about absolutely vital? What about being able to rely upon the ABC as an important source of authoritative news in this country?

Mr Millett : I think that is true but, as the MD pointed out, the most authoritative source is the actual program itself and today those are much more readily available than they were before.

Senator KIM CARR: But it would be true, would it not, that other journalists, researchers and different libraries use ABC transcripts as an authoritative source of information about what was actually broadcast by the ABC?

Mr Millett : Some do. I think some do their own transcribing themselves or use other transcription services. But, yes, I mean the ABC does provide a service. It is somewhat more limited these days than it was before, and that is in the interests of efficiency. It is done on the basis that it provides a service as to—

Senator KIM CARR: I would put it to you that historically the ABC has been regarded as one of the most authoritative news sources in this country, and if the ABC said about itself something about what was broadcast they would have a reasonable expectation that that was an accurate reflection of what was actually broadcast.

Mr Millett : I would accept that, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: You would accept that?

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: Why has there been a change in the ABC's transcription services? I understand as of 8 August there has been a change in the policy position for the ABC.

Mr Millett : Yes. As the MD pointed out, we have actually decided to review the amount of captioning done and, for the reasons that the MD indicated, we have tapered our service accordingly.

Senator KIM CARR: How much change have we seen? You have tapered the service, but to what extent?

Mr Millett : In relation to transcription services the ABC has reduced its transcription on some programs and changed the production of time at which they are actually made available for other programs.

Senator KIM CARR: Perhaps you could tell me what exactly you have decided to do.

Mr Millett : I will take that on notice.

Senator KIM CARR: Is Mr Bruce Belsham head of Current Affairs?

Mr Millett : He is head of Current Affairs at the ABC.

Senator KIM CARR: Has he distributed a letter?

Mr Millett : He has distributed a letter to staff.

Senator KIM CARR: And what does that letter say?

Mr Millett : It points out that we are reducing the amount of transcript services we are providing and provides the reasons for doing that.

Senator KIM CARR: It has been put to me that transcripts for AM, The World Today, PM, 7.30 and Lateline have been actually reduced in scope for publication. Is that true?

Mr Millett : Yes, that is true.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it also true that or the Insiders program there is only one transcription kept for the program itself, which is the political interview?

Mr Millett : If you go onto the site itself the transcript is done of the main interview and the video clips are there for every other part of the program.

Senator KIM CARR: I see. Who checks the publication of the transcripts?

Mr Millett : On the Insiders it is done by an associate producer.

Senator KIM CARR: I have raised with Insiders a situation that occurred in regard to an interview undertaken with Chris Bowen on 9 October.

Mr Millett : Yes, I am aware of that.

Senator KIM CARR: And you are also aware that the transcript that was displayed on that day was, in fact, grossly inaccurate?

Mr Millett : I am aware that your office brought to the attention of the program some missing pieces in the transcript.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. Quite substantial pieces were not part of the published transcript. Quite substantial. Can you explain to me how that transcript was actually put together?

Mr Millett : No. I will have to provide a bit more information on that but, as I said, the transcripts are normally done by an automated service and then checked by our producer.

Senator KIM CARR: An automated service?

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: What is the nature of the automated service? Does it just take the spoken word and translate that? Is that by software program?

Mr Millett : I will have to go and check but my understanding is that it is a software program.

Senator KIM CARR: You are aware of it. I understand that you have seen a copy of the original transcript that was published.

Mr Millett : I have seen the original transcript published on the program and I am aware that there were some changes made as a result of contact from your office.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, that is right, and I acknowledge that there has now been a complete transcript published.

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: That is not so much my concern.

Mr Millett : I understand that.

Senator KIM CARR: My concern is the accuracy of the transcripts being displayed by the ABC. Now, this is a case that I can draw attention to simply because I noticed it because it concerned me. You can understand. You are sitting there and you listen to a question.

Mr Millett : When it has your name in it.

Senator KIM CARR: Your colleague is going to answer this question and you are delighted that he answers it so well, and then that transcript is distributed and it is substantially different—that is, there are significant edits that have been put in later in the day and you are told that that came from the ABC website. When you check the ABC website you discover that is not an accurate reflection of the interview. Now, I also understand that the Parliamentary Library distributed that transcript, so a number of people would have seen that particular transcript. Now, it is immaterial what was actually said on this. I take it you are not disputing what I say, that there were substantial edits to that.

Mr Millett : I have not seen the full difference between the two, but I understand that there were—

Senator KIM CARR: We can provide that for you.

Mr Millett : Yes. I am happy to take that.

Senator KIM CARR: It is very, very significant. Now, my question is: how often does this happen?

Mr Millett : I am not quite sure of the answer to that. Yours is the only one that I am aware of where someone has raised deficiencies in the transcript that was provided.

Senator KIM CARR: How much money are you saving by reducing the transcription service?

Mr Millett : Across the whole range of reviewed transcripts it is about $210,000.

Senator KIM CARR: So for $210,000 you think it is worth putting the ABC's reputation at risk?

Mr Millett : Well, my only response to that would be that I am not sure of the level of concern. I mean I am aware of your case, but my view is obviously that there is a need for us to go back and just review to make sure that we are delivering the service that we need to.

Senator KIM CARR: Would you do that?

Mr Millett : I give you that undertaking.

Senator KIM CARR: It does concern me that for such a small amount of money such an important service upon which many people rely—and certainly in this building—but I put it to you across the country, given the significance of the ABC's news gathering service, that we could end up in a situation like this.

Mr Millett : I will give that undertaking to come back.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much. Can you give us an undertaking when you return to the committee that we can be certain that the ABC's published transcripts actually reflect the programs that were broadcast?

Mr Millett : That has obviously got to be the objective.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Senator Hume.

Senator HUME: Can I start by saying that I am actually a very big fan of the ABC and I particularly enjoyed your broadcast of Howard on Menzies. Thank you very much for that televisual feast and I put in a request now that you return Spicks and Specks to the air, which was a show at which I showed a particular flair. My question is to Ms Guthrie.

Senator Fifield: I look forward to a demonstration.

Senator HUME: I am sure you will get that, Minister. My first question is to Ms Guthrie. Are you aware of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 part 2 section 8 under Duties of the Board (1)(c) where it says:

(1) It is the duty of the board:

(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.

Ms Guthrie : Yes, I am.

Senator HUME: Last night's Four Corners program, The Forgotten Children, which I watched this morning while having my breakfast, centred on refugee children and young people in Nauru and to a large extent their claims of a lack of education and the alleged mistreatment at the hands of local Nauruan people. The promotional material for this program says, and I quote the Four Corners website, 'In footage filmed for Four Corners and smuggled out of the country these children talk of their experiences over the last three years.' May I ask who filmed this material for Four Corners?

Ms Guthrie : My understanding is that no journalist for Four Corners was allowed into the country, so it was not filmed by—

Senator HUME: It was not filmed by journalists from Four Corners, so the ABC did not actually film any of that documentary?

Ms Guthrie : My understanding is that it was footage that was provided to the ABC.

Senator HUME: So how much of the program did the ABC itself actually film?

Ms Guthrie : We cannot go to Nauru under the regulations that are currently in place.

Senator HUME: Was the material that was filmed for Four Corners supplied by Amnesty International and Save the Children organisation?

Ms Guthrie : I will have to take on notice where the actual footage came from. Mr Sunderland, who is our editorial director, may have some further information on the processes around the editorial coverage of that or the compliance with editorial policies around that story, but we are very confident that that story complied with our editorial policies.

Mr Sunderland : I am not in a position to tell you precisely who filmed it for the ABC and for Four Corners. There may be, you might appreciate, a degree of sensitivity around that but certainly the understanding I have of it from the program team is that it was filmed at their request and it was provided for them according to what they asked for. It was not physically done by them.

CHAIR: Are you saying that you are not in a position because you do not know?

Mr Sunderland : That is right. I do not know.

Senator HUME: So you do not know who provided the footage and yet you still aired it?

Mr Sunderland : As I said, I do not know. Obviously the program team knows; the editorial chain knows how they obtained the material. What I guess I am foreshadowing to you is that there may be a degree of sensitivity, given the nature of the story and the sources that the journalists need to protect in terms of disclosing precisely who provided that, but we were satisfied that the nature of the material, the way it was gathered, was appropriate and, yes, we stand by the fact that it was filmed for the ABC.

Senator HUME: So were the people that were featured on the story from Save the Children?

Mr Sunderland : I am sorry, the children?

Senator HUME: No, the teachers.

Mr Sunderland : I believe some of them were, yes.

Senator HUME: All of them?

Mr Sunderland : I am not sure that all of them were.

Senator HUME: Both Amnesty International and Save the Children are campaigning and activist entities and, given that, what does the ABC know about how this material was filmed and obtained; in other words, how could you ensure and check accuracy?

Mr Sunderland : I can take that on notice and provide some more detailed information. All I can say to you today is that the program team satisfied themselves that the material was shot in an appropriate manner, that the people that they interviewed were who they said they were and were responding to issues that we wanted and asked them to respond to.

Senator HUME: In the past there have been claims that protests in Nauru have been orchestrated to further the transferees' and refugees' attempts to be relocated to Australia, so how can the ABC be sure that the material supplied to it was not also orchestrated?

Mr Sunderland : This was a story about the experiences of those children and the reflections of the teachers. All of that information was gathered firsthand from those people using the method that we have explained to you.

Senator HUME: But you do not know whom exactly from?

Mr Sunderland : I, personally, as I sit here today, cannot tell you. Obviously the program team would have known and the program team, in gathering that information and going through all the normal editorial checks and balances that are required to satisfy themselves as to the accuracy and the appropriateness of the material, was satisfied that it met all of those criteria, and I have no reason to believe anything to the contrary.

Senator HUME: Given that balance and hearing both sides of any story is a basic tenet of journalism, do you believe that balance was provided in this program?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, I do.

Senator HUME: You do? Do you not believe that really all we heard on this program were the representatives of Save the Children and Amnesty, the story that they wanted to tell and selected stories from the young people on Nauru?

Mr Sunderland : I am sorry, I am not sure what you mean by 'selected stories'.

Senator HUME: Well, you did not interview every child.

Mr Sunderland : No, we did not. We interviewed the children who had a story to tell and we told that story.

Senator HUME: Doesn't every child have a story to tell?

Mr Sunderland : They may well.

Senator HUME: Four Corners reported in that story that the Australian Border Force Act prevented staff of contractors in Nauru from speaking publicly, although strangely that was exactly what they were doing on the program. Now, this has been consistently denied by both the minister and the commissioner of the Australian Border Force and, indeed, the ABC's own fact check website concludes that this is not the case and that whistleblower laws apply extraterritorially, so would you expect greater research and knowledge from your flagship current affairs program or does this demonstrate a bias to present only information which supports the program's preferred portrayal of matters?

Mr Sunderland : I do not believe that it portrays a bias to report only selected matters. My understanding is that the program was accurate, it was well researched, it was well produced and it told a very compelling story. I also would note, of course, that they actively, on a number of occasions, sought a response from the minister, so I believe that they did their job and they did it well. As is the case, of course, with any piece of content we produce, if there are any concerns or issues raised we have processes to deal with those and we deal with them quite openly and examine any concerns raised about it.

