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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


CHAIR: Welcome, Ms Guthrie and officers from the ABC. We are short on time, of course, as we always are in this committee, so we'll get straight to it. Is there an opening statement?

Ms Guthrie : There is. Thank you, Chair. The ABC, its legislative remit and its charter obligations have been the subject of much debate both in and outside parliament in recent weeks, so I think it's timely to outline the ABC's position so that it can be properly referenced in these and other proceedings.

The ABC is part of the fabric of Australian life. It's been so since the 1930s, establishing an essential role as a provider of quality, innovative programming that delivers for both mass and niche audiences. It's respected because of its independence, the trust it engenders in the community and the value ascribed to its work. I think it's important to clarify what the ABC charter states and what it doesn't. The charter requires the ABC to provide quality, innovative and comprehensive programs of both wide appeal and specialised interest, to create programming that contributes to a sense of national identity and reflects the cultural diversity of Australia and to use its full range of platforms to inform, educate and entertain. That mandate has been durable over time, even if the language prior to the ABC becoming a corporation may have been slightly different.

The ABC has constantly evolved, adapting to technology and to changing audience trends to maintain its connection to the community and its sense of public service. What the charter does not say is that the ABC is just a market-value broadcaster, doing only what the commercial sector doesn't want to do or cannot do. That has never been our defining role, nor should it be in the future. The ABC is acutely aware of its public service remit and its responsibility to take account of what's happening elsewhere in the sector. We are focused on being innovative and providing distinctive programming in areas where we can make a difference and maximise choice for audiences. Where would catch-up TV in Australia be without the bold plunge taken by the ABC in 2008 in creating iview? Who supports comedy and the arts? Who has made the investment in investigative journalism and in quality children's content?

At a time when many commercial operators are abandoning regional newsrooms, the ABC is taking initiative. We've committed $15 million a year in additional resourcing for our regional centres, creating up to 80 new content-making jobs. Each week, the ABC connects with 70 per cent of the Australian population through its many programs and services. On a monthly basis, that figures rises to 85 per cent. As we're funded by the taxpayer, we have an obligation to reach as many Australians as possible, not by dumbing down but by offering quality services and content relevant to our many audiences. To those who seek to restrict the activities of the ABC, I pose the question: what problem are we trying to solve here? The public certainly doesn't think there's a problem. More than 80 per cent of Australians consider that the ABC is doing a good job, keeping faith with its principles and its obligations. We consistently rank among the most trusted institutions in Australia. Our trust as a media organisation is much higher than that of our commercial counterparts. I'm sure in this hearing we'll traverse many issues that relate to the charter remit and transparency.

As I said in a recent speech, there is no more accountable media organisation in Australia than the ABC. We are adding to that accountability next February, with the first of our annual public meetings, providing another opportunity for stakeholders to learn more about our work and how we deliver against our objectives. Our corporate accounts, which are publicly available on our website, provide a detailed breakdown of the remuneration of all employees earning over $200,000, all without sacrificing individual privacy, as the current law demands.

Those salary tables provide an interesting contrast with the BBC. The BBC's top executive is male and its top presenter is also male. That presenter earns £2.3 million a year—A$3.7 million. Our highest paid talent earns roughly one-eighth of that figure and is a woman. I'm the highest-paid person at the ABC, under a salary set by the Remuneration Tribunal. We lead the way on gender representation: five of our nine board members are female, 49 per cent of our senior executive is female and 51 per cent of the general workforce is female. This is also the case in relation to pay. There is no pay gap unfavourable to women at any level in the ABC. We have parity across our executive and our senior on-air talent.

ABC independence is highly valued by the community, and I submit that you cannot have it by degrees. The ABC board, which is appointed by government, is ultimately responsible for the performance of the national broadcaster and must do so by carefully balancing its obligations and audience expectations. It shouldn't be burdened with quotas, sectional claims, red tape and political vendettas in achieving what the community expects of it.

CHAIR: As you alluded to, I expect there's a great deal of interest here today. I have a long list of senators who wish to ask questions.

Senator CHISHOLM: On salaries, what detail does the ABC currently provide about the pay of staff at the ABC, including on-air talent?

Ms Guthrie : As I said in my opening statement, we provide detailed tables on our corporate website—and those tables will be linked to our online annual report once it has been issued—showing remuneration paid to employees in bands over $200,000. Those tables are consistent with the guidelines set for the public service. There are around 150 people who earn over $200,000 in our organisation of around 4,000 employees. We don't list individual names with salaries, and we were advised by the department and by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that listing individual names on the website would breach the Privacy Act.

Senator CHISHOLM: Do you feel, therefore, that what you provide at the moment is sufficient?

Ms Guthrie : I very much believe that we have more transparency than a number of other organisations provide. The reporting we provide is very much in line with the standards that apply to other publicly funded bodies, and I don't understand why the ABC or SBS should be asked to list names in a more extensive way.

Senator CHISHOLM: What do you think will be the outcome or consequence if the ABC is required to publish presenter names and salaries? Are there any associated risks with that that you've identified?

Ms Guthrie : As some senators have pointed out in recent days, it's massively unfair to our presenters and journalists, given that they work in a competitive media sector. I don't think that disclosing names against individual salaries adds any more to the disclosure that we currently provide. We'll be responding to the minister's letter in due course.

Senator CHISHOLM: As the managing director and as part of the board discussions, it is about managing risks. Have you identified any specific ones around this potential requirement?

Ms Guthrie : The information of disclosing individual names against individual salaries that far down into an organisation is completely unprecedented. Obviously my salary is disclosed—it's set by the Remuneration Tribunal. I understand that the general rule in corporate Australia is very much around key management personnel, which is essentially direct reports to the managing director or CEO. That's not what is being proposed with listing around 150 people's individual names and specific salaries.

Senator CHISHOLM: Turning now to the competitive neutrality inquiry, if the ABC were reduced to a mere market-value broadcaster, what would that potentially mean for news, comedy and children's content?

Ms Guthrie : We're still awaiting details on the shape of the competitive neutrality inquiry—the terms of reference, the process and other key points. If it is an inquiry into competitive neutrality—and that's around whether we're impinging on commercial broadcasters—then it seems to us that the appropriate forum is the Productivity Commission, which has a standing complaints unit on this issue.

Senator CHISHOLM: On a related subject, the ABC has long been an innovator in the Australian media market. I think any parent out there knows about the early launch of iview and the innovation that the ABC brought with that. What do you think the competitive neutrality inquiry means with respect to innovation in Australian broadcasting and the media?

Ms Guthrie : As I said in my opening statement, I think we have been innovative and cost-effective in developing digital services such as iview and podcasts way before commercial outlets, and I don't think we should be punished for that. Innovation is very much a part of our charter, and I would hope that we would be encouraged to continue to innovate and deliver for our audiences where they need and consume the content. I don't think that we should be resiling from that obligation.

Senator CHISHOLM: Do you think that the competitive neutrality inquiry could potentially limit that ability?

Ms Guthrie : Again, all I can say is that the ABC's commercial activities very much comply with government competitive neutrality policies. I've said, in a speech to the Friends of the ABC, that whether we exist online or not isn't going to improve the commercial prospects of commercial broadcasters or newspaper operations. I think they have much bigger issues than the revenue that we might be making in these areas.

Senator CHISHOLM: What do you make of claims from some participants in the industry that you're acting beyond your remit in promoting ABC News stories in Google search rankings for instance?

Ms Guthrie : I find it a little odd that we are told that we can't be spending on Google Search. The money that we spend on search engine marketing was about $400,000 in the last financial year, which is mostly through Google. The ABC receives more revenue than that from Google. Last financial year, we received about $500,000 for distribution of some of our channels on YouTube. The idea that we make content and then don't tell our audience about it, particularly in digital and particularly for audiences that aren't used to coming to the ABC for great news and information—we think that it is completely within our remit to be able to market in the same way that in the past we might have marketed on bus or outdoor ads. Having much more targeted, cost-effective advertising on Google Search makes perfect sense to me.

Senator CHISHOLM: Does the ABC often find itself competing with other free-to-air broadcasters for content acquisition rights, as has been claimed by some people? Or is that something that's more of a focus for SBS?

Ms Guthrie : I'm not aware of any circumstance where we have competed directly with the free-to-airs on acquiring programming. I will say that very often the kinds of programming that we make is programming that the free-to-airs don't invest in. Comedy is a key part of what we do. Children's programming is a key part of what we do. And we're increasing our investment in very high quality dramas as well.

Senator CHISHOLM: On internal matters, would you be able to advise us whether you have any restructuring plans for the ABC over the next few months?

Ms Guthrie : Yes; there are some consultations with our content makers taking place over finding ways of better organising ourselves to deliver effectively to our audiences. Being organised on a platform basis is probably not the best way to reach our audiences. We expect that those consultations and conversations will happen with our senior content makers as well as throughout the organisation, and we hope to make a decision and announcement before the end of the year.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is there any light you can shed on what that restructure would mean for jobs and programming at the ABC?

Ms Guthrie : The entire purpose of that restructure is not to reduce jobs at all. It is about making sure that our content makers are much more empowered and are working much more effectively together to deliver for our audiences. Obviously, programming decisions are made all the time on a number of our platforms, but they're independent of the restructuring, and the intent of the restructuring is not to reduce jobs.

Senator CHISHOLM: In your opening statement, you mentioned political vendettas in association with developing policy around the ABC. I missed the context. Could you elaborate on that.

Ms Guthrie : When you ask about what further transparency we could have, I note comments that have been made by One Nation in particular that part of the reason for asking for the names is that they want to know about dud presenters. I think that that is a level of scrutiny that isn't appropriate for an independent public broadcaster, and it's certainly not appropriate considering the background with that particular party.

Senator CHISHOLM: That political vendetta that's been out there from One Nation—has that impacted on any of the decision-making that you've had at the ABC in recent times?

Ms Guthrie : Absolutely not, Senator. It doesn't affect our editorial lines at all. Ultimately, any changes to the act or charter or any requirements will entirely be up to parliament to come to a decision on. They won't be up to me.

Senator CHISHOLM: One final question. I think you touched on the changes in regional journalism in your opening statement and the additional $15 million. Could you elaborate a bit more on what impact that's had?

Ms Guthrie : I was actually just recently up at ABC Far North Queensland in Cairns and the team said, in particular, that having a couple more journalists in the team made a huge difference in their ability to, frankly, go out much more effectively to tell stories. They can go to Weipa for the first time in many years and spend days in communities to really explore those stories, rather than being so tied to our current office environment. I think it has made a huge difference, as has the investment in equipment—live-view units and other equipment—to really make sure that we can go out and tell those stories. The added capacity—I'm certainly being told this by our regional teams—has made a huge difference already.

Senator CHISHOLM: They just need to give more Queensland Labor senators a run when they're up there!

CHAIR: Shameless! Thank you, Senator Chisholm.

Senator ABETZ: Welcome, ABC. Can I be provided with an explanation as to why the ABC did not report the fact that on 15 June Mr Jon Stephens pleaded guilty to a case of historic child sexual abuse for which he received a prison sentence?

Ms Guthrie : This is something that Mr Sunderland has been directly dealing with, so I'll let him speak.

Mr Sunderland : I did inquire because there was some public commentary about that when it first arose. I inquired of the news team. Our bureau in the region were not aware of the court case when it happened. They didn't report on it when it first came before the courts. My understanding was that it subsequently came before the courts a second time, by which time they were aware of it and there was a report done on it then.

Senator ABETZ: On one occasion?

Mr Sunderland : That's right. It's been in court on two occasions. On the first occasion, we weren't present and didn't report on it. On the second occasion, we were and we did.

Senator ABETZ: But you could've reported on it. When was the first time the ABC became aware of Mr Stephens' appearance in court on 15 June 2017?

Mr Sunderland : I couldn't give you the precise date, but it was raised subsequent to that court appearance. It was covered by a local newspaper.

Senator ABETZ: That's right.

Mr Sunderland : It was then picked up and covered—I think it was the same report; I may be wrong, but I believe it was the same report—by the Daily Telegraph. At that point, we were aware that the case was in existence.

Senator ABETZ: And there was no need to report on it then?

Mr Sunderland : Well, the inquiries that I made around it were that it was a court case that we weren't at. As I say, it's not our normal practice to cover court cases that we weren't present at. But, as soon as we became aware that it was appearing before court a second time, that then provided us with an opportunity to cover it on its merits.

Senator ABETZ: How much coverage did it get? One occasion on the 1 pm news?

Mr Sunderland : That's right. It was one story, I believe.

Senator ABETZ: One story only. Can you tell the committee whether this was a Mr Jon Stephens, a former ABC TV producer, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old male ABC casual employee whilst on an ABC assignment?

Mr Sunderland : I understand that. I couldn't be certain whether the person was an ABC employee. Mr Stephens certainly was at the time. He was working on behalf of the ABC, whether he was strictly an employee or not. But, broadly, yes, that's my understanding of the situation.

Senator ABETZ: So there was no reporting about an ABC employee having been imprisoned for a historical child sex abuse offence?

