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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 121


Senator SANTORO (8:40 PM) —At the additional estimates hearings in February, the ABC and SBS again demonstrated that, however accountable they might be on paper, our public broadcasters prefer to be as unaccountable as possible. There is almost always a reason not to answer a question that, for whatever reasons, their managements would rather not answer.

The embarrassment of the SBS decision to broadcast Hanoi propaganda in its WorldWatch news program—something it briefly did in 2003 before the board stepped in and stopped it—is for me and for many in the Vietnamese community here in Australia an unfinished item of business. At the estimates hearings the Managing Director of SBS, Mr Nigel Milan, threw in several red herrings on that score. At least they were the appropriate colour. Mr Milan was trying to avoid conceding that the material SBS had broadcast was propaganda. The closest he got was to suggest that a lot of unedited rebroadcast material from overseas sources might be viewed as propaganda. There is also the issue—which Mr Milan left hanging in the air in his correspondence with me before the estimates and at the estimates hearing—of why it is acceptable to him for a very senior SBS executive to get himself locked up in a cage on Bondi Beach as a political publicity stunt and not tell him about it until afterwards. And there is the issue—and it is becoming a perennial issue—of when a terrorist is not a terrorist.

Let me say that both SBS and the ABC do a great job as public broadcasters. So I take no pleasure in having, yet again, to remark that our public broadcasters are astonishingly energetic in avoiding acceptance of any suggestion that they might have got things wrong. In the Australian newspaper on 4 March, I contributed an article that took a critical view of the ABC in relation to three topical issues that I believe demonstrate that it is still in need of correction. They are: the cavalier approach the ABC took to complaints upheld against the Four Corners documentary ‘Lords of the Forests’; the shrieks of outrage from the metropolitan elite and the ABC’s own staff-appointed director when newspaper columnist Janet Albrechtsen was appointed to the board; and the ABC’s extraordinary public response to the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s finding against its news and current objectivity in relation to the Iraq war coverage.

At Senate estimates hearings last month, the issue of why the ABC had hidden the criticism levelled by the ABA against the 2004 anti-timber industry documentary Lords of the Forests got another airing. I asked questions that go right to heart of accountability. Independent assessment had shown the program presented subjective views as objective analysis. But apart from a media statement put out by managing director Russell Balding—and the ‘correction’ on the Four Corners web site of three comparatively minor errors of fact—no public atonement took place.

When Janet Albrechtsen was appointed to the ABC board last month, there were howls of outrage and an instant campaign of denigration against her. The fact that she writes opinionated columns for the Australian and is a right-wing commentator apparently means that she is part of some News Corporation plot to take over the world. But, as I wrote in the Australian, most people probably see her columns as evidence instead that a plurality of views exists that is very far from fully or fairly represented on ‘our’ ABC. The ABC’s staff-elected director, Ramona Koval, described Ms Albrechtsen’s appointment as inappropriate. A former ABC staff-elected director, Quentin Dempster, who is still an employee of ABC news and current affairs, also spoke publicly against Ms Albrechtsen’s appointment. Mr Dempster wrote to me last week and kindly sent me a copy of his book, Death Struggle, which was published in 2000, in which he presents a case for an end to all so-called political appointments. I thank him for reminding me of his views, but in my view his solution does nothing to better achieve the delicate balance between the necessary conditions that attach to public funding and the desirable level of editorial independence.

In this context, it is interesting that the broadcasting writer Errol Simper, who also wrote in the Australian the week before last—I think this is worth reading into the record—wrote of Ms Albrechtsen:

Yet, all but unnoticed by many critics, Albrechtsen passed—perhaps with honours—her first post-appointment public broadcasting test on Monday evening.

Interviewed on ABC Radio’s Sunday Profile series by a sharp, watchful Monica Attard, Albrechtsen was taken to—arguably—the most important question for her to answer.

Attard: “In an ideal world, would there still be an ABC?”

Albrechtsen: “I think so. Absolutely. I think there’s a really important role for the ABC to play.”

Attard: “And what is that?”