Senator HUME: Excellent. I will be talking to you about those processes in a moment. You are aware that Four Corners requested an interview with the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and when the offer was made by the minister to do a live interview on the Four Corners program that offer was rejected?

Mr Sunderland : That is right. I understand that.

Senator HUME: And you are aware that an offer for a departmental staff member to provide information regarding the subjects of the Four Corners program that the Four Corners program said that it was dealing with, that the offer was declined?

Mr Sunderland : No, I am not aware of that.

Senator HUME: That was the case. Anna Henderson tweeted this morning at 11.20, 'The interviews with the children were conducted remotely by Four Corners, and their stories were subjected to the program's usual rigorous fact-checking processes', so can I ask what are those processes?

Mr Sunderland : I am sorry, can I ask who said that?

Senator HUME: Anna Henderson from the ABC tweeted at 11.20 this morning in response to a statement by the Nauru government, 'The interviews with the children were conducted remotely by Four Corners, and their stories were subjected to the program's usual rigorous fact-checking processes.' I am after an answer on what those rigorous fact-checking processes are.

Mr Sunderland : You would appreciate that they vary very much depending on the story and the circumstances. I am not in a position to describe precisely what happened with this particular story, but what I can tell you is that whenever any interviews are done on any subject matter then there is a range of things that you would do, depending on the circumstances, to satisfy yourselves that the person is who they say they are and that where you are able to substantiate facts and other information that supports it, that that happens, and of course, at all times, that appropriate attribution is given so that you know who is making these claims, who they say they are and to the extent that we can support them we do. Now, that will vary greatly depending on the information available to us, our ability to check information out direct hand, or to look at substantiating situations on what we are aware of and what is on the public record, so there is a range of things that happen.

Senator HUME: So did the ABC approach the government of Nauru for comment?

Mr Sunderland : I do not believe so but I would have to take that on notice to be absolutely sure. Obviously on many occasions in the past on this issue we have approached the Nauru government for information on a range of issues. On this particular story I do not believe we did. I believe that is because we felt the issues the story raised were particularly relevant to the Australian government, whom, of course, we did approach.

Senator HUME: Certainly the government of Nauru put out a statement this morning suggesting that you did not approach them and, in fact, that you represented the situation on Nauru very differently, including showing an old school that was not being used any more and an old hospital that is not being used any more.

Mr Sunderland : I know that the Nauru government put out a statement today. I have seen that and I understand their view. I do not have any reason to believe that there was anything inaccurate or inappropriate in what we represented on the program last night.

Mr Millett : The issue is also that we cannot get to Nauru to actually see the school, whether it is an old one or a new one.

Senator HUME: But you certainly could approach the government.

Mr Millett : We have approached the government in the past and given their view, but the point is that we do not get access to Nauru to talk about these issues.

Senator HUME: Did the ABC approach the Department of Immigration for comment?

Mr Sunderland : I understand that they approached the government. I do not have the precise details of who and over what period of time, but I understand that it was the government, the minister in particular, that they approached to respond to the issues raised which I would say, from my perspective, is entirely the appropriate thing to do.

Senator HUME: So substantially the program contained claims of a lack of educational opportunities for refugee and transferee youth and it sought to show educational facilities in a poor light. Do you think, in the interests of balance, it could and should have reported and used video of the new school facilities opened on Nauru in recent weeks?

Mr Sunderland : What I would say is that that program last night told the stories of a number of individuals. That is the important part of that story. It told the story, the direct real-life experiences, of a particular group of people.

Senator HUME: So my understanding is you were made aware of the video of the new school facilities and it was offered to the program but it was not used.

Mr Sunderland : I am not aware of whether it was offered or not. I am also unaware of the extent to which it was relevant if what we are doing is telling the precise stories of those individuals, but I would have to take that level of detail on notice.

Senator HUME: Do you think that it should have also reported that the Australian government contracts Brisbane Catholic Education to provide extensive support services to the Nauru Department of Education?

Mr Sunderland : I think what that story needed to do last night is what it did do, which is to tell the story of a number of identified real human beings and then to seek an appropriate response to their circumstances. It was not the kind of program which was designed, and nor should it be, to have surveyed all aspects of all parts of our policy in relation to Nauru.

Senator HUME: So it was selective?

Mr Sunderland : It was telling the story of those children and then seeking a response to that story.

Senator HUME: So it was selective?

Mr Sunderland : No, it was not selective in an inappropriate way, if that is what you are suggesting. It was telling real stories of real people who were indicative of an issue and then seeking a response to it. I am not trying to be argumentative here. I am just trying to explain the nature of this kind of program against the backdrop of the range of reporting we have done and continue to do about this issue which would, over time, pick up all manner of issues, but not last night and not in that particular program.

Senator HUME: So while numerous claims were broadcast last night that there was a lack of educational opportunities, would it not have been pertinent to report that, in fact, some 20 young refugees are actually studying courses at the moment through the University of the South Pacific?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I think it was because it was telling the story of the issues with those particular children and the impact of their experience; that was quite clearly the focus of the program.

Senator HUME: Do you believe then that balance was provided in the program?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, I do. I think I mentioned that before.

Senator HUME: You are not concerned that Four Corners sought to portray one particular view, one that aligns with the activist organisations that appear to have provided all of the material for the program?

Mr Sunderland : No, I am not.

Senator HUME: Was it merely a coincidence then that another Amnesty International report regarding Nauru was made public at 8.30 pm last night, just as the ABC Four Corners program commenced?

Mr Sunderland : No, I would not say it was a coincidence. I think clearly Amnesty International had issues that they wanted to raise through the report and they were an obvious organisation to comment in the context of this story.

Senator HUME: So neither was it coincidental then that the author of that report appeared on the Four Corners program?

Mr Sunderland : No, I would not have thought that it was a coincidence at all.

Senator HUME: Given that past Four Corners programs have also relied heavily on activist organisations to provide much of the video for its programs—and I refer to the live cattle trade program and the greyhound baiting program—do you have concerns that the ABC's flagship current affairs program is too reliant on activist organisations to provide its content?

Mr Sunderland : No, not at all. I will not go into great detail and waste the committee's time now, but I would point out that there has been extensive discussion and quite a lot of detail around the two stories that you referred to, and without going through all of that again, I would simply reinforce that certainly on occasions vision is provided to us by activist organisations who wish to expose issues, but the ABC is responsible for then taking that information, adding to it, satisfying itself of the veracity and the newsworthiness of it before we use it, so it is the processes that we put in place, whether it be vision we shot ourselves—and I would point out that the live cattle is a perfect example where it was a mix of vision that we had shot ourselves as well as vision we had received. That option, sadly, was not open to us in relation to Nauru. We could not supplement the material we received and that we organised to have shot in that unusual fashion on our behalf. We were not in a position to supplement that with our own direct filming on Nauru.

Senator HUME: Will the ABC hold an inquiry or review into the making of this Four Corners program?

Mr Sunderland : I have no reason to believe we should. What I would say is, as with all of our programming, which we proudly stand by, we are not perfect. We are not the only media organisation in the world that is perfect, and if anybody wants to draw to our attention concerns or complaints we will always investigate them with our internal complaints unit and respond as best we can to any issues that are raised.

Senator HUME: If there is not an inquiry already slated, why not? Is it because there have not been enough complaints yet?

Mr Sunderland : No. It is because I see nothing. I saw it as an excellent piece of journalism. But, as I say, if there is a complaint we will look at it.

Senator HUME: So what would it take?

Mr Sunderland : We do not launch inquiries into excellent pieces of journalism.

Senator HUME: What would it take?

CHAIR: If there are complaints?

Mr Sunderland : Of course if there is a complaint we will review it.

CHAIR: Is what Senator Hume is raising today justified or considered a complaint?

Mr Sunderland : If you have specific concerns that you do not feel I have appropriately answered today or, having taken some matters on notice where we will get back to you with more detail, if you are dissatisfied with that please do not hesitate to let us know and, yes, of course, if you have a complaint that you would like to make about the program we will look into it just as we would with any other complaint.

Senator HUME: So is this an adequate complaints process? Can I get an assurance from you that there will be a review or an inquiry into this program?

Mr Sunderland : No. The assurance that you can get—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Point of order!


Senator WHISH-WILSON: With this line of questioning the senator has gone down—

CHAIR: That is not a point of view.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: She just asked the same question.

CHAIR: That's not a point of order. Senator Hume, you have the call.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: This is a deliberate strategy so that next time you do not—

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson! Senator Hume, you have the call.

Mr Sunderland : Let me make it clear: I have answered every question that you have asked me. Those that I cannot answer I have taken on notice. If, in addition to that, you have other matters that you are not satisfied with, then this is absolutely the appropriate vehicle for you to ask them and I will do my best to respond, either now or take it on notice.

Senator HUME: So what would be the catalyst to holding an inquiry or a review into this particular program?

Mr Sunderland : It is a bit difficult to know what you mean by a review, but it might be helpful if I tell you that any complaint alleging any kind of editorial failing or shortcoming will be investigated. It will be investigated not by me, not by the news division who made the program, but by our independent complaints handling unit who will look into that and make a determination. Then, of course, if that does not satisfy people who have raised concerns, ACMA, the regulator, will also look at it.

Beyond that, from time to time, we institute reviews. You referred earlier to the board's responsibilities in relation to ensuring that the gathering of news and current affairs is independent and accurate according to recognised standards. That obligation, which we take very seriously as an organisation, means that from time to time we conduct all manner of reviews of programs, not because we think there is a problem with them but just general reviews from time to time. Now, it may well be that this gets caught up in one of those reviews, but what I want to make clear is that I see no reason to conduct any kind of review into this program based on flaws or problems with it because as we sit here today I thought, and I think I have made that clear, that it was an excellent piece of journalism.

Senator HUME: So by your condoning of the presentation of the program last night do you think your board of directors has met their duties under section 8 of the Australian Broadcasting Act to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to recognised standards of objective journalism?

Mr Sunderland : Well, I would not call it condoning but, yes, I do.

Senator HUME: You think the board would be happy with that?

Mr Sunderland : Well, I have never found it a useful practice to put myself as speaking on behalf of the board, but speaking as the editorial director of the ABC, yes.

Senator HUME: May I ask then if there is a review or an inquiry done into this program that the report that that review or inquiry creates comes back to this committee, please?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, certainly. The only proviso that I would add is that we have a certain amount of confidentiality into complaints processes; that is, in respect of the complainants but, generally speaking, yes, of course.

Senator HUME: And will that report on that inquiry be presented to your board, also?

Mr Sunderland : Well, we are talking about a hypothetical inquiry that does not exist and a report that does not exist and the process—

Senator HUME: I am still quite unsure as to—

Mr Sunderland : so it is difficult for me to work out what the provenance and delivery would be for a report that does not happen.

Senator HUME: I am still unsure as to exactly what the processes are that would lead you to undertake an inquiry. How many complaints do you need?