Mr Sunderland : As I said to you, it was before the courts twice. On the first occasion we weren't present; we weren't aware of it. On the second occasion we were.

Senator ABETZ: Has the ABC management adopted any duty of care to the victim?

Mr Sunderland : That's not a question I can answer as editorial director. It's not my area.

Ms Guthrie : I can say that we are conducting some investigations around those issues. I'm afraid there's nothing I can specifically report on that today.

Senator ABETZ: Didn't this occur 30 years ago? When was the ABC, as an institution, first made aware of this matter? I'm not talking about the court appearance but about the allegation against Mr Stephens?

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Well, if you could. I would invite you to check the records, because this is an event that took place about 30 years ago. So are you unable to tell us whether there were any discussions at all in relation to this victim of this child sex abuse, who I understand is destitute and living out of a van?

Ms Guthrie : I can say that we are investigating this issue. As I said, I'm not able to report anything today but it is being investigated.

Senator ABETZ: Let us know when you first became aware of this issue and when your investigation first started. Surely, as soon as you became aware of this, your duty of care should have been to reach out. And I would have thought some of your journalists, who are quite properly, might I add, seeking to pursue other historic child sex offences within certain institutions and their lack of care may have exercised a similar diligence in relation to the institution known as the ABC, which, we now know from the public record, also has had historic child sex abuse cases. I will look forward to the answers that I get on notice from that. Was Mr Stevens a casual employee at the time?

Ms Guthrie : I do believe that he was an employee of the ABC.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but was he casual or full time? Permanent?

Ms Guthrie : I couldn't tell you that today. I'll have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: If you could let me know. In relation to the child, can I ask how that person happened to be with the ABC? Was it work experience?

Ms Guthrie : I'll take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Alright, and whether there may be some worker's compensation implications for that? If you can take that on notice. You can't report on that but somehow you can do a whole Australian Story on one Senator Dastyari. So who decided that? And who takes responsibility?

Senator MOORE: You're just jealous.

Senator ABETZ: Not at all. The ABC itself has now acknowledged, belatedly, that it was 'unfortunate', the timing—I would use other terminology. But if the ABC acknowledges it's unfortunate, you might be able to bring yourself also, Senator Hanson, to acknowledge that. Who made this decision?

Ms Guthrie : First and foremost, Australian Story is about telling compelling human stories.

Senator ABETZ: We know that. Time is short. Who made the decision to run it?

Ms Guthrie : The Australian Story program team decides.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but where does the buck stop? With whom? Who is the ultimate decision-maker? It's always very convenient to have a team so nobody individually is responsible but, at the end of the day, somebody must say, 'Yes, this is something worthwhile filming, putting to air.' Where does the buck stop?

Ms Guthrie : The program team develops particular programs and Australian Story program team developed a program with Senator Dastyari.

Senator ABETZ: I know you've got a prepared answer there, with respect, Ms Guthrie. I'm not interested in how it's all developed; I want to know who makes the final decision as to when and if it goes to air. Where does the buck stop?

Ms Guthrie : We have a program team that reports to a head of current affairs that reports to the head of news that reports to me.

Senator ABETZ: So, ultimately, the buck stops with you?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: So would you acknowledge that you made an unfortunate decision in allow this to go to air?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, I acknowledged that in my letter to the minister who wrote to me about this. I've also said to our news management team that I think that the launch of the book at the same time as the program going to air was a mistake.

Senator ABETZ: Right, so when did you come to this conclusion?

Ms Guthrie : I came to that conclusion when it was drawn to my attention that the launch of the book had happened at the same time. Frankly—

Senator ABETZ: You had no idea this book was being launched, given all the self-promotion that Senator Dastyari was doing about his book?

Ms Guthrie : The program team was very much aware that the launch was happening around the time of the broadcast, but the particular program itself never referred to the book at all. The focus of the program was very much around Senator Dastyari's return to Iran and also his rise and fall from the shadow ministry. It didn't refer to the book at all.

Senator ABETZ: If it was unfortunate in relation to Australian Story, what about the subsequent ABC appearances, such as The Conversation Hour with Senator Dastyari, at the same time? Were they also unfortunate?

Ms Guthrie : Those particular programs are very much done independently of Australian Story or other news and current affairs programs. They are very much related to particular events, so, again, the idea that Senator Dastyari would be an incorrect interviewee for Conversations with Richard Fidler is a step too far.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm sure, Eric, when you write your book, you'll get a spot on Fran Kelly too.

Senator ABETZ: I'm sure that comment won't be making the headlines this evening in the news, Senator. You'll have to try a little bit harder than that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No, I'm just saying—

Senator ABETZ: Were there any complaints from within the ABC about this Australian Story program and the timing of its airing? Were any alarm bells rung at all within the ABC, anywhere from within the team?

Ms Guthrie : I'm not aware of any specific complaints from any of our staff around that program in particular. I will just clarify, my concern was not around the program itself; my concern was around the timing of that program coinciding with Senator Dastyari's book launch and the way in which others have taken that as a tie—which doesn't exist, frankly.

Senator ABETZ: Nobody within the ABC, to you, Mr Sunderland, or to anybody else, complained about the wisdom of airing this Australian Story program?

Mr Sunderland : It might be useful to point out that the program team itself—I'm not aware of any complaints from anyone—

Senator ABETZ: That's all I need to know.

Mr Sunderland : but they went through a process to make sure that, in their view, they managed it successfully so the integrity of the program and the timing of the book would not be an issue. In hindsight, it was clearly an issue.

Senator ABETZ: Very unfortunate.

Mr Sunderland : They were aware of it and took a lot of measures to make sure—

Senator ABETZ: As unfortunate as Senator Dastyari's acceptance of donations. Can I turn to something non-political: The Doctor Blake Mysteries. It's based in Ballarat and filmed there, I understand, in general terms—is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : That's correct, Senator. You're a fan.

Senator ABETZ: It was a pretty high-rating program?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, it was one of our highest rated programs.

Senator ABETZ: It was exported to 130 countries or thereabouts—is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : I don't believe that's—

Senator ABETZ: It went to a lot of countries. Could you take on notice how many, please?

Ms Guthrie : A number of countries. Yes.

Senator ABETZ: It was a good cultural export from Australia.

Ms Guthrie : It was a very, very successful program.

Senator ABETZ: It was popular, but did it make any money for you, given that it was able to be exported?

Ms Guthrie : We'll have to take that on notice. The program itself was actually made by a third-party production company; not made by the ABC.

Senator ABETZ: But you were broadcasting it?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, in Australia.

Senator ABETZ: Was the production of it and its export to other countries undertaken by the ABC?

Ms Guthrie : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: If you could, because I'd like to know, on notice, why it was axed and how much revenue was foregone.

Ms Guthrie : I can certainly tell you why it was—

Senator ABETZ: Time is of the essence, sadly.

Senator MOORE: This is one of the times that I actually strongly support Senator Abetz's questions on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Can I withdraw all those questions! Thank you, Senator. It's very nice to know that I have your—

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, you have two minutes before your time is up.

Senator ABETZ: I may come around again, if I may, Chair, but this next bracket of questions is in relation to your telephone contract. Did the ABC in 2016 switch from Telstra to Optus?

Ms Guthrie : Yes; that's my understanding.

Senator ABETZ: And that was designed to save lots of money. Is that right?

Ms Guthrie : It was a competitive tender process, and my understanding is that Optus was the preferred tenderer.

Senator ABETZ: And we changed back to Telstra didn't we?

Ms Guthrie : That is correct.

Senator ABETZ: Who is responsible for the due diligence about the lack of an Optus footprint, especially in regional Australia?

Ms Guthrie : We had very much taken that into account. We continually have our contracts under review and we managed to get a good contract that we were very comfortable with back with Telstra. So we switched back to Telstra.

Senator ABETZ: How much did it cost the Australian taxpayer to switch from Telstra to Optus? How quickly did you switch back to Telstra—within 12 months?

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take that on notice, but we saved significant money in this process.

Senator ABETZ: But didn't you also have to exchange the actual telephone device?

Ms Guthrie : No; we didn't. They were SIM cards.

Senator ABETZ: SIM cards?

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: And that didn't cost?

Ms Guthrie : No.

Senator ABETZ: Did you have to hire any phones during this debacle—if I might call it that—because of the lack of coverage for regional staff?

Ms Guthrie : Senator, it wasn't a debacle. It was always intended that, in areas where Optus didn't have coverage, those staff would remain on Telstra—and that's what happened.

Senator ABETZ: Were they retained on Telstra?

Ms Guthrie : They were retained on Telstra, yes. My understanding is that most of our regional staff remained on Telstra.

Senator ABETZ: Most?

Ms Guthrie : Yes. That's my understanding.

Senator ABETZ: All?

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: You had better check that detail. If there had been any emergencies that ABC reporters were called out to during that period with Optus where they then were not able to communicate—

Ms Guthrie : We had coverage the entire time we were with Telstra and Optus.

Senator ABETZ: At all times?

Ms Guthrie : That's my understanding.

Senator ABETZ: I have one last question in this bracket.

CHAIR: One last question.

Senator ABETZ: Why on earth on Q&A was my good friend and colleague Senator McKenzie not described as a National Party senator but as a gun enthusiast in the caption at the bottom of the screen, whereas the relevant ALP member on Q&A, Ms Aly, was described as the Labor member for whatever seat she represents?

Mr Sunderland : I can take that on notice if you like and follow up on that one for you. I am not aware off the top of my head.

Senator ABETZ: Each and every time we have to take these things on notice. You could have described Senator McKenzie as a loving mother or as a passionate person for the rural sector, but I would have thought that 'National Party senator for Victoria', like 'Labor member for' would be appropriate. Why did you pick on such—

Mr Sunderland : The reason I am taking that on notice is that I have no idea if that was the sole way she was described for the entirety of the program, from beginning to end, or if was in one instance or if it was relevant to the content. I simply don't have those details. I presume that you would like those details, so I will take it on notice.

Senator ABETZ: I would indeed.

Mr Sunderland : I'll get that for; no problem.

Senator ABETZ: And I will not be amazed by the explanation, I'm sure.

CHAIR: Thank you Senator Abetz. Senator Hanson-Young?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Guthrie, I firstly want to go to the speech that you gave on 6 October and the subsequent reply in The Australian from Minister Fifield. Did the minister contact you after your speech and prior to publishing an article that described you as 'shrill and unhinged'?

Ms Guthrie : My understanding is that he wasn't referring to me. But he did not call me, no.

Senator Fifield: No; I spoke to the chairman of the organisation to advise that I would be submitting a piece to the newspaper. Ms Guthrie is quite right that when I was referring to responses that ranged from the hysterical to the slightly unhinged, in the article I went on to immediately refer to the people I was referring to, who were Michelle Rowland, because she referred to the ABC measures as a direct assault on the independence of our public broadcaster; I was referring to Mr Paul Barrie of the ABC's Media Watch, who 'frothed', I said, that the government was 'bashing auntie'; and I was referring to Michael Pascoe, who wrote that it was 'all a plan to whip, embarrass and damage the ABC'. They were the individuals I was referring to.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Good—so some of the subediting—

Ms Guthrie : The headline was not—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The headline you don't think reflected the piece you wrote?

Senator Fifield: It would be wrong to take that the words I used in the first paragraph were referring to Ms Guthrie. They were referring to three individuals, who were immediately quoted.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm glad we've got that cleared up. Ms Guthrie, there's obviously a bit of talk in this piece from the minister, but also other commentary, given the tabling of legislation in relation to opening up the charter to include the words 'fair and balanced'. Have you had a conversation with the minister's office, or indeed, the department, about what fair and balanced means?

Ms Guthrie : Not specifically. As I have said in my earlier speech, I don't believe that adding the words 'fair and balanced' into the charter is necessary. I think that compliance with our editorial policies, which refer to fair and balanced based on the weight of evidence, is sufficient. Frankly, nothing I've heard from the minister in public statements says that what we're doing under our editorial policies needs to be changed. So I query, again, what problem we're trying to solve to add those words into the charter.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you concerned that that may mean that you're directed to give further weight to views of anti-vaxxers or reporting facts that are somewhat questionable?

Ms Guthrie : Frankly, we are concerned about how those words will be read, certainly, by people who choose to take an aggressive view towards achieving a false balance, I guess, not based on the weight of evidence. I know Mr Sunderland in particular has written something recently on the way in which we have our editorial policies referring to fairness and balance.

Mr Sunderland : The most useful thing I can add is that for as long as I can recall the duties of the board have included ensuring they were accurate and impartial in accordance with the recognised standards of objective journalism. The difficulty I see is that fair and balanced as concepts, if they're provided with sufficient contextualising information and explained—there's a role for both of them, in a way, within the body of editorial practice, but as stand-alone headline standards—there's a reason that if you look at the recognised standards of objective journalism around the world, you generally won't find balance in it, because the risk is that, stripped of context, it's seen as false balance, as false equivalence, of 'he said, she said' journalism. That's exactly what no responsible broadcaster would do. I'm not saying that that's necessarily the intent of the words, but it's one of the great risks if they're put there baldly out of context, which is the kind of concern that we have.