Albrechtsen: “Well, I think it’s as the charter says. It’s to present programs that add to a sense of national identity, and entertain us and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community. I think that’s absolutely vital and I don’t think we can leave that up to commercial stations to do.”

Albrechtsen thus puts to the sword one of the most serious community criticisms of her appointment: perceptions that she does not fundamentally believe in public broadcasting. That is a reality check that critics of her appointment should accept immediately. I know of no-one on my side of the chamber who would ever suggest that left-wing bias should be replaced with right-wing bias. The whole argument is about eliminating bias and replacing it with balance. In that context, the ABC’s action on 2 March in publicly arguing with the umpire over the ABA’s findings of bias against the AM program over some of its 2003 Iraq war reporting is extraordinary. Its heroic claim that it was only a little bit guilty, if that, also demands forensic examination.

In consequence, Ms Albrechtsen’s view of the importance and urgency of correcting balance in ABC news and current affairs coverage of international politics is considered, objective and correct. In the latest case, we have again been subjected to lecturing—one might almost say hectoring—from the lofty summits of semantics about what really constitutes bias. As we know—and I made reference to this in my speech on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-Siphoning) Bill 2004 last week—the ABC’s former director of news, Max Uechtritz, told a Barcelona conference in 2003 that the military were ‘lying bastards’. Two years later, the ABC itself is essentially presenting the same argument in regard to its reportage of the Iraq war. It seems that as far as the Ultimo push is concerned, the umpire is wrong and must be lectured publicly about why it is all right to equate the presentation of US military analysis of a developing combat situation in Iraq with the unbelievable polemics of the Iraqi regime that was in the process of being removed.

The issue is not so much whether the ABC or the ABA is right; it is that the ABC remains hostage of a fundamentally leftist elite that is fighting a culture war and will not admit to the possibility that it might have erred. At the Senate estimates hearings last month, I publicly applauded the ABC for its coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. I thought it did that job brilliantly and with great sensitivity. It certainly deserved a public accolade at the estimates hearing, and I was happy to ensure that it got it. I am equally happy to repeat that praise tonight.

On that front, I am pleased to welcome ABC2, the new digital channel. ABC2 is a great development that will deliver significant benefits to ABC audiences, especially those in regional Australia. The focus on programming for children and young teens, for regional and rural viewers through Landline, as well as all eight capital city editions of Stateline and the new Australia Wide news program in prime time, demonstrates the ABC’s commitment to producing informative and entertaining TV. The ABC deserves congratulations for its initiative in moving so strongly into this new area of broadcasting technology. Development of the digital service shows that the ABC is maintaining its record of innovation as a public broadcaster, especially with the broadband content to be provided on ABC2. It also shows that, when it puts its mind to it, the ABC can find the money within its existing budget to develop new product to meet the demands of its market.

That is all to the good: I give credit where credit is due. Yet, if our public broadcasters are to be praised for work judged to be good, they must accept the concept of criticism if work is judged not to be too good. At the estimates committee hearings just concluded, both the ABC and SBS took a number of my questions on notice. It is a pity that critics of the public broadcasters so often find, when they seek accountability or are looking for redress, that they run into blank walls and dead ends. It is a shame that when there is an issue that must eventually be answered the answer so often comes in the form of a ream of obscurantist prose straight off the table at some lawyers’ picnic.

It is the same with the matter of the ABC’s decision—itself perfectly fine and I would say a matter of good governance—to go to tender for captioning. What is wrong with that process is that the captioning concern it had worked with for years—a not-for-profit organisation with which it had enjoyed a deep and indeed almost symbiotic relationship since 1982—appears to have some legitimate complaints about process. It feels it was basically excluded and that the attempts it had made to meet the ABC’s reasonable desire to cut costs were ignored.

These are legitimate issues for scrutiny given that the ABC exists on public money. But, as usual, there has been no disclosure, or precious little. There are several matters outstanding in this and other areas of ABC and SBS scrutiny. I look forward to the budget round of estimate hearings with keen anticipation.