Mr Sunderland : We do not launch inquiries based on the number of complaints or the lack of complaints. We investigate thoroughly and independently, within the confines of what we can possibly do independently, any editorial complaint that is raised.

Senator HUME: Any editorial complaint that is raised?

Mr Sunderland : Any editorial complaint that is raised is investigated, followed up and responded to.

Senator HUME: By whom?

Mr Sunderland : By Audience and Consumer Affairs, which is our independent internal complaints investigator.

Senator HUME: So Audience and Consumer Affairs have to initiate a complaint in order for it to go to some sort of—

Mr Sunderland : No. They do not have to—

Mr Millett : The public can make a complaint which is then investigated.

Senator HUME: Is there a number of complaints that are required before we get to that?

Ms Guthrie : No.

Mr Millett : No, every complaint is investigated.

Ms Guthrie : Every complaint.

Senator Fifield: Chair, obviously I would never seek to put words in the mouth of another senator, but I think Senator Hume would have the expectation that what she has presented here today would be taken as a complaint.

Senator HUME: Yes.

Senator Fifield: And that that might initiate a review.

Senator HUME: Thank you, Minister. Yes, I would be very happy for that to be taken as a complaint.

CHAIR: I am just going ask a clarifying question. You acknowledge that this is a contentious issue in the public space?

Mr Sunderland : Certainly.

CHAIR: And that the story that you presented last night would feed one side of the argument in that contentious space?

Mr Sunderland : I know what you are saying. I would be reluctant to say it feeds one side of the argument. It raises some issues of concern.

CHAIR: Issues of concern but, similarly, and to use the example that Senator Hume raised, there are 20 students there who are studying at the University of the South Pacific. If you did a story on those students it would probably feed the other side of the argument. Would you acknowledge that?

Mr Sunderland : I understand what you are saying.

CHAIR: I think that is where Senator Hume's concern is coming from and other people hold concerns about it. Senator Dastyari.

Senator DASTYARI: On this matter just so that I can get it straight, you are not allowed to go to Nauru; correct?

Mr Sunderland : We can apply. We can pay $8,000 to request permission to go to Nauru. We have, in the past, applied to go to Nauru and been knocked back and the Nauruan government has, on a number of occasions, quite publicly made it clear that they are not happy with our kind of journalism and are unlikely to allow us to go to Nauru.

Senator DASTYARI: Look, obviously as the editorial director you are aware that different organisations, for whatever their own ideological bent or agenda, will try to use programs like Four Corner to push their point of view. That is a matter for them. You are making your decisions based separately of that; is that correct?

Mr Sunderland : Absolutely.

Senator DASTYARI: What are you making your decisions based on? Is it journalistic public interest?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, the public interest and essentially that is what our editorial polices are there for. Our process is around accuracy, impartiality, a diversity of perspectives, fairness and a reasonable opportunity to respond. All of these issues feed into our editorial processes.

Senator DASTYARI: With the editorial process and with this idea of a kind of review I had a different understanding of this so maybe I have got this wrong, it is not a matter of the volume of complaints, it is about the content of what that complaint is; is that correct?

Mr Sunderland : Correct.

Senator DASTYARI: So I assume that there are certain issues—hot button issues—that receive a lot more complaints, be it marriage equality, live cattle or whatever is the issue at that point in time that appears to be quite politically sensitive, that would generate, is it fair to say as a general rule, one way or the other you get more complaints based on issues that are topical as opposed to necessarily when you do the review?

Mr Sunderland : Yes. It varies. We get a substantial number. We get huge amounts of audience feedback. We get a substantial number of complaints within that and there are quite a lot of complaints which are editorial in nature as opposed to, 'I didn't like the way your hair was done last night on air.' Those ones will spike according to the—

Senator DASTYARI: The steps that are taken then are based on the assessment. I just want to get this clear. Having 50 complaints or having one complaint is not the issue. The issue is whether or not there is a factual issue or problem within the content that was provided; is that correct?

Mr Sunderland : Yes. Very briefly, we have a proportionality test which we apply in dealing with the large number of complaints that we get.

Senator DASTYARI: I assume you have a triage.

Mr Sunderland : Every editorial complaint must go to the Audience and Consumer Affairs team. It cannot be decided by a content division whether this complaint is serious or not. Every complaint that is editorial or appears editorial in nature goes to Audience and Consumers Affairs. Audience and Consumer Affairs will look at it. With some of them they will go, 'This is a very straightforward, very minor, not a particularly complex or significant complaint. We will send it back to the content division', and then say, 'Respond to that complainant, please.' The more significant ones they say, 'We will actually investigate this complaint. Please, content division, respond and tell us what you think.' They will ask questions. They will engage. They will do their own research and they will then conclude by saying, 'We have found a breach of our policies', or 'We have not found a breach of our policies.'

Senator DASTYARI: This is the last question on this line of questioning. Is it fair to say that flagship and/or the kind of more cutting edge news and current affairs programs like Four Corners, which obviously have a wider reach than what may be on at two in the morning and elsewhere, but the kind of flagship and those that are also kind of pushing the breaking stories tend to find that they have more complaints than those other programs? I would assume that is the case.

Mr Sunderland : Broadly speaking, that is probably pretty right. I mean I have not got the number written down but I would say that would be pretty right.

Senator DASTYARI: I have got questions on other matters. Do you want me to go with them now?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a simple question.

CHAIR: A question on this?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How do you differentiate between what is essentially a political complaint? The judiciary has a way of dealing with political considerations in its judgments. How do you actually sort it out? These are highly contentious and political issues and clearly people have got different politics.

Mr Sunderland : We do not, is the short answer. We take every complaint on its merits. We do not pay particular regard to where it has come from and what its provenance is. We will look at that complaint and judge it on the merits of what it is alleging about our work. We err on the side of being inclusive in that respect and we do not dismiss or downgrade complaints because it is from a source that you would expect to complain, for example. We take every complaint, we deal with and we engage with it on its merits.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You must be pretty busy. How many people have you got working in the complaints department?

Mr Sunderland : In terms of complaints handlers there would be fewer than 10. There would seven or eight people who do that. We have a couple of others who simply direct the traffic and log the system but there might be six or seven actual complaints investigators.

Senator ABETZ: Ms Guthrie, welcome. Do you agree that the ABC has a legal obligation not to favour one viewpoint over another?

Ms Guthrie : We certainly have an obligation under the charter and under our editorial policies, as Mr Sunderland talked about, to have accuracy, impartiality and diversity of perspectives.

Senator ABETZ: And in relation to my question, do you agree that the ABC has a legal obligation not to favour one point of view over another?

Ms Guthrie : I am not quite sure. I have already answered what I think our legal obligation is, which is that our legal obligation is under the act and the editorial policies to comply with those policies and to present news and information with due impartiality, diversity of perspectives and not to favour one perspective over another.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. It is not to favour one perspective over another. Can I ask you whether, since you have taken on the role, you have made any observations about ABC Radio and Radio National in relation to that particular issue, that is the issue of bias and favouring one point of view over another?

Ms Guthrie : I do not believe that I have seen that.

Senator ABETZ: I am sorry?

Ms Guthrie : I do not believe that there is such a bias or favouring of one perspective over another in the course of Radio National.

Senator ABETZ: I shocked myself when I found that the Fairfax Media itself printed an article by Jonathan Holmes, the former anchor of ABC's Media Watch, that actually made this allegation against ABC Radio and Radio National. So it is not a coalition senator making this point, it is ABC Media Watch's former anchorman in Fairfax Media confirming to the readers that there was this unfortunate bias. I refer your attention to the article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 April 2016 in which he said:

It's also undeniable … that the ABC's capital city radio presenters come across, overwhelmingly, as leaning more to the left than the right. I say 'undeniably', but senior ABC managers for decades have chosen, if not to deny it, then to ignore it, and they've certainly failed to do anything about it.

Can I ask, Ms Guthrie, will you join that sad list of ABC managers over the decades or will you actually do something about it?

Ms Guthrie : Is that a question?

Senator ABETZ: Yes, it is. It has got a question mark after it. I would have thought you would have understood that. Are you going to do anything about it or are you going to join that sad list?

Ms Guthrie : I disagree with the premise of the question there.

Senator ABETZ: I am sorry?

Ms Guthrie : I disagree with the premise of the question because the premise of the question assumes that there has been some bias in the previous managing directors and I do not believe that is true.

Senator ABETZ: Even if you reject the premise that ABC managers for decades have chosen if not to deny it then to ignore it, and they have—

Senator O'NEILL: That is an opinion.

Senator ABETZ: Are you all right there?

Senator O'NEILL: Yes, absolutely.

Senator ABETZ: Good. Thank you. They have certainly failed to do anything about it. So you reject that. Do you reject Mr Holmes's observation after many years as an ABC anchorman of Media Watch that it is undeniable that the ABC's Capital Radio presenters come across overwhelmingly as leaning more to the left than the right?

Ms Guthrie : That is an opinion with which I disagree.

Senator ABETZ: So you reject that as well?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: And what about Radio National? That is straight down the middle as well, I suppose. It does not favour one point of view over another?

Ms Guthrie : I do not believe that it does.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Senator—

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson, you do not have the call.

Senator ABETZ: These are not my allegations; these are allegations printed in the Fairfax Media written by the ABC's former anchorman of Media Watch. It is not my allegation.

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, ignore the objection from Senator Whish-Wilson.

Senator ABETZ: They are allegations of bias.

CHAIR: Is there a question of the ABC or are you about to ask another one?

Senator ABETZ: It looks as though, Ms Guthrie, you may have been captured because Mr Holmes continues to say:

If Mark Scott's successor Michelle Guthrie decides she wants to tackle this issue, she'll have her work cut out. She'll be facing an entrenched culture within the ABC.

And it looks as though they have already got you.

Ms Guthrie : Is that a comment?

Senator ABETZ: Well, it was editorialised, I agree. Can I take you to question number 57 from February 2016 of the estimates.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can I make a point of order, Chair?


Senator WHISH-WILSON: I think Senator Abetz should withdraw that comment. That was unparliamentary. He was clearly reflecting on Ms Guthrie's character saying that she has been captured by the left-wing within the Labor—within the ABC.

Senator ABETZ: Freudian slip.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, so I think you should withdraw that.

Senator ABETZ: Within the Labor Party ABC.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is on Hansard.

CHAIR: I acknowledge that Senator Abetz's comment was in the form of a statement rather than a question. I do not think it was unparliamentary, but I would remind Senator Abetz that we are here to ask questions, not to make statements.

Senator ABETZ: I am just noting that this is the former ABC anchorman making these comments in Fairfax Media. It is not me; it is not me at all.

CHAIR: Make it in the form of a question, please.

Senator ABETZ: He went on to observe that, 'She', referring to yourself, Ms Guthrie:

She'll also need to consider that those of right-wing opinions long since stopped listening to large chunks of ABC radio's (and especially RN's) output, and will be very hard indeed to attract back.

Do you agree with that observation by the ABC's former anchorman of Media Watch?