Senator Fifield: I might interpose here. As Mr Sunderland points out, the act currently talks about the need to be accurate and impartial. What the government is proposing, through the legislation that's being introduced, is to put alongside that the words 'fair and balanced'. The concepts of fairness and balance are already in chapter 4 of the ABC's editorial guidelines, where it talks about the importance of fair treatment. It also talks about a balance that follows the weight of evidence. I should also note that the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance talks about the concept of fairness, I think on six occasions, in their journalistic code of ethics. So what this legislation seeks to do is to enshrine in legislation that which is already in the ABC's editorial policies and, as is the case now, the ABC has legislated independence in these matters and the editorial policies of the ABC will be ones that the ABC drafts.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm sure we can debate your view of this legislation as the legislation continues through the parliament.

Senator Fifield: I thought that might be helpful context.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Guthrie, the other issues, of course—and you have touched on this a bit already—are in relation to the Competitive Neutrality Review. I'd like to know specifically what your understanding is of what that review will look at? Have you received any official briefings or consultation as yet from the minister's office or the department about the terms of reference?

Ms Guthrie : No. We are still awaiting details of what that review looks like—terms of reference, process, who's going to conduct it and anything else associated with that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you concerned that it will consider the role that the ABC plays in terms of iview? I note that in your opening statement you highlighted the digital platforms. Are you worried that the minister might require you to whack a paywall on iview?

Ms Guthrie : The concerns I have are that there have definitely been some more recent proclamations by commercial media that we shouldn't be operating our digital services in the way we are operating them, whether that is having news not behind a paywall, or whether it's having free children's content or other things. There is obviously also some complaint around us spending money on Google search and also around having co-production deals with third parties like Netflix.

All I can rely on in terms of the impetus for any competitive neutrality concerns is what has been reported direct from the CEOs of these media companies about complaints. My view is if they have complaints about the way in which we operate, in terms of competitive neutrality, the Productivity Commission is there as the forum to have those complaints heard. My understanding is that none of those complaints have gone forward. What I am concerned about, and this is a genuine concern, is that this ends up not being a competitive neutrality inquiry but actually goes into being a fundamental review of our charter. As I said in the opening statement, my very strong view is that we very much have the support of the majority of the Australian people, that we are complying with our charter, and the idea that we are forced into more of a market value operator is not what our charter says at all and that's not the expectation of the Australian people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What would be the impact on viewership if you were forced to put a paywall on iview in order to be competitively neutral with other on-demand services?

Ms Guthrie : It's a fundamental question about what our audience's expectations are. Our audience expects that if they miss Four Corners or miss a program during the day they can watch it later that night or the next day on iview. The idea that we would charge them for that, considering that they've already paid for the program in the first place, seems a little bizarre.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What do you mean they've already paid for it in the first place?

Ms Guthrie : Taxpayer funding has gone into the original program. Iview is simply taking those programs and making them available in a different window, in a more convenient way, particularly for generations of audience that are used to consuming products on demand rather than on TV. It's definitely the case that our traditional TV and radio platform audiences are declining, but our digital audiences are growing, and the way we very much see our obligation to deliver for the Australian people is to be platform neutral—to be able to offer services on TV, on radio and online depending on the way consumers want to receive that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Charging the public to be able to view things on iview would be like a double tax, then?

Ms Guthrie : As I said, I view it as the Australian public has already paid for it. They've paid for the program itself, and then requiring that to go behind a paywall seems to me to be double dipping.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you raised those concerns with the government yourself about your reluctance to allow a paywall to go on iview?

Ms Guthrie : I've certainly raised my view that the ABC has operated within a dual environment with commercial broadcasters and commercial operators since the beginning. Just because technology is changing and audience habits are changing doesn't mean that the ABC is the cause of any economic difficulties that commercial broadcasters might find themselves in. That trend is happening everywhere in the world. I think the idea that we should have to retract from particular platforms is not the expectation of the Australian people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We heard from the minister earlier today that it would be up to the ABC to decide whether you want to whack a paywall on your online services and on-demand services. Is that your understanding?

Senator Fifield: Your question to me was about the future of those particular services and my response—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I specifically asked—

Senator Fifield: was words to the effect that how that's configured is a matter for the ABC. I also indicated that the proposition you put wasn't one that I had in contemplation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Just to be clear: the ABC couldn't charge the public to use iview without the approval of the minister or the parliament—is that your understanding? Either of you?

Ms Guthrie : My understanding is that we cannot erect a paywall on iview without a change in legislation. That is, our TV, radio and digital platforms, our owned and operated platforms, are to be advertising free and subscription free.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you for clarifying. Is that your understanding, minister? That's not how I interpreted your answer earlier today.

Senator Fifield: That is my understanding. I was talking more generally about how the ABC view the future of particular platforms and what they might do with them. That is purely a matter for the ABC.

Senator MOORE: I have two questions. One is to get an update from the ABC's perspective about the decision on short wave. We had the decision, we had considerable discussion, and I really do appreciate the feedback and information that the ABC gave to me through correspondence and meeting. We then had the Senate inquiry, where there was quite a lot of evidence given which gave a range of views. I'm wondering, now, from your perspective—the decision has been made, but in terms of the impact of that decision and discussions we had about looking at alternative ways of improving conditions around, not short wave, but communication, particularly in Papua New Guinea and places like Fiji and the Solomons.

Ms Guthrie : We have shaped our international strategy very much with a specific focus on the Pacific. In particular, we've finalised a tender process for FM transmitters in Papua New Guinea. We're aiming to have these installed early next year, hopefully in January 2018. So it is important for us to maintain a service into Papua New Guinea in particular.

Senator MOORE: At that time I might come back to you and ask questions about how they're going. The other area I want to follow up is that we've had a range of discussions today, and it has been played out in the media, about the various concerns about the ABC and discussions that are going on. I'm wondering whether there's any process within the ABC of talking with the staff. I'm getting a feeling that this is just another round of them feeling under siege, that it's tough enough in terms of seeing their workplace, their conditions, their professionalism being questioned and challenged. Can you give me some indication about what the feeling is amongst the staff and what, if anything, you're needing to do to keep them feeling as though they're being valued?

Ms Guthrie : Senator, I spend—

Senator MOORE: I know, that's why I asked the question, Ms Guthrie.

Ms Guthrie : a lot of time with our employees not just in our capital city offices but all around Australia. I hope to be able to do that much more next year when I have a little more time. It is incredibly important for them to know that the work that they do is valued, the work that they do is valued by the Australian people. As I said, our trust and value numbers are consistently above 80 per cent in the independent surveys that we do. I do feel that they take great pride in the quality and distinctiveness of the programs that they're responsible for and the work that we do and, frankly, on the focus that we have on content making. So, even though we've had to make some tough decisions six months ago around redundancies, we have very much invested those savings into both regional Australia and also great new content ideas that, hopefully, will come to fruition very soon in the new year. So, I do hope that our employees have the message that the work that they do is incredibly important to the Australian public but also I'm trying to make sure that they are more empowered, have more resources to dedicate—and the investment in investigative journalism that we announced a couple of weeks ago is a good example of that. I'm a big believer in actually doing things rather than necessarily talking about them.

As we make steps to show that we have that commitment to our employees and to our audiences, I'd hope that our engagement amongst our employees goes up.

Senator REYNOLDS: Welcome back, Ms Guthrie. I'd like to take you to a story that's just broken on the media and, unfortunately, just having a look at some of the reports—I understand in question time in the House, Bill Shorten started a line of questioning to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, on the AFP. As I understand it, there were a couple of questions in the lead-up to this about the AFP, resourcing and drug busts and, very coincidentally—or not—at 2.20 pm the ABC published an online article, which I've just had a look at. It was a very big coincidence on the planet that the ABC published a story at about 2.20 pm on AFP resourcing, which Mr Shorten, in his line of questioning, was able to refer to which streamlined beautifully into his line of questioning. Are you aware of this story today?

Ms Guthrie : No, because I was in here at 2.20.

Senator REYNOLDS: Neither were we. It's just happening live. It appears to be—and I'll go through a series of questions on this, because a number of things come to mind—on the face of it, the most coincidental thing that's ever happened in politics or there was some degree of coordination between Bill Shorten and your journalist for this to come up at the right time during his line of questioning, which he was able to seamlessly move into his next question.

Senator Fifield: To clarify, to get the sequence: there was a question from Mr Shorten about AFP resourcing—

Senator REYNOLDS: My understanding is, just having a look at what's coming up now, Mr Shorten was pursuing a line of attack on the government, of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice, on issues of AFP and AFP resourcing—

Senator Fifield: And, shortly after that, there was an ABC online article—

Senator REYNOLDS: He asked two or three questions—and I haven't quite had time to go back and look at this yet. Onto his third or fourth question, Mr Shorten was able to say—where are we? In his speech, he actually referred to a story that had just popped up that not only reinforced everything that he was asking of the Prime Minister but also provided further information that certainly was very coincidental. I just want to ask in a general policy sense first and then I'll come back to this as we get some more information: is it appropriate—if this did occur—that the ABC journalist had actually worked with the ALP to coordinate this attack on the government? Would you think that's appropriate?

Ms Guthrie : Senator, this is all speculation. I literally have no idea about the sequence of events or the story.

Senator REYNOLDS: Maybe I will just ask a few questions and, given it's your journalist and your story and I've been able to access it online, hopefully one of your staff who are listening in or who are here would be able to check on this right now. First of all, are you aware of the story? Do you think it's appropriate? I've just got a message here—

Senator MOORE: She already said she wasn't aware.

Senator REYNOLDS: Yes.

CHAIR: Allow Senator Reynolds to—

Senator REYNOLDS: Let me finish, thanks. Having a look at the online story and what Mr Shorten said, it appears very clear to me that Labor would have been aware of the journalist's story before, because otherwise how else would Mr Shorten have known about it? So the cynic in me would say that that is actually a journalist working in support of Labor's question time tactics.

Ms Guthrie : Senator, I really feel completely unable to—

Senator REYNOLDS: Can I perhaps just ask you to make some urgent inquiries about this. At two o'clock, Mr Shorten questions the Prime Minister on the AFP.

Senator URQUHART: Which we've been doing for a long time.

Senator REYNOLDS: At 2.09, he then questions specifically on decisions taken by the Prime Minister regarding the AFP.

Senator URQUHART: Which we've been doing for a long time.

Senator REYNOLDS: At 2.15, there is another specific question from Mr Shorten on decisions taken by the AFP.

Senator URQUHART: Which we've been doing for a long time.

Senator REYNOLDS: And then, at 2.24, ABC reported and published and tweeted on this story. So if you could—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But what's the question? I've been sitting here trying to work out what your question is.

Senator REYNOLDS: This is just happening now live. So I'm asking you two things. One is if you can find out background, given you've got your journalist here in the gallery, and come back in, perhaps, the next rotation and provide some further advice, if you can consult with the journalist and find out. Perhaps this is for you, Mr Sunderland.

Mr Sunderland : Yes, I am more than happy to take this on notice, but I can't give you any expectations that we're going to be able to track down one of our reporters and get to the bottom of what is a complex and nuanced issue around who knew what story when. I understand the point you're wanting to make. I'm more than happy to respond, but I'm not going to be in a position to do that in a few minutes at the drop of a hat.

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Sunderland, I think the first question—given that the journalist is here in the gallery in your bureau right now—come back and answer in the next rotation or two, because we have plenty of questions to come up—is: did your journalist have any contact with the Leader of the Opposition's office, and was there some degree of staging or timing?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: He may have tried to do an interview.

Mr Sunderland : There are all manner of possibilities here. It is not a situation where it's appropriate, in my view, for us to try and get some on-the-fly partial response to one of the questions you might have. If you have issues around this, I perfectly understand that, and I'm more than happy to look into it properly and thoroughly and appropriately and respond to you and take it on notice. But I'm going to have to take it on notice.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'm happy for you to take it on notice, but if you could come back at least and confirm this afternoon—a very simple question to your journalist—

Mr Sunderland : No, I can't do that, Senator. I'm not in a position to do that.

Senator REYNOLDS: if they had any communication at all with the Labor Party tactics today—

Mr Sunderland : I'm not in a position to do that, Senator.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You're asking the journalist to give up their sources.

CHAIR: Order! Mr Sunderland's said that he'll take the question on notice. Did you have other questions?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I don't think you can ask journalists to give up their sources.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Reynolds, order, please.

Senator Fifield: If I can perhaps just comment as to where we started an earlier discussion, the ABC's act talks about the importance of the ABC being impartial. Senator Reynolds has provided the committee with a time line which indicates that Mr Shorten was asking a series of questions about AFP resourcing, but shortly after the commencement of those questions there was an ABC online piece that appeared which was then, according to what Senator Reynolds has said, seamlessly incorporated into Mr Shorten's line of questioning. Just so I have it clear, the question that Senator Reynolds would like the ABC to examine is: was there any communication between the journalist in question and Mr Shorten's office? Was there the giving of a heads-up to Mr Shorten as to what may have been appearing in the ABC, or the other way around?