Ms Guthrie : No, I do not.

Senator ABETZ: You have got a lot of disagreements with Mr Holmes, in that case. Can we move on to question number 57, a question on notice from last estimates in February 2016, and it follows on from Senator Hume's questioning about ABC's portrayal of matters in Nauru. Do you have that in front of you?

Ms Guthrie : I do not have that. I am sorry, I do not have the February transcript in front of me.

Senator ABETZ: No questions on notice? We do not need the transcript.

Ms Guthrie : Not for February. I have those for May but I do not have those for February, I am afraid.

Senator ABETZ: They were written on 12 February 2016. You do not have them?

Ms Guthrie : I do not have them in front of me, I am afraid.

Senator ABETZ: It refers to the false allegations that were aired on the ABC about a five-year-old, and I dare say the people at the table will know the issue that I am referring to where certain matters were aired, and when I asked on how many radio and TV stations stating which and how often was this false report broadcast by the ABC we were told, 'Five versions of the original story', and then I am given quite a detailed answer. Then I asked later on, 'On how many occasions has the ABC broadcast an apology and correction for airing the false allegations?' Would you agree with me that the apologies were aired a lot less than the actual allegations?

Mr Sunderland : I do not have the benefit of having that in front of me so I must apologise for that. I cannot reflect on the numbers that you have in front of you but it may well be the case that, depending on how far and wide the correction was made on the original program or on the original location, it may not have been made on every outlet right across where it may have gone to air. That may well be the case.

Senator ABETZ: And is that not just a complete failure by the ABC? Surely if a false broadcast is made, as the national broadcaster hopefully setting standards, would you not, at least, broadcast an apology and retraction as often and on each individual station on which you broadcast the false allegation? Why would you not do that just as a matter of common decency?

Mr Sunderland : My first answer would be that it is a little more complicated than that.

Senator ABETZ: It always is with the ABC, but tell us about the complication.

Mr Sunderland : I am happy to. If you look at our editorial policy on this the most important thing about our corrections is that they are effective and they do the job. Now, it is not a simple matter that if something is said on air the correction must necessarily be on air. It depends on the nature of the correction and the time that has elapsed between it. I see you shaking your head. Do you want me to stop or do you want me to keep going?

Senator ABETZ: Well, the gobbledegook that is coming out, if it is to be—

Mr Sunderland : Well, maybe I will just leave it there.

Senator ABETZ: If it is to be an effective apology, surely if you broadcast something on a local radio station then to be effective as an absolute minimum you must go on air on that local radio station.

Mr Sunderland : Not necessarily.

Senator ABETZ: Putting it online where half a dozen people look at it is effective?

Mr Sunderland : Not necessarily.

Senator ABETZ: Can you explain to me how it is effective by not putting it on air on that radio station in which the ABC broadcast the mischief?

Mr Sunderland : I am happy to. It depends upon the nature of the error, the time that has elapsed between that broadcast and when it has been determined and realised that an error has been made.

Senator ABETZ: All right. If I may, to focus attention, let us talk about this particular one, about a five-year-old allegedly being raped, which we now agree was a false assertion. It is a pretty ugly assertion that would horrify, I would imagine, 100 per cent of your listening audience. Would they like to know that on a bit of further research that was, in fact, false; it was wrong?

Mr Sunderland : Absolutely.

Senator ABETZ: And, therefore, they can have their concerns and fears allayed. Would that not be the only effective way of communicating to that particular audience?

Mr Sunderland : You need to make a decision about where, when and how they are most likely going to come across that correction, where it is a correction of crucial information. While large parts of that story remained valid and important and accurate, there were certain parts which were wrong and needed to be corrected. I absolutely agree with you and our aim is to effectively communicate that to the audience. Now, sometimes it is appropriate to go straight back on the same program with the same time of the day and assume that exactly the same people are going to be listening, but that is not necessarily going to be the case. People do not listen at the same time every day. Sometimes—

Senator ABETZ: I fully agree with that but not broadcasting at all cannot, in any way, shape or form, be described as an effective methodology.

Mr Sunderland : I am sorry, I have got some information now. We did broadcast it on many of our biggest and most popular—

Senator ABETZ: On many but not all.

Mr Sunderland : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: That is my point: not all. Why not?

Mr Sunderland : Can I suggest that we are in complete agreement on the importance of effective corrections that reach as many people as possible. All I am trying to suggest to you—and I do not want to speak gobbledegook and I do not want to over complicate the matter—is that these are matters for judgment on how best and how effectively to do that and all I am suggesting to you is that it is not necessarily the case that identifying every outlet that it appeared on, was seen and heard on, and then at exactly the same time of the day, some days later, makes it necessarily the most effective or best way to do it. There is a range of other matters and we do the best we can. We make the best judgment we can—and we do not always get it right—to effectively communicate openly those corrections. That is the message that I am trying to get across to you.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but now coming to the specifics, if a local radio station broadcasts a mischief, a falsehood, that you accept is wrong, how can you say it is effective communication to correct that falsehood and mischief by not broadcasting anything at all at any time on that particular outlet?

Mr Sunderland : Well, certainly it went across all of our national outlets, the 7 pm TV News, News 24 and 7.30

Senator ABETZ: Yes, I have got the answer in front of me.

Mr Sunderland : I now have it in front of me too.

Senator ABETZ: Good.

Mr Sunderland : And it was on ABC Radio news. ABC Radio News is taken on every single one of our local regional and national radio outlets, so a correction on ABC Radio news goes across all of those outlets and anyone who listens to our news will hear that correction.

Senator ABETZ: Can I ask you to have a look at the answer to (1)(a) at four lines down. 'We were told the local radio network', and then on (f), in relation to on-air apologies and corrections, can you show me where it tells me that it was broadcast onto 'the local radio network'? It was not, was it?

Mr Sunderland : Thank you. Now that I have the detailed information in front of me it appears that this may be a simple misunderstanding because the—

Senator ABETZ: No doubt like the original broadcast.

Mr Sunderland : No, perhaps different. If you look at that fifth line that you referred me to.

Senator ABETZ: In (a) or (f)?

Mr Sunderland : In (a), 'Local radio network'.

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : The full phrase is 'on ABC Radio news across the local radio network'.

Senator ABETZ: The network, yes. That is where the mischief was broadcast.

Mr Sunderland : So the correction (f), when it refers to ABC Radio news, is identical. Perhaps the problem here is it has not been expressed in precisely the same way but to talk about ABC Radio news across the local radio network and ABC Radio news is, in fact, the same thing.

Senator ABETZ: Well, we have different answers. Then if that is the case can you tell us about why we have five versions of the original story—that is going back to (a)? How many versions of the apology did we make? Was it just the one?

Mr Sunderland : The reason there would have been five versions, I would hypothesise—and, again, without going into great detail—is that there was a long story on 7.30. There was an online version of that. There was a shorter radio version that was made. There may have been more than one shorter radio version that was made and there may have been a piece for AM, so you could easily imagine. Now, if you are correcting the salient facts you are going to correct the salient facts that were errors in every single one of those stories and you are going to broadcast, so you do not need to create five different versions of the correction to correct the salient matters across those key areas.

In this case, again, I apologise if there is a lack of clarity in the nature of this written response from February this year, but on this occasion it would appear that a correction, perhaps because the error was identified so quickly, was broadcast across all of the relevant networks, but I would nonetheless add and caution that that is not necessarily always the most effective way to achieve the outcome that we all want.

Senator ABETZ: In relation to question (b), where I asked, 'Who was responsible for allowing this false broadcast to go to air?', we have got one of these greasy pig-type answers where you cannot catch anybody; you think you have got hold of them and they slip through your hands. We are given the answer, 'Responsibility for the error is shared amongst several unidentified people including the reporter and editorial managers.' Does the buck stop ever, any time, anywhere, with anybody in the ABC, ever?

Mr Sunderland : The whole point—

Senator ABETZ: Does somebody take responsibility and say, 'Yes, it's me. I'm responsible'?

Mr Sunderland : The whole point of upward referral in an organisation like the ABC is to ensure that there are a number of people involved who need to take responsibility for errors when errors occur, and it would be inaccurate and misleading for us to suggest on the vast majority of occasions that there is one identifiable individual who has full responsibility. Now, this example is a perfect one. We all know who the reporter was. The reporter went to air with that story. It would be inappropriate for us to suggest that that reporter take sole blame when there is a producer who is engaged in viewing that. There is the second pair of eyes who looks at a story. There are other people involved in the discussions and the meetings. There is quite often upward referral to my team for advice and input and it is absolutely appropriate that we reflect that in our responses to you that there are a number of people. Whenever we make an error it is because our system failed us and there are rarely situations where one person is responsible. It is as simple as that.

Senator ABETZ: And in this one?

Mr Sunderland : In this one it is absolutely the case.

Senator ABETZ: So how many people were responsible in this chain of events that allowed this mischief to be broadcast?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I am not in a position to give you a precise number on that but I would certainly be able to tell you that that program team—and on my recollection it is that this came from the national reporting team and it was produced for 7.30. So you would have the reporter. You would have a researcher that worked with the reporter. You would have the producer of the national reporting team. You would have the producer of the 7.30. You would have any editorial adviser who might have been asked for assistance on various aspects of the story.

My recollection of this story was that there was a range of information given from a range of sources and some of that information was conflated and led to inaccuracies. There were allegations of sexual assault. There were allegations involving children. There were errors in the detail and as soon as those errors, which were quite serious and important, were brought to our attention we corrected them. The fundamental story contained a lot of information which was valid and useful but there was an error and it was an error that we spent some time looking at how we can make sure that we have greater rigour and greater clarity in the way these things are recorded.

Senator ABETZ: So when I asked what was the source of this false information I was told, 'The source of the error was confusion about comments made by a source who spoke to the ABC.'

Mr Sunderland : Correct.

Senator ABETZ: Well, as I understand it, people do not speak to the ABC, they speak to individual people within the ABC. It seems as though the socialisation of responsibility just spans out further and further and nobody actually takes responsibility for what, on this occasion, was a very, very serious error, mischief and a falsehood, but in moving on—

Mr Sunderland : I do need to add, just so that you are clear about our view on this, it was an error. It was an inaccuracy and it was a serious inaccuracy. It was not deliberate and it was not mischief.

Senator ABETZ: I am sorry?

Mr Sunderland : It was not deliberate and it was not mischief, which you have characterised it as. I just want to make it clear that we do not consider for an instant that it was mischievous or false. It was inaccurate and it was an error, and a serious one.

Senator ABETZ: I was trying to use a more neutral term than a falsehood or something of that nature.

Mr Sunderland : Well, mischief would suggest intent and it is important to put that on the record.

Senator ABETZ: I accept that and I stand corrected on that. We are agreed it was a false report. It was wrong. It was incorrect.

Mr Sunderland : It was inaccurate. It was serious and we took it seriously.

Senator ABETZ: Therefore, decisions about further actions are under consideration, I was told, in paragraph (e). Have those decisions been made and, if so, what further actions have been undertaken?

Mr Sunderland : I think the issues that you have seen there—

Senator ABETZ: It is in the middle of the body of that answer.

Mr Sunderland : Yes. I have got it. Thank you. The person principally responsible was strongly counselled, certainly. The incident has been discussed in detail. I can confirm that because I was a party to those discussions. Further actions—

Senator ABETZ: I am only asking about the further actions that are under consideration. Has the consideration finished and, if so, what further actions, if any, were taken?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, and it is my understanding that that is complete and that the key thing that flowed from that is what was foreshadowed there, which was the specific training sessions and other sessions being planned. I can confirm that they have taken place and they, at least partly, flowed from this error and a need to make sure that we refined, reiterated and reinforced our processes.

Senator ABETZ: That obviated my next question so thank you for that. Ms Guthrie, I note that in recent times you were looking for diversity of presenters on the ABC to be potentially people of a non-English speaking background. Is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : I think what you are referring to is a statement I made to the staff probably the day or very soon after the day I took on the role really pointing out that I think one of the opportunities that we had at the ABC was to be more reflective of the community in which we operate. I pointed out that 28 per cent of Australians were born overseas and it is incumbent on us as we—

Senator ABETZ: I might add a very important 28 per cent.

Ms Guthrie : Absolutely. It is incumbent on us to make sure that our staff are reflective of that diversity but also that our on-air content and our on-air presenters are also reflective of that diversity.

Senator ABETZ: I welcome that and I do note as one wag, I think it was Chris Kenny, noted the number of people with English accents seems to outweigh any other nationality on the ABC. Whether that is correct or not I do not know, but inquire as to whether any analysis has been done of that which was asserted by Chris Kenny. It seems to be a disproportionate number. That is what I think he is asserting.

Ms Guthrie : I think it is something that we are very conscious of across all of our divisions. It is not just, frankly, for our own employed presenters or other staff but also the people in which we engage to be interviewed, to be on panels, to be on discussions, on programs that are not employed by the ABC, so I think it is important.

Senator ABETZ: Including the Q&A panel? It would be nice to have a bit of balance on that for once! Can I finish off by welcoming your commitment to diversity in relation to people's ethnic backgrounds. Could I also excite your interest, hopefully, to get some diversity in relation to people's views as suggested by Jonathan Holmes, not myself, but a former ABC anchorman of Media Watch to include that in your push for diversity as well.

CHAIR: Is that a question asking them whether—

Senator ABETZ: No. I am inviting her to do so. Thank you.

CHAIR: I think we would have Senator Di Natale but we will go to Senator Dastyari.

Senator DASTYARI: Ms Guthrie, I want to try and run through this fairly quickly as I know we are running a fair bit over time. I just wanted to touch on the issue of ABC Splash very quickly if we can. ABC Splash had over 3,000 educational games, videos and teaching resources for schools and students. Now, this is my understanding but this could be wrong, that the funding for the online resource was due to expire in July 2016. Has that expired?

Ms Guthrie : The specific funding for Splash has expired. The separate funding for that has expired.

Senator DASTYARI: Has that been discontinued?

Ms Guthrie : Not at this stage. I strongly believe that Splash and our commitment to education is extremely important for the ABC. It is obviously also part of our charter, so I have encouraged the team to really look at trying to come with a more cross-ABC education strategy that obviously includes assets and key engagements that we have and programs like Behind the News, like Splash and other things.

Senator DASTYARI: Is it fair to say that it is still going at the moment but you do not have the money to keep it going?

Ms Guthrie : We do not have specific funding for it. We are trying to determine and plan an ABC education strategy that we can help sort of understand what that funding and what the requirement might look like.

Senator DASTYARI: I should know the answer to this and I do not, so my apologies. When is the envelope for your three-year training funding up again?

Mr Pendleton : We are in the first year of the new training.

Senator DASTYARI: From my understanding of the funding that expired it was $1 million a year for this program.

Mr Pendleton : I would have to check. It was done between trienniums and it was a grant of funds that was applied for for the Splash program.

Senator DASTYARI: Do you know what the grant was off the top of your head?

Mr Pendleton : I would have to check.

Senator DASTYARI: I have got $1 million a year here. Does that sound about right?

Ms Guthrie : I think we will take that on notice to be specific.

Mr Pendleton : I can take it on notice. It was spent over a longer period. It was slower to get out the door and there was cash left over towards the end of it.

Senator DASTYARI: So what you are saying, Ms Guthrie, is that you are, at this stage, trying to find a way to keep it going but you cannot commit to keeping it going without individual specific funding?

Ms Guthrie : We are hopeful of trying to find resources from within our existing funding envelope to support a cross-ABC education strategy, and that includes Splash, because we believe it is so fundamental to our purpose and our charter operations.

Senator DASTYARI: I am very conscious of the time so I will race through this. I want to talk about women's sport. The Australian Sports Commission review, which I am sure you are aware of, found that seven per cent of non-news programming on TV was devoted to women's sport. That level remains unchanged since 2010, which is obviously a concern. I just want to turn to the ABC's coverage of women's sport. I understand you have a lot of competing interests and a lot of competing balances all competing for the same pool of money. I do note that in the past few years since 2014 that the ABC has pulled back on some of its sports coverage and my understanding is that since 2014, in the absorption of funding cuts—and you can call it what you want; decreases in future funding or whatever you want to call them, but I call them funding cuts—the ABC has pulled back on some of its sports coverage. Is that a matter of fact?

Ms Guthrie : That is true in relation to coverage of TV sports. Production of large sporting coverage is very expensive, as you know, as well as rights.

Senator DASTYARI: Yes, and in addition to that, as part of that, obviously the overall cut in sports coverage also resulted in a similar cut in women's sports coverage. Is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : I will have to take on notice the specifics around that but I can confirm that our live sports coverage on television has definitely decreased over the last few years.

Senator DASTYARI: Is there any plan to improve the coverage of women's sport including women's NBL, the ICC Women's Cricket Cup and the Women's Asian Cup? Is there a specific policy in place about women's sport? Is there a team or workforce? How does that all work?

Ms Guthrie : We have a head of sport across the ABC that covers television, radio and news and we think that sporting coverage, both live sports and topical coverage through news or other programs like Offsiders, is very important. We are in the process of reviewing what we can adequately cover and ways in which we potentially might specialise because frankly we are out of the live television sports game in relation to AFL, the NRL, cricket and the Olympics, but it is an important topic and we are trying to figure out how we can adequately—

Senator DASTYARI: Is there a specific women's sports strategy or you are saying no but you are reviewing your overall strategy?

Ms Guthrie : We are reviewing our overall strategy. We think that obviously coverage of women's sports would be something that we would very much like to do. We are trying to, within our funding envelope, allocate resources to determine whether that is something that we can adequately do.

Senator DASTYARI: And what is the process to do that?

Ms Guthrie : It is a process over the next few months to determine, particularly as rights come up, whether that is something we can pursue.

Senator DASTYARI: You do not have a designated portal on iview for women's sport, do you?

Ms Guthrie : We do not.

Senator DASTYARI: Have you had a discussion about this with the Minister for Women since you have taken on the role?

Ms Guthrie : No, I have not.

Senator DASTYARI: There is just one other thing very quickly. Again, some of this you might want to take on notice. I do not want to take up too much time. In going back to the matter that we had spoken about on 5 May—and I note that on 5 May I think it was the first week or second week of your—

Ms Guthrie : It was my fourth day.

Senator DASTYARI: We had a discussion regarding one of your board of directors, Dr Ferguson. I have got the transcript of what was said.

Ms Guthrie : Yes, I remember.

Senator DASTYARI: I am sure you assumed it was coming up so you would have gotten ready for it. At the time when I raised it with you I asked you whether you had informed yourself of the allegations about Dr Ferguson's role in foreign bribery allegations at Leightons, now CIMIC, and at the time, with a lengthy conversation you made the point that with your fourth day in the position you were broadly aware that there were things in the media but you had not made yourself aware of the details of the allegations. I assume between then and now you have had an opportunity to do that?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: At that point you advised—in going back to the transcript of our conversation there—that you had not had a conversation with Dr Ferguson directly to satisfy yourself as to the nature of the allegations. Have you had that conversation since then?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, I have had that conversation and Dr Ferguson has indicated that she has acted fully in accordance with her legal obligations. I will make the point that I think the minister made at the last estimates hearing that any substantive information in relation to these matters, should it exist, should be referred to the appropriate regulatory authorities and my understanding is that that has not been done.

Senator DASTYARI: I may be misreading my understanding of this. My understanding of the ABC board protocol here is directors have, 'A duty to raise matters of serious concerns at board meetings.' Now, as I understand from the evidence that you have previously given this has been discussed at a board level.

Ms Guthrie : I can say that I have discussed it with Dr Ferguson and I can say that it has been discussed at board level, yes.

Senator DASTYARI: Is Dr Ferguson still on the ABC's Audit and Risk Committee?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, she is.

Senator DASTYARI: The website said that she was but things sometimes take a little while to update. So the allegations against her, as I am sure you are aware from previous colleagues, was that she had not protected whistleblowers. I think this has been run through Fairfax Media. So you are confident then that Dr Ferguson is capable of—I think part of the role of the ABC Audit and Risk Committee, and again I am reading this as my understanding is, 'Monitor the trends in fraud and corruption and the appropriateness of preventative strategies.' That is directly reading from the ABC audit and risk charter. You have satisfied yourself that the allegations against Dr Ferguson are not of a nature that do not. I mean what steps have you taken?

Ms Guthrie : I will make two points. The first is that the matters that you refer to that have been reported in the press are not in any way related to Dr Ferguson's work at the ABC and, secondly, are not substantiated in any way. They are simply allegations. So no questions have been raised about the conduct of Dr Ferguson in her capacity as an ABC board member or in relation to the proper functioning of the ABC board.

Senator DASTYARI: This is perhaps where we disagree. The bits that I agree with you in the statement that you just made, and I think that you are completely correct, is that they are allegations. I think the nature of the allegations, were they to be true, would be of a significance that would raise questions around board appropriateness. I am not saying those allegations are true. I do not know whether they are true or not. I wanted to get an understanding of what steps. I have obviously never met Dr Ferguson or spoken to Dr Ferguson. What steps have you taken to assure yourself that the allegations are not of a nature? Are you saying that you have done that by having a conversation with Dr Ferguson?

Senator Fifield: Perhaps if I can jump in here, the ABC is not ASIC. The managing director of the ABC is not an officer of ASIC. If there are allegations that relate to an individual who has been a company director in a different context then those matters should be raised with the relevant agencies. I think it is really not reasonable to expect the managing director to go any further than she has. She has indicated that she had a conversation with the director in question. I am not sure what else anyone from the ABC is able to add to this matter.

Senator DASTYARI: Well, there are two points. The question that I had asked to that is, firstly, the responsibilities in terms of other relevant authorities, be it the AFP, the police, ASIC or whoever, does not absolve the ABC of its own board protocols. The protocols are here.

Senator Fifield: But the matter—

Senator DASTYARI: That was not the question. We agree on that, by the way.