Senator REYNOLDS: Minister, just in further clarification, I've just got here the text of what the Prime Minister actually said in relation to this a short time ago. He said, 'Thank you, Mr Speaker. If the honourable member spent more time listening to the AFP and less time coordinating his question time tactics with the ABC, he would have a better insight into national security.' That is the concern of the Prime Minister in relation to this issue. I'm happy for you to take it on notice, Mr Sunderland, but I'd be grateful for any early advice you can provide us in relation to this.

Mr Sunderland : Certainly, Senator.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thank you.

CHAIR: I think the minister's characterisation of the question that was asked, just in summary, was spot on. Senator Reynold's, you had further questions?

Senator REYNOLDS: I do. But I will come around to the next bracket.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, would you like to have another go?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. I wanted to go to this issue that has been reported in both TheGuardian and Fairfax in relation to the member for Port Melbourne, Michael Danby, attacking one of your journalists, Sophie McNeill. Are you familiar with this issue?

Mr Sunderland : I am, Senator.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I would like to know whether Michael Danby, the member for Port Melbourne, wrote to the ABC, and whether he issued any kind of formal complaint before spending taxpayer money taking out an ad to attack an individual journalist?

Mr Sunderland : It's probably safest for me to take that on notice. I would need to check thoroughly to see if he has complained on this or similar issues in the past, in terms of writing to us.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Could you also let us know whether you've had any other correspondence with any other members of parliament, in relation to this particular issue and Sophie McNeill as an ABC journalist?

Mr Sunderland : Certainly. Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'd like to know whether the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, has contacted the ABC at all in relation to Michael Danby's ad.

Mr Sunderland : Again, I'll have to take it on notice.

Mr Millett : In relation to that point, I do know the ABC has been in contact with the Shorten office in relation to the Danby ad, which is the other way around.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. The other way around. Was that in concern with the ad being—

Mr Millett : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you think it's appropriate that individual members of parliament spend taxpayer money attacking individual journalists?

Mr Sunderland : I don't think we have a view on that. I don't think that is for us to have a view on. We're concerned with our content and what we do.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And has Ms McNeill been given the opportunity to state her own case in relation to this?

Mr Sunderland : We've responded to the concern that was raised. Obviously, Sophie has been involved in being aware of that and providing information. But it is a response that we stand behind at the ABC and we have complete confidence in her work and we've made that clear, on more than one occasion.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is this—

Senator ABETZ: Despite the overwhelming evidence—

Mr Sunderland : I think you are trying to bait me there, Senator. I would accept that characterisation.

Senator ABETZ: I have had questions about this in the past.

CHAIR: Order. Senator Hanson-Young, would you like to continue.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, Chair. Is it a regular occurrence that a member of parliament would take out a public ad attacking the ABC or attacking an individual journalist? Have you seen this before?

Mr Sunderland : Look, I can't specifically recall that set of circumstances, but let me say that politicians, members of parliament from all sides, regularly take issue with us around our content, and we are perfectly comfortable with that. That's entirely appropriate and we are happy to engage and respond.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. Thank you. I wanted to go on to this issue in relation to individual members of parliament complaining to the ABC. Do you keep a file for Senator Roberts here?

Mr Sunderland : In relation to all senators—I'd have to it take on notice. I don't believe that we keep files. We keep logs of all complaints. All full editorial complaints are there—they are logged and they are searchable—but I don't believe we maintain separate files, no. But I could give you more information on it generally if you would like, in relation to—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you had an increase in complaints over the last 12 months from members of parliament?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I would have to take that on notice, but certainly nothing like that has been brought to my attention. The numbers are fairly consistent across the board. I don't know if we have ever broken them down and looked at them from that perspective.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. Do you have a unit or one staff member—how do you deal with complaints from members of parliament?

Mr Sunderland : They're treated the same as complaints from anyone. We have an internal complaints handling unit; it is called 'Audience and consumer affairs'. It ultimately reports to me. It is a small team of three or four complaints handlers that investigate all written—well, they process all written complaints alleging breaches of our editorial standards. They either investigate them or, for the more straightforward ones, they hand them back to the program teams for them to respond to or engage with. There is a consistent approach, regardless of who the complainant is.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You haven't had to expand the efforts of that unit over the last 12 months?

Mr Sunderland : No.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. And did you—

Mr Sunderland : They are kept busy, though.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I can imagine. Have there been any specific complaints in relation to the treatment of One Nation and their senators by the ABC?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, I'm sure that is an issue that has come up.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have members of the One Nation political party written to complain to the ABC about the coverage the ABC has given to One Nation and their leader, Pauline Hanson?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, I believe we have received complaints of that nature.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is that from Senator Pauline herself or from Senator Roberts or from the administration of the party? I am not sure they have administrators, by the way.

Mr Sunderland : I won't respond to that either, other than to say that I will have to take that level of detail on notice.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. Thank you. I want to go back to this issue of 'fair and balanced'. Do you think 'fair and balanced' in any way could be incorporated into the charter? Or does it fundamentally undermine the independence of the journalistic trust, the compact, that the ABC holds with the Australian public?

Mr Sunderland : At the risk of prompting another debate with the minister, I guess I would say that I don't—

Senator Fifield: It was a fruitful exchange.

Mr Sunderland : It was a fruitful exchange. I just don't think it belongs in the charter. Notions of fairness and balance need to be carefully unpacked and explained in order to avoid some of the pernicious issues that can affect journalism around false balance. So I think putting them in the charter in the duties of the board is a combination of unnecessary and potentially misleading. I think that, while those notions can and do exist, they exist in a very carefully described and contextualised way already in our policies, and that's where they belong.

Senator Fifield: I just want to add that our proposition in the legislation before the Senate is not to put 'fair and balanced' in the charter; it is to put it in that section of the ABC Act that makes reference to impartiality and accuracy.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : Yes, that's absolutely right. In the duties of the board—section 8.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Point taken. Thank you. Mr Sunderland, Senator Pauline Hanson had an interview on ABC's Insiders program in the week or so before the WA state election. She got probed about her policy in relation to vaccinations and her support for antivaxxers. If you've got the information there, I'd appreciate it. If you need to take it on notice, I understand. Has Senator Hanson complained to the ABC about being asked about the antivaccination campaign?

Mr Sunderland : I don't believe so, but I would need to take that on notice to be completely sure. I have no recollection of that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Has she complained that her treatment on the ABC Insiders program was unfair at all?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I'd have to take that on notice. I don't think we received a complaint about that particular interview, but I would need to check.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you know whether there was a complaint about the Four Corners investigation into One Nation?

Mr Sunderland : I believe there was, but again I'd want to be certain of where that came from. It may not even have come from the One Nation party itself. But I seem to recall dealing with it as a complaint.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. Chair, I'm happy for you to rotate and come back.

CHAIR: Okay. Senator Roberts.

Unidentified speaker: This'll be good.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you, Chair. Thank you for appearing today. Are you aware that the BBC disclosed salaries of senior talent after salaries of the top 20 were leaked and showed a large gender gap?

Ms Guthrie : Yes, I'm aware of that, Senator.

Senator ROBERTS: I thought you were. One of the things, Ms Guthrie, that I've noticed in Parliament House is that accountability is very low and people seem to go off opinions rather than facts. This is not a reflection on you; this is showing why I'm asking the questions. How can Australians trust you or your ABC if they don't have the facts?

Ms Guthrie : Senator, I think you missed my opening statement.

Senator ROBERTS: No, I got your opening statement. I also got Senator Chisolm's opening questions, so I'm not going to ask you about gender gaps or executive pays. I just want to know how people can trust you without facts if they simply go on opinions?

Ms Guthrie : We don't go on opinions.

Senator ROBERTS: But you'd agree that trust comes once people know facts?

Ms Guthrie : Trust comes from the way in which we cover news and current affairs in particular, but it covers the whole gamut of the way in which we deliver to our audiences. The trust that the population has in us—the latest number is 82 per cent—is done on a number of different measures, but, ultimately it is based on the way in which we inform, educate and entertain them.

Senator ROBERTS: If any company says, 'We pay our staff equally,' but refuses to disclose the figures, that does not lead to trust?

Ms Guthrie : I disagree with that, Senator.

Senator ROBERTS: Okay; we disagree. Let's consider commentators moonlighting as journalists and review the last eight weeks of the ABC's flagship current affairs program, Insiders. They had 32 presenters, including the host. Do you know that only five presenters in total were right-of-centre? I don't like the terms 'right' and 'left', but that's what our society has degenerated to. Only five of 32 presenters were right-of-centre.

Mr Sunderland : The point I'd make about Insiders is that Insiders is a program which does not bring together left-wing and right-wing commentators to provide left-wing and right-wing perspectives on the news. Insiders is a program which, by and large, seeks to bring together senior journalists, the majority of them working in the press gallery and others who are senior commentators on matters of politics. While there is a certain balance on occasion with some of the more opinionated members of that, the vast majority of people who appear on Insiders are working journalists doing their job as journalists.

Senator ROBERTS: I accept that.

Mr Sunderland : I'm perfectly interested in having a look at the analysis you might want to present to us on that, but it's not as simple as saying, 'Let's fill a roster of left-wing and right-wing people.' There is a broad nuance across the board, and it isn't essentially a program aimed at bringing the extremes of opinion together, but, rather, bringing working journalists—

Senator ROBERTS: I didn't mean to imply that at all.

Mr Sunderland : Sure. The five out of 32 is a number that I'd want to see your calculations on.

Senator ROBERTS: Sure. In five of the last eight episodes, there was not one conservative commentator included. That's an average of 0.625 conservatives per episode, not including Talking Picturespresenters. Over a total of eight weeks, 15.6 per cent were conservatives, and, if you include the Talking Pictures commentators, then it's only 12.5. I'm not advocating that you must have right-wing and must have left-wing; I'm advocating a balance. When we have only 12.5 per cent of the commentators from the right wing, do you consider that to be fair and balanced representation of our society?

Mr Sunderland : I'd say two things. First of all, I'd say that, as I think I made clear, I'm having trouble accepting your characterisation of the purpose of the program, the nature of the commentators and the numbers that you have. Given that, it's difficult for me to respond further on the nature of where balance might sit in a concept like that.

Senator ROBERTS: I take it you're finding it difficult to understand the concepts of 'fair' and 'balanced'.

Mr Sunderland : I'm just questioning your assumptions. I've explained at some length already—I won't waste the committee's time any further—my understanding of 'fair' and 'balanced'. I'm having trouble accepting your assertions on the numbers without understanding how you've chosen to characterise people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Just because you believe, Senator Roberts, doesn't make it true.

Senator ROBERTS: Isn't it a disservice to your agency's charter and to the people who pay the bills and pay your salary when we don't have representation from the other side of politics?

Mr Sunderland : I'm questioning your assumptions, Senator. If you'd like to divide the world into Left and Right and count them up on everything we do—

Senator ROBERTS: I don't.

Mr Sunderland : That's the problem with this, without understanding the numbers and where you've got them from. You've asserted something as fact and asked me to respond to it. I don't really accept the premise without understanding where you're coming from on this one.

Senator ROBERTS: Ms Guthrie, in her opening comments, talked about the ABC being an important part in the past of the fabric of Australian life. To be part of the fabric of Australian life, the ABC would have to represent views from across Australia and from all fabrics of Australian life.

Mr Sunderland : It needs to do its job.

Senator ROBERTS: Correct; that's what I'm getting at. I have assessments of the ABC programs in the past that quantify ABC bias, and in some programs just straight lies. The problem we are trying to help you solve is for the ABC to return to being a part of Australian life; that's what we want. The people we represent pay over a billion dollars for you to spend, and we want to make sure all Australians are getting that value; that's all we want. I understand that audits of the ABC—

Ms Guthrie : Senator, 86 per cent of Australians believe that we deliver value for them.

Senator ROBERTS: You've mentioned trust and news. Could you give me the sources of those polls, tests, opinions?

Ms Guthrie : Of course, we can provide—

Mr Sunderland : They're all published.

Senator ROBERTS: You can take it on notice?

Ms Guthrie : Yes. We can provide them.

Senator ROBERTS: I'd love to see them. But I understand audits of the ABC have been conducted by Ray Martin, who appears on SBS; Sean Brown, who is a former SBS managing director; and Colleen Ryan from Fairfax. What audits has the ABC conducted into its programs and who conducted each audit? Can I get a list of those?

Mr Sunderland : I'll provide all that information to you. It's all online, all available, and I'll give—

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you. Although I dislike the term 'right' and 'left'—my preference is 'freedom' and 'control', left wing being control and freedom being right wing—has your ABC ever been accused of being right wing?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, on a regular basis, I'm sorry to say. It pains me to admit that as it pains me to admit we've been accused of being left wing. But our complaints cover a very wide gamut, both the written ones and others, that accuse us of just about anything you can think of.