Senator Fifield: Can I just say that if someone is making allegations about someone then the onus is on the person who is making the allegations to take those to the relevant authorities. As you said, they are allegations.

Senator DASTYARI: And because of the seriousness of the allegations—and, again, I am going back to Ms Guthrie here—my question was what steps have been taken to meet the ABC board protocol? Now, Ms Guthrie, I just want to confirm what you have said. It is that it has been discussed at a board level—and this is what you said and that is a matter of fact that is on the record—and also that you have had a direct conversation with Dr Ferguson about this matter?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, and I indicated that Dr Ferguson had said that she acted fully in accordance with her legal obligations and, further, she was prepared to defend her actions formally if required to do so.

Senator DASTYARI: I assume you have not been contacted or have you been contacted by the whistleblowers or anyone from Thiess, now CIMIC?

Senator Fifield: Senator—

Senator DASTYARI: That is a fair question. I am not saying that it is your responsibility—

Senator Fifield: Obviously the managing director can answer that question, but if people have allegations they should raise those with the relevant authorities.

Senator DASTYARI: I would agree with that but my question to Ms Guthrie was: has anyone raised allegations with you directly?

Ms Guthrie : No.

Senator DASTYARI: So the only allegations that you are aware of are those that you read about in the paper?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: And you satisfied yourself by having a conversation with Dr Ferguson and this has been dealt with at a board level?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: Now, Minister, the terms of Director Fiona Stanley and Ms Jane Bennett recently expired as board members of the ABC; is that correct?

Senator Fifield: Correct.

Senator DASTYARI: Under rule S12 of the ABC Act there has to be at least four directors of the ABC at any point in time; is that correct? That is my understanding.

Mr Millett : My understand is they need a quorum and I think it is around that number.

Senator DASTYARI: And how many directors of the ABC are there right now?

Mr Millett : I think it is six.

Senator DASTYARI: So that is four plus yourself, Ms Guthrie, and the—

Mr Pendleton : Staff elected.

Mr Millett : There is a staff-elected director.

Senator DASTYARI: So the board is made up of eight people?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: Six of whom are through the process that exists and then on top of that there is obviously—

Ms Guthrie : There are two vacancies.

Senator DASTYARI: There is the managing director and the staff representative and you are a full voting member of the board?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: But you excuse yourself from matters to do with remuneration or wherever there is a conflict?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: So there are two positions to fill. Minister, I assume this is already on the public record. What is the process to fill those two positions in terms of timing?

Senator Fifield: Well, there was, legislated by the previous—

Senator DASTYARI: I am just wondering what the timing is and when you expect these to be filled.

Senator Fifield: This is all part of the answer. There was legislated by the previous government an independent nomination panel process which is under the auspices of the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet who appoints the members of that independent panel. As a result of that there is a process which takes time. That process is well underway. Advertisements, I understand, have been placed. Although I do not have any direct visibility of the process I understand that it is well advanced and that the receipt of the recommendations of that panel process may be four to six weeks away. Again, it is not a process that I run. It is not a process I have visibility of because it is separate and independent, but that is my general understanding of the time frames that we are probably working in.

Senator DASTYARI: So your broad understanding is it will be the next couple of months: before Christmas?

Senator Fifield: Yes, that is my broad understanding, but, as I say, I do not control the short listing of candidates, the interviewing of candidates or the length of time that takes.

Senator DASTYARI: How does it work? Is a short list given to cabinet? Does cabinet choose from a short list?

Senator Fifield: A list is given to me as the portfolio minister.

Senator DASTYARI: Is it a decision for the minister or a decision of cabinet?

Senator Fifield: The ordinary course of events is a recommendation goes to cabinet.

Senator DASTYARI: You are provided with a short list and then you make a recommendation to cabinet so it is a government decision at the end of the day?

Senator Fifield: Ultimately it is a government decision.

Senator DASTYARI: But under the legislation framework that was put in by the last government, that is based on the short list that you are provided with?

Senator Fifield: There are a number of names against each vacancy and government can choose from those names or not. If the name is not from that short list then a statement of reasons is tabled in the parliament.

Senator DASTYARI: Is the nomination panel still Mr Ted Evans, the Hon. Neil Brown, Dr Sally Pitkin and Anne Forward?

Senator Fifield: To the best of my knowledge but, as I say, that is a panel that is appointed by the secretary of PM&C. Last I was aware they were the members.

Senator DASTYARI: Thank you. I will put the rest on notice, as I am conscious of time.

Senator DI NATALE: I have some questions. I have not been here for the whole session so forgive me if there is a bit of repetition here. I will start off with some fairly general questions for you, Ms Guthrie. We are going to see total revenues decline by $28.3 million in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. Given that you are set to lose revenue have you made any decisions about programs or services that will be cut?

CHAIR: Just before you answer that—my apologies, Senator Di Natale—there is something that I meant to mention before I gave you the call. In view of the late hour and the way things are going I just wanted to let people know that a decision has been made that we will not be calling Australia Council or Screen Australia and that they are free to go. I know that they have pressing obligations but in terms of trying to get through things tonight, rather than keeping them around when we can get through it by putting the questions that people have on notice, we will let them go.

After the ABC we will actually be moving to Arts and Cultural Development and then we will go back to Digital Technologies, program 1.1, and then the NBN. So with that my apologies, again, Senator Di Natale. It was just to let people know.

Ms Guthrie : I can say to you that we are on track to deliver the current savings that were required as a result of the 2014 budget cuts. The majority of these savings really came from initiatives relating to ABC support services rather than content or programming services. That included procurement and contract reviews, IT overhauls, switchboard and mailroom restructures, and reduction in management. A very key component has also been the major renegotiation of broadcasting transmission contracts.

Senator DI NATALE: Has there been a reduction in the content budget for ABC television if we compare the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial year?

Ms Guthrie : I can say to you that no content changes have occurred as a result of the savings measures but content changes that have occurred over the last couple of years are really as a result of the need to generate funds for digital investment to keep pace with audience demand. A significant investment has gone into iview programming and news digital, for example, as a way of making sure that we continue to be relevant to as many Australians as possible.

Senator DI NATALE: Could you give me specific amounts for the reductions in the budgets for say TV drama, children's programs and documentaries?

Ms Guthrie : I can ask Mr Pendleton to give you specifics around some of those reductions on TV spend in particular.

Mr Pendleton : In relation to the particular genres we would probably need to take that on notice but, as the managing director has alluded to, the reductions across the three years in our budgets have all been absorbed by our back office efficiencies and support but necessarily the reinvestments or changes from year to year are across a range of activities in the organisation. On the contents side of the business it has been more in the nature of realignment. I can, on notice, provide you with some of the details of the specifics but I have not got those here.

Senator DI NATALE: If you would not mind just providing that on notice. In looking forward do you expect any reductions in any of those areas, drama, children's programs or documentaries, over the coming few years? Are you expecting reductions in the television budgets of any of those areas?

Mr Pendleton : The budget setting process has not started for next year. That said, there will always be adjustments and changes but there is no need for any net content reductions as a result of budget savings that we need to make. There may well be reallocations across the content areas but at this stage the budget process will not commence until early in the new financial year.

Senator DI NATALE: I have another one for you, Ms Guthrie, which is around ABC Radio National. My understanding is that there are plans for major changes to the service. Is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : I think it is incorrect to say that there are major changes planned for Radio National. I think that what is under discussion and, frankly, continuing discussion, is the way in which audiences are really moving over time. We know that increasingly they are not relying on scheduled broadcast and increasingly relying on podcasts or individual program downloads and different ways of consuming content, so we are constantly looking at ways in which we allocate our budgets to make sure that we are being as efficient as possible to produce quality programming that most people can actually enjoy.

Senator DI NATALE: I can testify to that because I am one of those people. Let me ask then whether you continue to have the same number of specialist programs. Is that still something? Are you considering changes to the content?

Ms Guthrie : In terms of specialist programs, obviously under the charter it is very clear that there are a number of specialist areas including science, education, arts and culture, that are very, very important to the ABC across all of our platforms. Increasingly we are trying to find ways in which we can actually increase the quality and the volume of that but make sure that we are as targeted as possible around having programs with very wide appeal, for example on television, and programs that have more specialist appeal or niche appeal, for example, available on podcast or iview. So we are looking at a range of ways in which we can cover those specialist areas in, frankly, a more impactful way.

Senator DI NATALE: What I am hearing is that you may be looking at reducing the number of specialist programs put to air on Radio National and maybe making some of that available through podcast.

Ms Guthrie : Again, we are at the planning stages around our programming for next year but I think what is important to get across is that the underlying principle is less around individual programs or slots and more around ways in which we can reach audiences across all of our platforms, so trying to move away from an expectation of a continuing program and have a much more flexible approach to be able to deliver different content in different ways.

Senator DI NATALE: I am still not sure whether that means that there will be a reduction in specialist content or not, in specialist programs.

Ms Guthrie : The point I am making is that it depends on whether you are looking at something in particular. If you are asking me to guarantee whether a particular program will be there next year, I cannot guarantee a particular program, but what I can say to you is that those specialist areas that I identified are incredibly important for the ABC across the board and it is, in fact, important for us to probably invest more in those on an overall basis. I cannot guarantee particular programs over the next year or the year after.

Mr Millett : Just to go back to that point, the whole strategy about trying to exploit digital assets means that you can provide more durable content and more accessible content and make it more available for a wider range of people. I think part of the problem at the moment is, as you find in being very busy yourself, that it is getting access to this material and actually finding out where it is. I think the strategy is trying to find new ways to actually make sure the great content on Radio National is available to more people over a more durable period of time as well.

Senator DI NATALE: Yes. I understand that. I suppose it really is a question about whether there is a lot of specialist content on there and whether there are planned cuts and where they are going to be, but I will accept that answer. Are you expecting redundancies at Radio National as part of the changes there?

Ms Guthrie : I can tell you that we are not planning any redundancies on any particular programs at the moment but I will try to reiterate to you that the programming strategy is not static, nor has it ever been, and we will regularly review our program schedules across radio, across television and across our news output.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I ask about the number of repeat programs and repeat material that is being aired on Radio National. Do you have a sense? Have you got a proportion of content that is on Radio National that is repeat programming?

Ms Guthrie : We can take that on notice.

Senator DI NATALE: Let me just ask you a couple of questions about Monocle Radio that you broadcast overnight which I understand is a for-profit broadcast from the UK. Is that right?

Ms Guthrie : I think that is correct.

Senator DI NATALE: Can you talk me through the deal between ABC and Monocle Radio?

Ms Guthrie : I do not have the details with me. I will have to take that on notice.

Senator DI NATALE: Is there anyone else aware of that?

Mr Pendleton : No, not in any detail.

Mr Sunderland : No.

Senator DI NATALE: I have got a few questions around that with issues around whether that arrangement has impacted on the amount of locally produced content.

Mr Millett : I am happy to take it on notice and come back with the details.

Senator DI NATALE: So it sounds like there are probably a few more. I will put all of that on notice. Let me just ask a final question. Ms Guthrie, you said in your speech—and I think you used the word 'perplexing'—that the ABC was not engaging in international broadcasting, particularly into China and India.