Senator ROBERTS: A lot of our constituents do complain that your ABC is not fair and balanced. How fair and balanced do you think it is when your Andrew Probyn gives a clear signal to Islamic extremists that Senator Hanson was about to embark earlier this year on a trip to see Aussie troops in the Middle East and, in doing so, breached established protocols?

Mr Sunderland : I believe we've dealt with that issue before—maybe not directly with you. That issue was in no way intended to cause any damage or harm to either the trip or to Senator Hanson. It was raised because the report at the time felt that it was already in the public domain and appropriate. He subsequently acknowledged that, if it had caused any concern, he regretted that. But there was certainly no intention on his part, and we didn't see it that way either.

Senator ROBERTS: I can assure you that Senator Hanson—

Mr Sunderland : I understand that.

Senator ROBERTS: had to cancel her trip. And that, up until then, we didn't even know—her fellow senators; no one knew. But somehow Andrew Probyn thought it was okay to release. Will he be reprimanded for that, because it broke established protocols?

Mr Sunderland : He didn't feel he was breaking established protocols at the time. There was some confusion about that, because that trip had been, as I recall it, publicly listed on the website of the Defence department. In any event, it was not done with any intention to damage, and we acknowledge that, if it did damage, we regretted that at the time, and so it has been dealt with.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That she just hadn't sent you the right web address.

CHAIR: Order!

Senator ROBERTS: Do you know what groupthink is?

Mr Sunderland : I could have a stab at giving a working definition of it, but I'm not sure that would be particularly helpful, Senator.

Senator ROBERTS: One definition is: 'group pressures leading to groups making faulty decisions through deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.'

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That's One Nation for you!

Senator ROBERTS: What are the characteristics of groupthink?

Mr Sunderland : I don't know that there's a lot of progress to start to engage on a working definition. Perhaps this would be useful: one of the things we pride ourselves on at the ABC—and we certainly don't pride ourselves on being perfect—on having the greatest level of commitment of any Australian media organisation to a set of editorial standards designed to challenge preconceptions, to deliver impartiality, to deliver accuracy and to deliver a whole range of outcomes that make sure that we can be trusted as a media organisation that doesn't engage in bias, in inaccuracies, in groupthink or in anything else you want to discuss. And I say that not just by asserting it: we have a greater commitment of resources, time and demonstrable energy going into that. There will be different views, even in this very room, as to how successful we are, but we take these matters seriously, more seriously than any other media organisation I'm aware of in this country. That is demonstrable by our standards, by our self-regulation as well as the ACMA regulation—which for the most part reinforces our own judgements on these matters where there's contest—by our training and by the reviews you've talked of. We place a great store on providing quite detailed guidance—again, I can direct you to some of our writings on this—around ways of ensuring appropriate rigor and appropriate scrutiny as we go about our work.

Senator ROBERTS: I can assure you that a lot of people I listen to across Queensland and around Australia do not see the ABC as anything but groupthink, with the exception of regional reporters in Queensland. The ABC, I read somewhere—maybe Ms Guthrie said—has more investigative journalists than anyone else in Australia. Is that correct?

Ms Guthrie : That is correct.

Senator ROBERTS: Yet none of the ABC's investigative journalists have recently confirmed or recently found what we have done ourselves by investigating the CSIRO through their own presentations. There is a whole other side to this climate debate, but I never hear about it on the ABC. Isn't one of the characteristics of groupthink, Mr Sunderland, that people who participate in groupthink think they're doing the right thing?

Mr Sunderland : I'm sure we all think we're doing the right thing.

Senator ROBERTS: And that they're part of the majority, the 82 per cent?

Mr Sunderland : The 82 per cent?

Senator ROBERTS: The 82 per cent who think they can trust you and your news services.

Mr Sunderland : The way it works for us is that we aim to do journalism that is accurate, that is impartial. We also aim to do a great number of investigative reports, of which we're very proud. We acknowledge that we're open to criticism and open to error like anyone else. We have in place, as far as I think any media organisation can reasonably be expected to do so, a system of challenging ourselves, questioning our assumptions and engaging in good process to deliver good journalism. I think that's fine. On any given topic, on any given issue, there will be people, largely those who have a particularly strong view on and interest in an issue, who will feel we haven't quite captured their view of the world. I acknowledge that. I don't dismiss it. I treat it seriously. I engage with every one of those serious concerns to see if we have had a blind spot, if we have missed something, and we're constantly working to improve. What I take some satisfaction from is, as the managing director has said, that consistently over a great number of years, independent polls conducted by Newspoll—not by us—have told us that the vast majority of Australians, broken down by trust, quality, distinctiveness and value, feel that we're doing a great job. We don't rest on our laurels because of that, but we take that as some measure, to the extent that there is one, that by and large we are succeeding more often than we're failing, by a substantial margin.

Ms Guthrie : And we're very much relying on our engagement with the Australian population, so the fact that we reach 85 per cent of Australians on a monthly basis and 70 per cent of Australians on a weekly basis across radio, television and online, is incredibly important, because they value the things that we provide.

Senator ROBERTS: I acknowledge that people in the regions actually do appreciate the ABC. They appreciate some of the services that the ABC, and only the ABC, provides. However, many people are dissatisfied with the current affairs, with the editorial approaches of the ABC. I look forward to getting your response to my request about the assessments of trust and accuracy.

Senator ABETZ: Has there been any staff push-back about the request from ABC management to be circumspect during the same-sex marriage debate?

Mr Sunderland : You may be referring to the article published in The New Daily, I think today, about this matter. Some documentation was sought under freedom of information that revealed we received I think a handful—perhaps three or four; I don't know the exact number—of communications from the probably around 3,000 staff that we communicated that advice to, either expressing some concerns or different views or asking for clarification on certain aspects of it.

Senator ABETZ: Do we think that the 20 tweets of Emma Alberici on the one day were indicative of her taking notice of that requirement to be circumspect?

Mr Sunderland : I think it's fair to say that, across the board—certainly you've referred to Emma Alberici; I would say more generally—the same-sex marriage issue is intensely personal for a great number of people, understandably, and so they have strong views on it. We took the view, and I think our advice to the staff—

Senator ABETZ: But as a professional operator in the media, your strong personal view should not be showing in the way you conduct yourself in your professional life.

Mr Sunderland : Absolutely, I agree with you on that. We've made that very clear.

Senator ABETZ: But when staff then don't follow that advice, what do you do?

Mr Sunderland : Personal social media accounts and activities are inevitably a little bit different from the professional published work of the ABC, and that's reflected in our social media policy and in the social media policy of all responsible media organisations. That's not to say they can do whatever they like on social media. We've advised people that they need to be mindful, they need to be cautious and they need to balance their professional responsibilities with inevitable fact that, on an issue like same-sex marriage, people will express personal views on social media. In relation to Emma Alberici and others, where we've felt from time to time that activity risks having the potential to undermine their work, we've spoken to a range of staff about it, but at all times what we come back to is this: people should and will be judged on the quality of the work they do for the ABC on these issues.

Senator ABETZ: I might return to that. Does the ABC's deal with Al Jazeera include payments to Al Jazeera?

Mr Sunderland : I actually don't know the answer to that.

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take that on notice. We incorporate news content from a range of sources.

Senator ABETZ: Including Al Jazeera. Does that come at a cost to the Australian taxpayer?

Ms Guthrie : We'll have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: See how you go with these questions, but take them on notice. As I understand it, Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar's ruling family?

Mr Sunderland : Correct.

Senator ABETZ: We're agreed on that. Is it agreed that Qatar harbours, amongst others, Taliban leaders and other Islamist interests which Australian troops are actually fighting?

Mr Sunderland : I'll take that on notice to make sure I'm precise in my response.

Senator ABETZ: Qatar is one of the main supporters of Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Mr Sunderland : I'll take all of those detailed questions on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Yet somehow we trust their news services. I may be wrong if the ABC does not pay Al Jazeera; nevertheless, one assumes it would cost the Australian taxpayer for you to be broadcasting, even if the news bulletins come from Al Jazeera free of charge, so I want to know whether the Australian taxpayer funds the distribution of news from a state, namely Qatar, that backs our military enemies, and how much we pay them—noting that Peter Greste said on 9 June, indeed on ABC, 'There may be some truth at a higher level, a management level,' of collusion between the network—that's Al Jazeera—and terrorists, and

… it seems pretty clear from watching some of Al Jazeera's Arabic coverage and the coverage of Al Jazeera's Egyptian channel Mubasher that there was a bias in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Then one-time Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy says, 'Al Jazeera is a voice for terrorists.' I'm wondering what we as an ABC, a taxpayer-funded news service, are doing in a commercial relationship with such an organisation. If they gratuitously give us the information, why we would seek to broadcast the news services, given that assessment of Al Jazeera?

Can you please provide in detail what coverage the ABC provided to Australia's involvement and relative success—we came fifth overall—at the World Para Athletics Championships in London? Is it correct that other nations—France, for example—provided detailed coverage even at peak viewing times? Australia has done exceptionally well at these events, and there does not seem to have been much coverage by the national broadcaster, so can you explain the rationale for this lack of coverage and what, if any, potential news-sharing services were explored with other international news services?

Ms Guthrie : We'll have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: If you can take all that on notice, I dare say that will then take us to a break.

CHAIR: We will suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 15:50 to 16 : 05

CHAIR: We will recommence. Senator Abetz, I think you had seven minutes remaining.

Senator ABETZ: Does the ABC acknowledge that Julia Baird's claim that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group to assault their wives is in fact false?

Mr Sunderland : What we've said on that one is that there were a small number of errors in that very large piece of work and we acknowledge where the errors or potential misinterpretations were, and they were corrected and that's available on the story. But overall, we continue to feel that it was a comprehensive examination of an issue and accurate apart from the identified areas that we've have pointed out.

Senator ABETZ: The identified errors were actually very gross, weren't they?

Mr Sunderland : In my view, they weren't, no.

Senator ABETZ: The evidence is, to quote a Professor Tracy:

Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence.

That is the evidence of a Professor Wilcox as well and other studies. Why was that not part of the story? That's not just a little oversight; that is to slant a story in a manner that is just unconscionable.

Ms Guthrie : That's missing the fact that this was a story that gathered over 200 case studies of very extensive domestic abuse suffered by women. It included interviews with counsellors, researchers, pastors—

Senator ABETZ: I know all that.

Ms Guthrie : But that was the main point of the story. That's really why Mr Sunderland was saying that the errors that were identified in the whole context of the story were very, very minor.

Senator ABETZ: But these studies of Professors Wilcox and Tracy deal with many, many numbers and are peer reviewed studies as opposed to a journalist who claims to have studied this for a year—just using a few anecdotal stories to push a particular, very jaundiced view.

Ms Guthrie : It was not just anecdotal stories in any respect. It was a well-researched story over a period of 12 months, as you said, with extensive case studies of women suffering domestic abuse in various denominations. It's a very, very, serious story and, I think, extraordinarily detailed and well covered.

Senator ABETZ: Professor Wilcox says:

The story fails the basic journalistic test of fairness by presenting an almost completely negative picture of Christian approaches to domestic abuse, one that does not square with the evidence that churchgoing couples appear to be less likely to suffer domestic violence and more likely to enjoy happy marriages.

So we have a Professor Wilcox and a Professor Tracey who are actually experts in this field, study in this field, and you are now saying that their assessment of Julia Baird's work is not sufficiently robust enough and that the ABC's own self-analysis of its own work is to be preferred over these two eminent professors?

Ms Guthrie : A broad range of church leaders who participated in the coverage acknowledge domestic violence as a serious problem within their communities and the coverage highlighted—

Senator ABETZ: Of course it's a serious problem. That's not the issue. The issue—

Ms Guthrie : It is the issue that was been discussed.

Senator ABETZ: No, the issue that I have raised is the portrayal of a certain cohort within the community as being most likely to be involved in—what I believe is the misnamed activity—domestic violence. It, in fact, is a crime and should be called as such—but that's another issue. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll call it domestic violence. The issue is when the cohort to which Ms Baird refers is, in fact, the least likely—as the two professors have so cogently pointed out, including Professor Wilcox in an opinion piece: 'Facts go missing ABC report about "violent Christians"'—to be involved in domestic violence.

Mr Sunderland : I think it is important to note that Professor Wilcox, whose research was fairly marginal to the piece, did indeed—as you've rightly pointed out—raise concerns about the issue. It is also true that Professor Tracy, whose work was far more central in terms of the US research, far more important, did initially, prior to having read the piece, make some comments which were published. He then, subsequently, read the piece in full—it was quite a long piece by Julia Baird. He then wrote a piece on 28 July, which I can send you, that said:

As an outsider to Australian culture … I am reluctant to weigh in on Aussie debates. However, after numerous inquiries from Australians and Americans regarding my views on Julia Baird's article … I feel compelled to respond. Many have concluded, with great alarm and animus, that Baird and Gleeson's article is an attack on Christianity …

Much was made of the fact that they highlighted my citation of research showing that the group of American men most likely to abuse their wives are conservative Protestants who attended church sporadically, while not giving equal emphasis to the corollary finding I also cited—the group of American men least likely to abuse their wives are conservative protestants who attend church regularly.

Was I misquoted or misrepresented? Quite simply, no. Baird and Gleeson cited precisely what I found in the published research. While they did not draw out the implications of the second finding … I do not believe they needed to give this corollary equal weight. I utterly fail to see how this makes the article an attack on Christianity.

That was Professor Tracy, who you quoted earlier, Senator. I don't believe we should put any more or less store in him—everyone is entitled to their views—but I spell that out in a little detail only to emphasise the fact that we have closely looked at this, we've acknowledged some things were ill expressed and needed to be corrected, but the basis of the piece remains, I believe, an important piece of journalism. And, I was pleased on consideration to see that Steven Tracy, whose research was so important to us as the corollary of that—and backed up by 200 case studies—agreed with us on that.

Senator ABETZ: Do we even agree then with ABC's Media Watch? This is your own Media Watch:

… we reckon the headlines the ABC used to sell the story misrepresented Professor Tracy's research.

Your own ABC Media Watch got it wrong as well, did they?

Mr Sunderland : No, as you know, there were a number of versions of this story. The bulk of the story was an extensively long online piece. There were other versions done. I believe that there were some statements—and it may have been in one of the headlines—that we acknowledged we weren't up to scratch and amended that.

Senator ABETZ: Wait a moment.

Mr Sunderland : But I would need to check precisely which—

Senator ABETZ: Did Professor Tracy refer, in his commentary, to the online version?

Mr Sunderland : He referred to our coverage, and specifically to the article on which all the other stories sat.

Senator ABETZ: Was the online story different to that which actually went to air?

Mr Sunderland : In the substance and at the heart of it, no. They were about the same research.

Senator ABETZ: That is the big difference, what actually went to air and what the vast majority would have seen in their living rooms and heard in their living rooms or as they drive around or whatever or with their apps these days, but the vast majority would not be reading the full online story. I dare say my time in this bracket has concluded.

Senator REYNOLDS: Coming back to my previous line of inquiry, the as-it-was-happening one in question time, I'm wondering if you or your staff have had a chance to pop up to the gallery and talk to your bureau chief to find out a bit more about the background to this story?

Mr Sunderland : No, Senator, we haven't. I guess the most useful thing I can say at this point is that the most important thing when an issue like that is raised is for us to make sure that we're in possession of all of the facts when we respond to you and understand precisely what has happened. In a busy day when everyone's got a job to do and we're all in different places, it wouldn't be my approach, in terms of doing the right thing by this committee, to try to get one or two random bits of information. I have been reassured by a number of people that we've done nothing in any way inappropriate, and I'm happy to pass that on to you, but I'm sure you would want me to go into that with a degree of thoroughness and get back to you in a more comprehensive way.

Senator REYNOLDS: Absolutely. In the break, I and my staff have been able to do just a bit of inquiry into this. I just want to make clear, in response to an interjection from Senator Hanson-Young, that my questioning is no way asking a journalist to reveal their source. Also I would say that neither I nor, I think, anybody else would suggest a drop from a political party to a journalist is wrong or out of place. But on further reflection what appears to have happened—and I'll just go through a couple of observations for your comment or not—is that a journalist appears to have coordinated the posting and tweeting of this material with the ALP, and that's sort of at the heart of the matter. Just reflecting on this at the break, I see there are at least two plausible options as to what occurred, from having a look at that sequence of questions, postings and what was actually on the public record and what was not on the public record to my understanding. I see two options, and I'd be happy for you to comment on those. The first option is that the AFP leaked an internal memo to your journalist, who passed on the document to the Labor Party to benefit their Senate estimates and question time and to coordinate with any article that he or she subsequently did. That's the first option. The second option is that the AFP leaked the memo to Labor, who also shared the document with your journalist, and your journalist then timed the release of his online story to benefit Labor's question time tactics. That's just a cursory look at the events from question time, and I don't know whether you have a third plausible option, but to me those seem to be the two options of how that could have occurred.

CHAIR: Point of order, Senator Chisholm?

Senator CHISHOLM: These matters happened only a matter of minutes ago, really. Coming in here casting aspersions or attempting to cast aspersions, when obviously the ABC have already said they can't answer questions about this given that it only just happened, is just ridiculous.

Senator REYNOLDS: That is not actually a point of order.

CHAIR: That's right; that's not a point of order. That's an assessment of the senator. What I will allow to happen is for Senator Reynolds to conclude her remarks here—I understand questions are contained in that—and then ask the department—

Senator REYNOLDS: I see at least initially two plausible options. There could be a third, which is what I'm asking.

Ms Guthrie : Senator, again, we will provide you details in response to your questions on notice, because we cannot provide that to you here, and we can't make any comment on any of your suppositions or other possibilities. We are just not in a position to do that.

Senator REYNOLDS: The Prime Minister of this country just went into the chamber earlier on today and expressed grave concern about this exact matter. So it is not just a frolic of my own; this is something the Prime Minister has wanted to know.

Senator LINES: Like the foreign minister did about New Zealand? Come on!

CHAIR: Order! So there a question, was there, in that?

Senator REYNOLDS: My question—

CHAIR: Order! Order, all! Okay, Senator Reynolds, you had a question?

Senator REYNOLDS: My question, as I will repeat a third time—given all the noise, Ms Guthrie may not have heard it—is that I have identified in the short period of time, having a look at the sequence of events this afternoon—and, again the sequence of events as in Hansard is online, so I'm not making any supposition—two possible options that I have put to you for how this occurred. If you are able to come back today with an initial analysis, is there another option? Is it coincidence? Is there a third option?

CHAIR: Point of order, Senator Urquhart?

Senator URQUHART: I think what Senator Reynolds is doing here is absolutely, purely speculation and to be putting a position to officers of what your view is on it to speculate back is not reasonable, in my view.

CHAIR: That's not a point of order.

Senator REYNOLDS: It's Hansard. While the other place might be a bit mysterious to us—

CHAIR: Order! Senator Reynolds, order ,please for one moment.

Senator REYNOLDS: The Prime Minister of this country has raised it, and we have the Managing Director of the ABC here.

CHAIR: There is no point of order.

Senator REYNOLDS: I think it is totally appropriate to ask questions of what's on Hansard.

Senator CHISHOLM: But you're not actually asking a question.

Senator REYNOLDS: Well, I did. In fact, I have asked the same question three times now.

Senator ABETZ: The Labor senators are very sensitive on this. I wonder why!

Senator REYNOLDS: They are very sensitive.

CHAIR: Ms Guthrie, did you hear?

Ms Guthrie : We can't respond to conjecture or speculation about the ways in which this story may have come about. We will do our investigation and we'll come back to you on notice.

Senator REYNOLDS: That leads to my next series of questions in terms of how the ABC does these internal investigations. Mr Sunderland, you were talking about the new Audience and Consumer Affairs department.

Mr Sunderland : It is not new, but yes.

Senator REYNOLDS: When did it come into—

Mr Sunderland : It's been there for as long as I can remember—at least a decade, but I'm sure it's much longer than that.

Senator REYNOLDS: You said it comprises ABC employees.

Mr Sunderland : That's correct.

Senator REYNOLDS: Prior to this organisation you did have an independent complaint review panel which had staff who were not currently ABC employees on it, correct?

Mr Sunderland : We had two different additional processes within our complaints procedure. I think that was prior to 2011 or 2008. I can check that for you. I can talk you through it briefly if you want me to.

Senator REYNOLDS: Audience and Consumer Affairs is comprised of ABC staff who report to you?

Mr Sunderland : That's correct. But I'm not a decision maker on any complaints. The decision-making power on complaints rest with the head of Audience and Consumer Affairs.

Senator REYNOLDS: And who is that?

Mr Sunderland : Kirsten McLeish.

Senator REYNOLDS: She is also an ABC employee?

Mr Sunderland : Correct.

Senator REYNOLDS: In relation to the board, I've recently had a number of people make complaints to me that ACA seems to refer complaints back to the program itself—so the left hand of the organisation refers complaints to the right hand of the organisation for a decision by the right hand of the organisation. It doesn't seem to be terribly independent—and we've heard a number of examples of that here today. Given that they are employees who work with each other, how do you make sure it is truly independent?

Mr Sunderland : I'm not aware we have heard any examples today of Audience and Consumer Affairs failing to be independent in their work. I would back them to the hilt—but you'd expect me to say that. There are two processes that can happen when a complaint goes to Audience and Consumer Affairs. If it's a written complaint alleging a breach of editorial policies, it goes to Audience and Consumer Affairs and is logged and put into the system. A decision is made by the Audience and Consumer Affairs team as to whether they will investigate it themselves and determine whether a breach has occurred or send it back to the division and ask them to look at it and respond as to whether they've made a breach. Breaches are regularly identified in both cases. That is a proportionality decision—given the volume of complaints and the most effective way to do them. The ones that aren't investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs are more routine, more straightforward, or on their face seem to have insufficient detail or materiality to them.

The other point I want to make in relation to our broadcasting activities as a public broadcaster is that, once a complaint has been looked at and responded to by the ABC, if a complainant is unhappy with our response, if they feel it is lacking in regard, lacking in merit, ACMA is there to look at any complaint raised to it about concerns that we have had a breach. And they have a similar approach: they will investigate it or choose not to investigate it. So you do have that back-up test. One of the things that would be of concern for us is if we were routinely denying complaints which were later upheld by ACMA. In fact, that is extraordinarily rare.

Senator REYNOLDS: The process that you have described is an internal process?

Mr Sunderland : It is.

Senator REYNOLDS: So you still have various levels of colleagues investigating each other and making assessments about whether the claim has merit or whether it is to be pursued?

Mr Sunderland : We have a mixed model of internal and external oversight of our editorial performance, both through ACMA externally and ourselves internally. It is an internal process; it is what it is. But the strength of it for me is that we have that second step: we have a team of people who are not directly working for the Director of News or the Director Of Television, whose job it is to make decisions on whether a complaint should be investigated; they work for the ABC but they are not the content people.

Senator REYNOLDS: That's the point: with the greatest of respect, you still have ABC employees assessing the merits of what other ABC employees have done—even if, on that particular day, they are not working in the same area.

Mr Sunderland : It is not 'on that particular day'; that is their permanent ongoing role for the organisation, they don't—

Ms Guthrie : They are a dedicated team.

Senator REYNOLDS: Given all the issues and complaints that have come out at estimates and other times, have you ever thought of going back to some sort of independent review panel?

Mr Sunderland : The independent complaints review panel was entirely funded by, run by and appointed by the ABC. The independent person who headed that independent panel was employed by the ABC. So first of all—

Senator REYNOLDS: I'm not talking about past arrangements—

Mr Sunderland : Sure. But you were talking about going back to that kind of arrangement. There are two points I would make about it: the same criticisms can be made of the independent complaints review panel as can be made of any process that is internal; secondly, we made a decision at the time, in either 2008 or 2011, that it created multiple layers which were inefficient—a complaint could be looked at three or four times. We thought the idea of a rigorous internal one, and then the opportunity of a rigorous external one, was the right balance for a mixed model—and we still think that now.

Senator REYNOLDS: In politics we understand that perception is everything: regardless of whether there's truth to what people say about us, it's the public perception that matters. We've had the ABC appearing here today arguing against the words 'fair and balanced'. To the average Australian, that would sound a bit odd: 'Why would they be fighting against including the words "fair and balanced"?' You appear to be fighting against the transparency of taxpayers' money, which pays your salaries. Do you think there is a perception issue here? Regardless of whether the reality is that it is totally above board and clean—people can make assessments of their own work colleagues—don't you think this is a perception issue for the ABC?

Ms Guthrie : There are a number of issues where I disagree with your characterisation. Firstly, I believe we are as transparent as any other Public Service organisation in relation to our salaries. The one thing we object to which no-one else does is linking a specific name to a specific salary amount. That is the one issue that we believe doesn't add further to transparency but, frankly, breaches the privacy legislation and causes competitive impacts for our journalists. Secondly, we have a number of layers of editorial oversight. One is our base editorial policy training throughout the organisation. This is not an organisation that takes these issues lightly. The trust that Australians have in us is a valuable commodity and we will do anything to make sure we don't lose that sense of trust.

Senator REYNOLDS: In terms of editorial policy and the training that you do, I have seen and printed out some tweets by ABC staff member Sami Shah.

Mr Sunderland : He is a comedian. He's done shows for us. I'm not sure that he works for us.

Senator REYNOLDS: But I understand he was also doing editorial online work for you.

Ms Guthrie : Not to my knowledge.

Mr Sunderland : He may have contributed content, but we would have to get back to you on his precise status. He's certainly not a journalist and he's certainly not, as I understand, a staff member. I can check that for you.

Senator REYNOLDS: If you could. I could table some of these tweets—I can't read them out because they are too foul about one side of politics.

Ms Guthrie : He is not an ABC journalist.

Senator REYNOLDS: Does he appear on your shows? Does he comment on behalf of the ABC?