Ms Guthrie : I think what I was saying was that it was perplexing that we were not specifically funded for international broadcasting.

Senator DI NATALE: Yes. I am sorry, I think that is the intent and that there was—I think in your words again—a democratic deficit in the international broadcasting community in our region. So do you have plans for addressing it, given that there is a really confusing mix of programs being offered to our neighbours under the Australia Plus brand?

Ms Guthrie : Yes. Our international services are something that I am spending time on with our international team. I think it is important that we prioritise the areas and focus on the areas where we can make a difference. I think that is very much in relation to India and China and throughout the Pacific.

The other issue for us is really around frankly how we use more of our services and have more global scale around those rather than specifically investing in a separate service. I think we are looking at ways, for example, that we could internationalise iview. I believe that we have programs that we would be able to clear the rights for internationally that would have significant appeal throughout Asia, so that is something that we are very much working on as a team.

Senator DI NATALE: So iview is one of those areas. Do you have any others, particularly in the news space?

Ms Guthrie : On the news space we are looking at ways in which we can offer translations of our news services and we are also looking at ways in which we can potentially internationalise more of our news content.

Senator DI NATALE: What is that? What is internationalised news content?

Ms Guthrie : Right now News 24 is only available in Australia because of our rights, clearances and other restrictions, so one option for us is to look at ways in which we could potentially stream that service or parts of that service offshore.

Senator DI NATALE: What is the barrier to doing that now?

Ms Guthrie : The primary barrier is around rights. So where, for example, we have an arrangement with a news agency normally we will have those rights only for Australia, so it would require either amending those agreements or finding alternative providers. There is also a number of other restrictions, but the primary one is around rights to use third-party content within our news services.

Senator DI NATALE: What needs to change or what has to happen?

Ms Guthrie : That is something that we will be working on over the next six to 12 months to identify what that would take, but I think that in terms of a medium-term objective it is certainly to try to internationalise more of our services. I can give you the example that you gave before of podcast. We have had significant numbers of podcast downloads. Many of those have been from offshore. We think that there is more of our content that we can make available outside of Australia and we hope to explore ways in which we can do that.

Senator DI NATALE: Thank you.

Senator XENOPHON: I want to mention a pesky ABC broadcaster on ABC local radio. Ian Henschke is a bit of a terror.

Ms Guthrie : Adelaide, yes.

Senator XENOPHON: He cut it short because I think he feared you more.

Senator Fifield: He said, 'The boss is calling.'

Ms Guthrie : He will pull rank on me.

Senator XENOPHON: I think he did, actually. Further to Senator Di Natale's line of questioning and what you referred to in your speech about the lack of our international presence in terms of international broadcasting, I think compared to China and Singapore, a fraction of the size of what they spend in international broadcasting, it is really quite anaemic. Minister, can I ask you: have you had any discussions with the Prime Minister about expanding or at least restoring the ABC's role as an international broadcaster or in terms of the Radio Australia type network and what we had in previous years, given that other countries leave us to shame in terms of that soft diplomacy that comes with broadcasting Australian content to the region and to the world?

Senator Fifield: No.

Senator XENOPHON: Are you planning to?

Senator Fifield: In just going back, I think it was more a case of the Department of Foreign Affairs that was the client of the ABC.

Senator XENOPHON: But it does interest you with what Ms Guthrie has said in relation to this?

Senator Fifield: What the—

Senator XENOPHON: You are not interested in what Ms Guthrie said about our international broadcasting?

Senator Fifield: The priorities are in the Foreign Affairs portfolio. It is a matter for the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

Senator XENOPHON: But is it of any interest to you as communications minister given that it would impact on the ABC if it could expand that role?

Senator Fifield: As I say, the Foreign Affairs portfolio and their priorities of how they would choose to direct their budget is a matter for them.

Senator XENOPHON: Have you heard or read Ms Guthrie's speech in relation to international broadcasting?

CHAIR: Senator Xenophon, allow the minister to answer.

Senator XENOPHON: I am just trying to help him.

Senator Fifield: You are being uncharacteristically interrupting, Senator Xenophon.

Senator XENOPHON: It might be characteristic in the course of this hearing, though.

Senator Fifield: The ABC gets about $3.1 billion worth of funding from the taxpayers over a three-year period and how the ABC chooses to deploy those significant funds is a matter for the ABC.

Senator XENOPHON: It is a matter that I will raise with Foreign Affairs, with those estimates. You just mentioned the three-year funding model, Minister. Can I ask you, Ms Guthrie, whether you have any views, as the managing director of the ABC, on whether the ABC has considered lengthening the process to say a five-year rolling funding model and whether that would provide the ABC with more certainty and give it the ability to undertake longer term strategic management?

Ms Guthrie : I am grateful for the three-year funding that we received on my second day in the job.

Senator XENOPHON: Would you be more grateful with a rolling model?

Ms Guthrie : I think it is important to have consistent long-term funding for the ABC but that is ultimately a matter for the government.

Senator XENOPHON: Minister, has the government considered a rolling funding model for the ABC rather than it being what some would consider to be a political football as it is now?

Senator Fifield: We have just entered into triennial funding for the ABC and I cannot speculate as to what the future funding arrangements might be.

Senator XENOPHON: I will just go to the issue of the ABC Fact Check unit. I know that Mr Miller would be disappointed if I did not ask questions about the Fact Check unit. The internal ABC Fact Check unit ceased as of 1 July or maybe 2 July when the election took place. Is there an alternative? Are you doing something with The Conversation at the moment?

Mr Millett : Yes. We are actually talking with The Conversation.

Senator XENOPHON: You are having a conversation with The Conversation?

Mr Millett : Yes, we are having a conversation with The Conversation. The Conversation are already contracted to do some fact checking for Q&A and I think The Conversation is interested in a longer term arrangement. I should specify that because we do not have the Fact Checking unit it does not mean that the ABC does not do fact checking. I think Mr Sunderland can comment on this point more. Holding politicians to account is very much a part of the job of the ABC and simply because you do not have the Fact Checking brand does not mean that you are not doing fact checking.

Senator XENOPHON: I have been caught by the ABC Fact Check a couple of times and I survived.

Mr Millett : I think you would regard that as a badge of honour.

Senator XENOPHON: Well, it is a badge of something but can I just say in relation to that, is it the case that the ABC did receive, formally and informally, complaints from politicians on both sides of the fence, or all sides of the fence, about the Fact Check unit? It was not from me.

Mr Millett : I think there was an answer on notice which pointed out that there were probably other programs which raised a bit more of that.

Senator XENOPHON: But that does not take the point. There were informal representations and complaints made by or on behalf of politicians about the ABC Fact Check unit, were there not?

Mr Millett : Yes, there were some over the years.

Senator XENOPHON: There were some over the years and some more recently.

Mr Millett : Apart from the question on notice I am not aware of anything. Well, obviously since the Fact Check unit does not exist there has not been any complaint since then.

Senator XENOPHON: There you go. You have avoided complaints but can you say that the alternative arrangement in place with The Conversation will be a mere shadow of what the ABC's Fact Check unit was doing in terms of holding politicians to account?

Mr Millett : I disagree.

Mr Sunderland : I can respond to that. I do not believe so. There are a couple of things that are worth keeping in mind. We did close the Fact Check unit and we also made a number of other cuts that were associated with our reduced budget, as you would understand.

Senator XENOPHON: The ABC Fact Check unit was a curious one, was it not, Mr Sunderland, given that it was a relatively small amount of the total ABC budget but in terms of its impact, in terms of the public holding politicians to account, it did have a significant impact?

Mr Sunderland : I do not think it was a curious one to close. You would be aware that the additional funding we received was specifically to allow us to do a number of things. Fact Check was just one of them. Another was to expand and build up our national reporting team. Another was to put resources into the regions. When we lost that tied funding after a period we could have closed everything that was associated with that funding because we lost two-thirds of the funding.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Sunderland, hand on heart, can you tell us whether, at any stage, directly or indirectly, impliedly or directly, when the issue of funding for the ABC was discussed whether any mention was made as to the continuance or otherwise of the ABC Fact Check unit?

Mr Sunderland : My understanding is no, it was not.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you. That is your understanding. Would anybody else have a better understanding of that?

Ms Guthrie : I can assure you that the government did not raise Fact Check with me during negotiations over the budget.

Senator XENOPHON: But the deal had already been done, had it not? The deal was already done by the time you got to the position.

Mr Millett : Because, in my position, I regularly deal with the government and with the department, at no point did the government raise, nor did the ABC suggest, that Fact Check was to be held hostage over funding forward.

Senator XENOPHON: It was not offered as a negotiating tool?

Mr Millett : No. It was a priority. News decide their priorities based on the small amount of funding that they have.

Senator Fifield: And also while there were a number of terminating programs the ABC got a substantial part of what they asked for in terms of funding for an enhanced news service.

Senator XENOPHON: Time is short and I would like to rip through a few more issues.

Senator Fifield: And the priorities within that were matters for the ABC.

Senator XENOPHON: I cannot take it any further. Could you please take on notice how much Australian programming could have been created or repeated, including documentaries, if the ABC had invested in Australian rather than, for instance, British content over the last five to 10 years? Well, say in the last five years, how much has been spent acquiring programs coming out of other countries including, in particular, the UK? I have nothing against the UK but it seems to be where most of the programming comes from. Can you please take that on notice?

Mr Pendleton : Yes, we will take it on notice.

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Has the deal struck between the BBC and Foxtel in 2013 resulted in higher costs for the ABC? What has been the cost of that deal? If you could take that on notice.

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Mr Millett : Yes.

Mr Sunderland : We will do so.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Pendleton, you can take that on notice.

Mr Pendleton : Yes, I will take that on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: I do not expect you to give me an answer now. Now, I watch the ABC News 24 when I can. There is a view by some, including some within Friends of the ABC that they are concerned about how tenable it is in terms of what it costs and the actual viewing audience that it has. That is not a criticism of ABC News 24. Has any consideration been given to what plans there are for the service and are you still envisaging for it to be operating in its current form in the next three to five years?

Ms Guthrie : There are no plans to discontinue News 24 at all. Again, if you are asking about specific programs, then obviously those specific programs are not going to be static.

Senator XENOPHON: So ABC News 24 is here to stay?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: And going back to you, Mr Pendleton, just to give a context for that question, in 2013 the BBC signed an exclusive first-run deal with Foxtel resulting in more purchases from Britain's ITV and Channel 4, which are private companies, ending a 50-year deal with the BBC. What impact has that had in terms of the costs and also on local content? Longitudinally has there been an impact five years before 2013 or even three years before 2013 and three years subsequently because of those deals?

Mr Pendleton : The difficulty is that with the cessation of the first live access to that content a second deal was done and then funds were released to purchase acquisition content so—

Senator XENOPHON: You will notice that I am racing through this, if I may.

Mr Pendleton : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Ms Guthrie, you would have heard that the ABC is increasingly referred to by some outside Sydney as the Sydney broadcasting corporation, as distinct from the patriotic broadcasting corporation that Senator Burston referred to as his wish. Martin Scott, your predecessor, acknowledged publicly that funding cuts resulted in the closure of facilities outside of Sydney. You are aware of the quite savage and deep cuts of the Adelaide production facilities as well as in other parts of the country and a concentration of content production in the New South Wales capital. What specifically is being done to reverse the trend of ABC produced and outsourced content increasingly being heavily weighted towards New South Wales? My apologies to Senator Dastyari who is very Sydney centric.

Ms Guthrie : I disagree with the premise of the question, which is that we are a Sydney centric production community.

Senator XENOPHON: Well, on notice, can you tell me what proportion of ABC staff are in Sydney and the value of ABC resources, in terms of the budget, that have been spent in Sydney longitudinally over the last five years?

Ms Guthrie : I can take that on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you. Do you disagree with the premise?

Ms Guthrie : Yes. I do not know whether you watched Rosehaven, which was premiered last week, but that is filmed in Tasmania. Just because we do not have production facilities in Tasmania does not mean that we cannot make programs or have producers make fantastic programs like Rosehaven in Tasmania and we hope to do that increasingly across Australia.

Senator XENOPHON: Can I just move on to ABC Radio National? We understand the ABC is looking at major changes to the service. Is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : No. I think that was an issue that Senator Di Natale raised.

Senator XENOPHON: I would not dare tread on Senator Di Natale's questions.

Mr Millett : There was a slight overlap.

Senator XENOPHON: There was a slight overlap?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Great minds think alike. Chair, I might spare you of any more questions. I might put some more on notice for the ABC. Thank you.

Senator DUNIAM: Ms Guthrie, since you have been in the role I just wanted to get a bit of an impression from you while you have been doing your job. Have you heard the calls from rural and regional representatives about the need to do more or have a greater presence with the ABC, particularly with the withdrawal of many commercial news outlets?

Ms Guthrie : I have heard that as I have travelled around Australia, including when we had our board meeting in Bendigo very recently. I can reiterate that we have an unwavering commitment to rural and regional Australia at the ABC, and frankly the important thing for the ABC is to impress on the staff the importance of quality and distinctiveness. The programming that we develop out of regional Australia is extraordinarily distinctive and very compelling; the establishment of the regional division about 18 months ago was a first step at really pulling together all of those resources across television, news and radio. We have already seen that the regional team is producing more than a thousand news pieces for our services across Australia and I think it is increasingly important for our distinctiveness on a national basis to increase that content production.

Senator DUNIAM: I appreciate the unwavering commitment. In just listening to your answer there, do I take from that that you think things are at a satisfactory level with regard to a presence and the work in rural or regional—and I do not want to put you too much on the stop—or is it your intention to see what more can be done in these rural and regional sectors?

Ms Guthrie : We are always looking to find ways of doing more, particularly in relation to content production. As we look for efficiencies in relation to some of the savings that we can find across the organisation that do not impact on content we are aiming to really release those efficiencies for further content production. I think a key priority is going to be further content production in regional areas. One of those programs is Back Roads, which is going to be launched in Yackandandah. I am going to Yackandandah with the chairman next month to launch that and Back Roads digital, so our investment in regional programming is extraordinarily important.

Senator DUNIAM: So to just confirm, it is a priority for you, as managing director, to keep progressing that?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator DUNIAM: And we can harass you and the minister over time.

Mr Millett : I think you do.

Senator DUNIAM: Excellent. I was just reminded by my colleague when you mentioned Rosehaven that we made a cameo appearance in the background.

Ms Guthrie : Did you really?

CHAIR: We were campaigning and they were filming it.

Ms Guthrie : I went to the reading of that on my second week in the job and it was terrific.

Senator DUNIAM: It is very good.

Ms Guthrie : I am glad you are a viewer.

Senator DUNIAM: Absolutely, or I would not be asking for more rural and regional ABC. In moving off that side of things there is just one thing that came to my attention and that was the television advertising of a new book by Roland Perry on the ABC Network called Celeste. Are you familiar with the promotion of that particular book?

Ms Guthrie : No, I am not.

Senator DUNIAM: It is a process question and chances are these questions will go on notice. It is not a reflection on the book or the author, but I just wondered how it is determined, out of the thousands of titles on the bookshelves in the ABC shops, that it was decided to go with that particular novel.

Mr Sunderland : We can take that on notice. I am not sure whether it is an ABC publication. We do have an ABC Books arm so it may be an ABC book. We will take that on notice.

Senator DUNIAM: That would be handy and also if there was a form of payment by the author.

Mr Sunderland : There would not have been but I will look into the process around that choice.

Senator DUNIAM: And then who made the decision for that book. That is it for me. Thank you very much.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I have a couple of quick questions following Senator Duniam's line of questioning. Can you tell us when Q&A was last in Tasmania?

Ms Guthrie : I could not, actually.

Mr Millett : I was certainly at one which would have been about three or four years ago. I will have to check on notice. We have made it a point of trying to get Q&A more around the country and it certainly does make a big effort to try and travel to different parts. It is not cheap to—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That was going to be my next question. Is it a cost issue?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Mr Millett : Yes, it is a cost.

Mr Sunderland : We have made a commitment in the last 12 months to increase the amount of travel that the program does, so we are looking to take it and travelling more.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We will look forward to that. You do have Senator Lambie on the show a lot, I must say. She is on every second or third week. It would be good to see it down in Tasmania.

I have a question which is a bit of a vexed issue. During election time most political parties and politicians like myself will come to the ABC for coverage with our policy launches, our releases and the daily events. Do you have a national or a state based formula that you follow in terms of how much you cover different political parties?

Mr Sunderland : The short answer is, no, we do not. Essentially we cover issues on their relevance and on their newsworthiness. Election campaigns are no different to any other event or issue. We cover it using exactly the same principles. We do have specific editorial guidance in relation to elections which cover a range of issues but we do not look for some sort of mathematical formula. Of course you would appreciate at a national level the coverage tends to focus on the major parties and national issues, and at a local level it tends to cover local candidates, but it is essentially a decision that programs make on the editorial value and the impact. We try to cover as much as we can but we make it clear that in many cases individual candidates are not necessarily guaranteed an allocation of time or anything like that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I appreciate that. I was wondering if, at a state level for example, the editorial team had flexibility. I have been told in Tasmania that there is a formula that is used that roughly allocates time.

Mr Sunderland : No. They may be referring to our share of voice count which we undertake sometimes formally and sometimes informally, but that is purely a tool which we feed back to program teams during elections. We tend to do it now in federal elections, not so much in state and territory elections. That is not a formula. It is not prescriptive. It is not forward looking. We review the coverage and we look at how much time share of voice has gone to the major parties, to the independents and to minor parties and we look for any patterns or information, but there are often very good reasons why those numbers can differ. There is certainly not a formula that we rely on.

Mr Millett : I wonder whether you are referring to free time, which is a slightly different process that Mr Sunderland can talk about.

Mr Sunderland : If you are interested in free time announcements that is a different matter altogether.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Where can I find, let us call it an audit or an analysis, on your time allocated? Do you do it specifically for the election or do you just do it as an—

Mr Sunderland : We do it specifically for elections. For the last couple of years we have not done it for state and territory elections. We do it for federal elections still at this time. I can certainly send you some information where you can find those that have been done, where they have been published and also, in case it is of interest to you, the information around the free time as well.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Would it help politically if I came out and publicly said that you do not give enough time to the Greens in terms of airing Senator Abetz and others?

Mr Sunderland : I would offer you no advice on that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I am being a bit facetious. I have just one last question with the rise and rise of Netflix in recent times. Has it impacted on iview or ABC Online at all?

Ms Guthrie : It has not affected iview or ABC Online but what it has affected is commercial television stations across the board. It has affected ABC, and I am sure SBS, in that particular demographics have really turned to Netflix and other catch-up services.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My kids are 16- and 18-year-olds, so they do not watch TV any more.

Ms Guthrie : Yes. I often, in speeches, talk about my focus group of two, who are my 14-year-old and 20-year-old, and I make the point that they do not watch scheduled television. That does not mean that they are not interested in video programming. They are, but they are just on a different platform. I think the point that I have been trying to make, both publicly and within the ABC, is that it is important for the ABC to be on those platforms where Australians are. Increasingly they are not on traditional television platforms or traditional television channels, so iview has picked up a lot of viewership but increasingly so has Netflix. We recently had a deal with Netflix where they have taken 200 hours of our ABC content. It is important for us to think of ourselves as not requiring viewers to come to us but increasingly go where the viewers are, and that is going to be over a multiple number of platforms, including Netflix and others.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you provide commercial content for other media outlets? I know you used to do that online.

Ms Guthrie : We have arrangements in place with Apple News. We have arrangements in place with Facebook and with others. We believe that we have made a very large investment in ABC content and it is important that we try to have the broadest availability to the Australian public as we can. Obviously, to the extent that we can defray the cost of that programming, that is also a huge advantage for us.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you have a doomsday clock for TV in general?

Ms Guthrie : It really shows the importance of being flexible and that is why, over the course of the last hour or so, I was really trying to make the point that it is important that we do not become fixed in delivering a particular program at a particular hour and requiring people to come to us, but really thinking about our core competence, whether that is to explain the world to Australians or to entertain or have a fantastic program like Rosehaven. Increasingly we need to have those programs on our main ABC TV channel but also on iview, on a binge watching or catch-up basis.

A program like Barracuda, for example, which was a great program, I found that I watched the first one on scheduled television and then used the catch-up service for the rest and we really saw that similar behaviour. I think it is not necessarily even a sort of specific demographic issue; we are finding that a number of our older audiences are really seeing iview, our podcasting and news digital services as a massive tool to increase their flexibility and engagement with ABC content.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you.

CHAIR: I have one final question on that. I am curious as to what portion of the income that the ABC receives comes from non-government sources such as Netflix and others?

Mr Pendleton : It would be in the order of $150 million of our $1.1 billion that comes from independent sources.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The ABC shops?

Mr Pendleton : No, the shops are closed. The shops closed last year. There is content that we still have rights or distribution rights for or own that we distribute through a whole range of different distribution retail deals. There are co-production revenues that we receive. There is revenue from program sales and partnerships that we do. The net revenues are the really important revenues for us. The contribution to content is great and the leverage that we get for that content, but the net revenues from the content sales and the recoveries that we make actually go straight back into production.

CHAIR: Is that non-government income growing or static? I mean in view of what you were just saying, Ms Guthrie, I suspect it has the potential to actually grow if you are taking your content to where it is being watched.

Ms Guthrie : That is certainly the plan. Since we closed the ABC shops, ABC Commercial has had a reduction in overall revenue because the ABC shops represented a substantial amount of revenue, but we think that there is significant opportunity in relation to third-party platform revenue and increasingly being able to use digital to our advantage to really get a larger audience, so we hope that we can increase that non-government revenue over time.

CHAIR: Thank you for your time and assistance here today. I now call program 2.1, Arts and Cultural Development, to the table. We will come back to digital before we do NBN.