Ms Guthrie : A number of people appear on our shows, but we don't take responsibility for every tweet they provide. We've had Senator Roberts. We've had a number of politicians. We don't take responsibility for their personal Twitter accounts—and we can't be expected to.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'll come back to that. Could you check on his status and previous status, because I have a series of questions relating to that. If you could clarify that before I go to questions in the next bracket, that would be helpful.

Mr Sunderland : Sure.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I want to ask about local content and the efforts being made at the ABC in relation to that. Ms Guthrie, do you have the broad figures on how much of your annual budget you spend on creating or acquiring local content?

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take those specific numbers on notice. I think we provided some information following the last estimates in terms of questions on notice.

Mr Millett : It was to Senator Hanson-Young.

Ms Guthrie : I don't have those numbers specifically in front of me.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That's okay. It's another 18 months or so before the next tranche of budget funding. In planning ahead, are you looking to save money in local content or to spend more money? Where does the ABC sit on the creation of local content?

Ms Guthrie : It is very important to us to make more programs in Australia. Frankly, we haven't invested as much as we should in local Australian made productions. The intention is to increase that at least by 18 per cent this financial year because, as we find ourselves in a very competitive global marketplace for audiences, it becomes more important than ever to be distinctive and Australian. So we will be increasing that level of content investment in Australian productions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you creating or acquiring local content that's just for the online platform? From a viewer's perspective it feels as though that is the case, but I want to know if this is a deliberate decision.

Ms Guthrie : We are certainly experimenting with content for our online platform iview first. Some of that has been so popular and successful that we've then had a second run on television—so that's not a great example. Ronny Chieng: International Student was an example where we had a number of pilots and put them on iview. We then commissioned a TV series for a whole season of Ronnie Cheng from the most popular one. It is the case that we're increasing our investment in Australian production—TV and digital—but we're very much trying to figure out how to make our budget and our funds go further in that realm because, frankly, the costs of production are increasing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What about content you acquire from New Zealand? Do you think New Zealand content is local content?

Ms Guthrie : I'll have to take on notice whether we acquire anything from New Zealand. Under the commercial quotas, New Zealand is counted. But we don't count it that way; we count Australian.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You don't count that way at the ABC?

Ms Guthrie : We don't count that way at the ABC. We know that the commercial quotas allow you to count New Zealand production.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It's a bit odd, isn't it?

Ms Guthrie : We think Australia is Australia.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What about content with a more culturally diverse objective? How do you manage that, with the competition of SBS as the other public broadcaster?

Ms Guthrie : It is important for us, and it has been a priority since I started 18 months ago, to make sure that we look and sound like Australia. Australia has a diverse population. A third of Australians were born overseas and another 25 per cent have a parent who was born overseas. So it is important for us, as we make sure we are delivering for all Australians, that we have diverse programming. I don't think we're doing as well as we should. We're certainly trying to improve that on radio, TV and online.

There have been a number of programs where we've tried to, again, experiment a little more, particularly around culturally-diverse programming. We very much see SBS as our sort of sibling broadcaster, and there have been a number of times, particularly around Indigenous programs, where we're trying to do co-productions with NITV, for example, on children's programming. We think that there are a number of ways where we might be able to work together more effectively. As we have such great kids viewership, we did Junior Eurovision in partnership with SBS. I do think that we work pretty well together, but we also are conscious that it is important for us, at the ABC, to try to reach the broadest audience possible—and that also means that we need more culturally-diverse programming and culturally-diverse people on air, presenters, panellists.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You're saying it's because that is the representation of the broader mainstream Australian community?

Ms Guthrie : Of course. Any data that you look at makes it very clear that, when you have, frankly, a growing population from India, China and other places in Asia, it's very important for us to make sure that we have as much diverse programming as possible. We also have great partnerships with broadcasters in Asia, and so we're looking at opportunities to either co-produce programs across Asia or else acquire some programs for Australia.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did you think it was a bit rich for the government to give $30 million to Foxtel so that they could show women's sport, which consumers will then be charged to watch?

Senator McKENZIE: Are you asking the managing director for her opinion?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm sure she can handle the question.

Ms Guthrie : Obviously I can't comment at all on any arrangement with Foxtel. I will say that we would love to do more sports programming. Unfortunately we can't afford it anymore. So we certainly can't—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But $30 million could have gone a long way for the ABC!

Ms Guthrie : It is certainly important for us to really reflect Australia—that sports programming is important. Offsiders is a great program that rounds up the week in sport. We had a great program on Friday nights called Sideliners that was trying to highlight both women's and men's sports. So, it's an area that we're very committed to. Grandstandon radio is hugely important, but we would love to find ways of doing more. I would love to find ways of actually partnering with Fox Sports so that 30 per cent of the population will see the women's sport on Fox Sports and potentially the other 70 per cent can watch it on the ABC.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have any of those conversations, about how the public broadcasters could access those programs or those games or those seasons, happened as yet?

Ms Guthrie : My understanding is that that arrangement hasn't been settled yet, but, yes, we would be very keen on, as I said, finding ways of actually accessing broadcasts. I think one of the challenges—we talked to a number of women's sporting bodies—is that, while they would love to get the exposure, frankly, they don't have funds to do the broadcast, and we don't have funds to do the broadcast, so we're slightly in a catch-22 around that.

Senator Fifield: The ABC is down to its last billion dollars a year!

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Minister, would you be able to take on notice—or maybe you can clarify it now—whether you intend on having those conversations to ensure that the 70 per cent of Australians who don't have a Foxtel subscription can actually see women in sport on their television?

Senator McKENZIE: I think Channel 9 has the netball. That's free to air. It started on the ABC—the Commonwealth Bank trophy—many years ago.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I've asked a question of the minister. It's $30 million of taxpayers' money. Surely the taxpayer has a right to have some public interest—

CHAIR: Minister, would you like to answer the question?

Senator Fifield: There's more than a billion dollars a year that goes to the ABC and SBS.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But it's $30 million, Minister, for nothing—some cufflinks!

Senator ABETZ: Amongst the Greens, possibly.

Senator Fifield: ABC and SBS determine their own programs priorities. So there's good support for both public broadcasters, and we have a measure which was announced in the context of the budget in relation to women's and other sport that doesn't always get the coverage it might otherwise.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I'll start with a suggestion for the ABC. There'll be a question to go with this. It is a suggestion that will make Senator Abetz and Senator Duniam happy, Senator Urquhart happy and myself happy, and that would be for Q&A to visit Tasmania. I do raise this every estimates. It's been five years since Q&A has been to Tassie. Is it a cost issue for the fine people at Q&A or is there another reason?

Ms Guthrie : It is expensive to take Q&A on the road but we are certainly aiming to take Q&A on the road more often and are using some of our budget to do that. We have certainly had more of Q&A outside of Melbourne and Sydney this year than I think we've ever had before and we're very keen to actually ramp that up for next year so I will definitely reiterate the issue around Tasmania.

Senator ABETZ: If I may return to the topic that Senator Hanson-Young raised—that is, the reporting by Sophie McNeill from the Middle East. Is it correct, for example, that Ms McNeill covered the court-ordered eviction of the Palestinian—I hope I pronounce this correctly—Shamasneh family in a separate feature, not mentioning the fact that they were tenants and had actually failed to pay their lease moneys or rental moneys and that was why the court order was to evict them? By contrast, the stabbing to death by a Palestinian terrorist of three members of the Salomon family was covered very cursedly as part of a wider report on violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This is the sort of imbalance that many of us are concerned about which I think then motivated and occasioned the advertisement to which Senator Hanson-Young referred to. What monitoring do we do of our reports out of the Middle East by Ms McNeill? I've raised this in the past about the bias and the one-way traffic of Ms McNeill in her reports from the Middle East.

Mr Sunderland : Let me break that down to a few different issues. On the precise detail of the story of the eviction and what facts were included and not included, I would have to take that on notice. I will look at that and respond to that specific issue.

Senator ABETZ: And then also the Salomon family.

Mr Sunderland : I can talk to you about the Salomon family story. This was the three Israelis who were stabbed?

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : The first point I want to make is I found it puzzling that these two stories were plucked out several months apart and chosen as proof of bias on the part of Ms McNeill. They were two very, very different stories covered in two very, very different ways for two very, very different reasons. The reason I say that is, like all correspondents overseas, reporters will be engaged in a mix of hard daily news reporting and then occasional opportunities to go out and do longer features or different stories for a range of different reasons—colour pieces, insight pieces—on a range of different issue. The story about the Salomons was inevitably caught up—in July, I think, it was reported—with a very significant and sustained outbreak of violence. What I know about that story is there were a number of Palestinians who had been killed during riots and, very late at night in Israel—I think it was almost midnight—the reports came through that three Israelis had been stabbed to death as well. Sophie McNeill, who I believe—I was told; I would have to check this—was on holiday at the time came back and refiled the story, added in the new information, did a cross, did a number of stories on that. It was straight news reporting, though. The names of neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were used in that story because names were not available or had not been released by Israeli authorities at the time. Certainly it was the case that a richer background feature was not done on any of that. I went back and looked at that story in July and it was, in my view, a perfectly balanced, comprehensive piece of solid news reporting where she went over and above to produce coverage of it.

I then looked at the September piece, which was a perfectly worthwhile piece, although I will get back to you on the issue you've raised about the detail.

I'm frankly puzzled as to what the motivation is to select those two reports, and only those two reports, and to hang on them the weight of evidence to try to impugn the reputation of a Walkley-Award-nominated journalist.

Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, they're all Walkley Award winners. That's why it was 'The lords of the forests' that had to apologise.

Mr Sunderland : The reason I say that, Senator, is that you may well be aware that I had occasion to go down to Melbourne not that long ago and speak to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. They invited me down to talk to them about these issues and engage with them on them. So I did a little bit of a run-through at the time. I think it was just prior to July; it might have been June this year. I pulled up the last dozen stories we'd done on Israel to take with me. Among those stories was a wonderful piece that Sophie McNeill had done, which I didn't go looking for but which happened to be the most recent substantial piece that we had done. It was an extraordinarily affecting Correspondents Report story done by Sophie McNeill profiling an Australian Israeli doctor who was going out of his way to treat Syrian war wounded—to smuggle them over the border, treat them in an Israeli hospital and then return them home afterwards. It was a wonderful piece of journalism, and I could be sitting here today, choosing to select that piece of Sophie's work, from March this year, hold it up against the July and draw all sorts of conclusions of the kind that are being drawn by plucking another story. That's what I'm puzzled about in the way this issue's been raised and in those stories.

Senator ABETZ: But even on that one she couldn't help herself, could she—

Mr Sunderland : No, I don't agree with any insinuations you're putting on that.

Senator ABETZ: by making the barbed comment that the people that were brought into Israel for medical treatment were not allowed to stay.

Mr Sunderland : Is that not true? Is that inaccurate?

Senator ABETZ: Had they asked to stay?

Mr Sunderland : I have looked at that entire story. Sporadically we do that with Sophie, as we do with every single one of our reporters—

Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, and you always apologise for them.

Mr Sunderland : We certainly don't single her out.

Senator ABETZ: You always apologise for them.

Mr Sunderland : The correlation between the two stories struck me as puzzling, completely puzzling, unless somebody has an agenda they want to push.

Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, and there's this terrible Jewish conspiracy, isn't there?

Mr Sunderland : I don't think I said that.

Senator ABETZ: We have heard that—

Mr Sunderland : First of all, Senator, I don't think I said that—

Senator ABETZ: Excuse me!

Mr Sunderland : and, secondly, I need to say that I resent words being put in my mouth. I take great offence at that—

CHAIR: Order! Can we return to questions—

Mr Sunderland : and I think it's entirely inappropriate that you would put it in those terms.

CHAIR: and answers.

Mr Sunderland : It may be a throwaway remark for you, but we take these—

Senator ABETZ: All right. The Jewish lobby—

Mr Sunderland : I'm sorry, Senator, but we take these matters seriously, we treat them appropriately, and those kinds of snide, offhand remarks impugning the reputation of me and the ABC are, quite frankly, inappropriate.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Point of order, Chair.

Senator ABETZ: Well, Israel's representation has been impugned on many occasions.

CHAIR: There's a point of order. Senator Whish-Wilson, your point of order is?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: My point of order is that I think Senator Abetz should withdraw those remarks so they're not in Hansard.

Senator ABETZ: Which comment?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You're putting words into his mouth.

Senator ABETZ: And he defended himself.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ask the questions. We ask questions; they answer them.

CHAIR: The exchange has taken place, and—

Senator ABETZ: It's amazing how the Greens are always on the defence when it's their mates.

CHAIR: I would like to return to questions and answers so we can discharge the examination of the ABC and move on to the rest of senators' questions and answers.

Senator ABETZ: Allow me to use the words 'Jewish lobby'.

Mr Sunderland : You can use whatever words you prefer; I'd ask you not to put them into my voice, though.

Senator ABETZ: They may have been the words—and I will go through the previous answers provided by the ABC in relation to these concerns that have been quite rightly expressed. Then, on 22 May, Ms McNeill had another story. The piece claimed the fact that Israel still occupies the West Bank is proof that the status quo suited the Israelis more than the Palestinians, but the story didn't mention the various Israeli peace offers refused by the Palestinian leadership. I suppose that's also all part of providing balance.

Mr Sunderland : Let me have a look at that. I'll get back to you.

Senator ABETZ: All right. Then, on 23 May, Ms McNeill described as 'strict'—and, by implication, I would suggest, hardline—Benjamin Netanyahu's condition for peace that it be genuine and durable—somehow that is strict—and that the Jewish state be recognised. These are strict guidelines somehow. Aren't they appropriate guidelines? Why this descriptor of 'strict'? I'm sure you'll look at that as well and give us an explanation.

Mr Sunderland : I am happy to, senator.

Senator ABETZ: The, on 6 June, Ms McNeill's contribution to the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War—I think it was entitled 'Occupation lives'—focused on Palestinian suffering under occupation and only contained very brief mentions of the Israeli perspective and how the Six-Day War actually started.

Ms Guthrie : Senator, if you have specific complaints, it might be more appropriate to put them on notice or write to us with the specific complaints that you have. I will say that, as the editor in chief of the ABC and knowing that nothing that an individual journalist does goes to air without multiple checks, I find the impugning of Sophie McNeill's reputation that constantly goes on in estimates and in the public discourse completely offensive, and I do think that—

Senator ABETZ: Well, I find it offensive how Israel is continually maligned by ABC journalists.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Let the witness speak.

Ms Guthrie : If you're going to hold anyone accountable, hold me accountable, but don't have this sort of line-by-line attack on a particular journalist, which I find completely inappropriate and offensive.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: He's a coward, that's why.

CHAIR: Order!

Senator ABETZ: About withdrawals—

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, I don't think we need that. Can you just withdraw that description.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If Eric Abetz would like to withdraw all of the imputations he has made on Ms McNeill, I will consider it.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, just withdraw the word and we'll move on.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I withdraw the fact that I said that Eric Abetz is a coward. However, I still believe it.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator ABETZ: That is not unreserved, and it just shows the character of Senator Hanson-Young.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You are being a bully.

CHAIR: Order! I will draw this to a close very quickly if we don't get on with business.

Senator ABETZ: Ms McNeill, sadly, has a litany of these sorts of broadcasts.

Ms Guthrie : Senator, blame me. Don't blame an individual journalist. I am responsible for all the broadcasts that happen out of our Middle East bureau, our Beijing bureau and our Jakarta bureau.

Senator ABETZ: Do you vet them all before they go to air?

Ms Guthrie : I will be held responsible.

Senator ABETZ: No, do you vet them all before they go to air?

Ms Guthrie : How many times would you like me to reiterate to you that it's my responsibility?

Senator ABETZ: I know that. I'm asking you: do you vet them all before they go to air?

Ms Guthrie : Of course not.

Senator ABETZ: Of course not. Therefore, I think it is appropriate, given that you cannot physically vet every story—

Ms Guthrie : No, but I am completely held responsible, and I should be.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, and that is why you appear at Senate estimates. But it is appropriate for me to talk about one of your staff in the manner that I have—

Ms Guthrie : No, I don't think it is.

Senator ABETZ: just as before I asked about Jon Stephens.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Why do it in a public forum to try and shame a journalist when you can do it privately? You could have written to—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Because he wants his headline.

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, do you have a question for the officials?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You're desperate, because you don't get enough—

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young!

Senator ABETZ: In relation to Al Jazeera again, is it the case that Al Jazeera broadcast and has been caught out peddling anti-Israel lies such as accusing Israel of flooding Gaza by opening dams when no dams exist?

Ms Guthrie : Is that related to anything that has been on the ABC?

Senator ABETZ: No, but this is an organisation with which you have a relationship.

Ms Guthrie : But we have a relationship with Reuters, the BBC and CNN. We don't take responsibility for what they show on their own programs. We take responsibility for what we show on the ABC.

Senator ABETZ: All right. Have Reuters and the others that you've referred to accused Israel of opening non-existent dams—fake news at its absolute worst—and flooding Gaza?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What's this got to do with the ABC?

Senator ABETZ: Because there is a commercial relationship, potentially, and we are still to find out about this.

Ms Guthrie : I did check in the break. I can confirm that there is not a commercial relationship with Al Jazeera. We do not pay for their coverage.

Senator ABETZ: You don't pay for their coverage at all.

Ms Guthrie : No.

Senator ABETZ: That is good news. Could I invite you to consider not using their sources, given the antecedents that we discussed earlier.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'd like to come back to the discussion we started having about when is a journalist not a journalist and when is a journalist perhaps a broadcaster or a contributor. I've let my fingers do the walking on your website and various sites, and I just want to read out how the ABC has variously described Sami Shah. I'm aware of him because I've heard him—he's very funny and he's very insightful—because he was in WA for a period of time. I have no problem at all with him exercising his own voice, because he does have something to say very seriously in a funny way. But this is how your website has variously described him. In 2016 it said:

Sami Shah is a multitalented writer, comedian, performer and broadcaster. Prior to joining 774 as Social Media Reporter, Sami has presented RN Saturday Extra and produced and presented a series on ABC RN's Earshot program, The Islamic Republic of Australia.

Then, on your website, there's a comment: 'Sami Shah recently joined the 777 staff team and earlier this year presented a series of ABC's RN Earshot program.' Then he himself has been tweeting that: 'Starting tomorrow, Jacinta Parsons and I'll be hosting Breakfast on ABC Melbourne for two weeks, which is why I'm going to sleep now.' And on your own website—in fact, I think it was a Conversations with Richard Fidler earlier this year—he acknowledged that Mr Shah was a journalist and a comedian starting from his time in Pakistan. I'm just wondering, as a layman: is that not a journalist? Can I characterise him as an ABC journalist, given there are at least four references to him as broadcasting, contributing and writing. How would you define him?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I think it's best if I give you a more comprehensive answer on notice. Social media producers perform a range of different tasks with a range of different programs. I'm not entirely sure of his precise status and I'm not sure of the concerns you have with some of his personal tweet activities. I'm assuming they're activities not on ABC social media accounts but on his personal accounts. But all of that I'm happy to deal with and take on notice.

Senator O'NEILL: What is it with the obsession of the Liberal Party members on this committee? Personal attacks, character assassination—

Senator REYNOLDS: I think Ms Guthrie is well and truly able to defend herself.

CHAIR: Order! Everyone will come to order now. Every senator in this parliament is entitled to ask questions, so we will just allow that to happen.

Senator REYNOLDS: Apart from a definition of when is a journalist not a journalist, in my lay language and according to Richard Fidler, he's a journalist. In terms of his association with the ABC, if you can't tell me now what the status of his employment is, could you take that on notice? But, again, coming back to the questioning from other senators in terms of someone's bias going into that position, the sorts of things that he says on his own social media that indicate his state of mind are things like, 'If Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott swim fast enough, they can start abusing any kids on the boat right away.' Would that be something suitable or give you concern in terms of your journalists?

Mr Sunderland : I'm going to say again that it makes much more sense for me to take this on notice and give you a response when I've seen all of the comments that you have concerns with—the context, the platform, the timing. I can give you a proper answer in relation to them.

Senator REYNOLDS: The next one was 29 October 2016, if you can also advise on this one: 'Does Peter Dutton wake up every morning with a hard-on for abusing refugees. Each day brings some new unnecessary cruelty.' On 26 October 2016, there was: 'It's Peter Dutton's ambient music podcast—just the sounds of refugees being beaten and abused. He works out to it.' Another one, if you could take it on notice and get back to us—actually, I can't read that one out; it's too rude.

Ms Guthrie : This was in October 2016?

Senator REYNOLDS: Around about 2016 when he was contributing to ABC regularly: 'Peter Dutton more embarrassed by accidental text than by sexual abuse of children in Nauru.' There are plenty more, and some are so rude I can't read them out. But I will hand you the rest of them, if you can comment on the appropriateness of each one in terms of editorial bias.

Ms Guthrie : The important thing to understand is: was he an ABC employee at the time that that happened? Was he an ABC contributor? It is about understanding the circumstances at the time that he was providing those services.

Senator REYNOLDS: This is a question on notice. It does lead me to question the tone of the content from many people who contribute to the ABC, and this is an example. Can you cite any examples of similarly inappropriate comments about anybody on the other side of the political spectrum? If there are, I'd be happy for you to provide them as well as what you allow in editorial content.

Ms Guthrie : The issue is not around sides. The issue is around: is that person somebody who happens to appear on ABC programs? That would include every one of you. Frankly, your social media accounts when you happen to appear on our programs are not the responsibility of the ABC. The important thing is understanding all of that in context. We'll provide that on notice.

Senator REYNOLDS: If you could, and I'll provide you with some of these—as I've read out some of them—so you have some of the dates. Having a look at your website, it appears that he was working—if not full time, then part time—for the ABC. We'll put that on notice and come back to that. Coming back to the issue of the Prime Minister today and the incident with this story, I'll give you some of the information and ask you to come back on notice with some further commentary, just to help. At question time today, Mr Shorten, at 2.01, said:

My question is to the Prime Minister. The Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police today revealed at Senate estimates that the government has cut over $184 million from the AFP, with 117 officers cut this year. Is the commissioner correct when he says: 'These cuts will mostly apply to our discretionary funding. So they are areas that fund a large portion of our antinarcotics, our organised crime work, our general operation work and our fraud and anticorruption'?

That's the first thing for you to have a look at in the context of this. Are you happy to take that bit on notice? I'll come back to the rest as part of that sequence. At 14.09 today, he said:

My question is to the Prime Minister. Is the Prime Minister aware of any policies or decisions taken by him or his government that are diminishing the operational capacity of the Australian Federal Police?

Then at 14.15, obviously leading up to a question, as is the normal ALP tactic, he says:

My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer to his previous answer. I repeat: is the Prime Minister aware of any policies or decisions taken by him or his government that have diminished the operational capacity of the Australian Federal Police, specifically to investigate major drug importations, including the importation of cocaine?

These are, clearly, tried and true Senate tactics leading up to a question. Then, fortuitously, there was a story from one of your journalists, who posted and tweeted at 2.24. Conveniently, then, at 2.31, that allowed Mr Shorten to say:

My question is to the Prime Minister. In question time today the Prime Minister said:

… every decision we've taken, every policy we have set out and every measure relating to the AFP is focused on ensuring they have the capacity to keep us safe …

How then does the Prime Minister explain an ABC report—

That just mysteriously popped up minutes before, that he happened to be ready to ask a question on—

which states:

The July AFP memo revealed resourcing shortages left the AFP unable to properly investigate a 1.6-tonne cocaine importation, leaving it to be handled offshore.

This meant the operations of an Australian-based crime group behind the import could not be fully explored.

As I said, I went back and had a look at that, and there are two possibilities: there is a leaked memo, but did the ABC get it from the ALP or the AFP? Either way, the only plausible explanation seems to be that the journalist had contact with your journalist.

Senator CHISHOLM: That's the same statement as the one she did half an hour ago. This is ridiculous. We know you want hide scrutiny of the NBN, but this is just ridiculous. You're carrying on about this. They've answered the question—

CHAIR: Order.

Senator REYNOLDS: Senator Chisholm, it was your grubby tactics in question time today that has led to this—

Senator CHISHOLM: The minister wants to avoid the NBN. This is what it's all about. Absolutely ridiculous!

CHAIR: The meeting is suspended. We're having a private meeting.

Proceedings suspended from 17:04 to 17: 06

CHAIR: We are going to conclude with the ABC at no later than twenty past five. Senator Reynolds, you can recommence and conclude shortly thereafter, then Senator McKenzie has a brief bracket of questions and then we'll do the SBS. Fire away.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'll wrap this up very quickly, because obviously you want to take it all on notice, which is not unreasonable. I've gone through what I understand happened as a sequence of events today with the reporting in the House of Representatives and the Prime Minister. I'd ask if you could review those circumstances and come back with some further advice on that. I'd also be grateful if you could provide additional detail about Mr Shah in terms of his employment arrangements, what the conditions of employment were et cetera, and then we can have a look at his comments in terms of if he was or wasn't on the payroll and whether it was appropriate. Is that okay?

Mr Sunderland : We can do both of those, certainly.

Senator REYNOLDS: Thank you very much. Very quickly, I have some other questions that relate to the audience and consumer affairs department. I'll flag a couple of them and will put the rest on notice so that you can come back to us. I noted that, last month, Jon Faine had made the following statement on ABC Radio Melbourne regarding the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, 'Last time we spoke, he guaranteed to me he would facilitate a visit that I wanted to make to Nauru, and I'm still waiting.' I have the transcript here and have read the interview in which Mr Faine sought the minister's support to travel to Nauru. I'm also aware that the minister did actually write a letter to the Prime Minister of Nauru—to the Nauruan government, in fact—seeking support for Mr Faine and another journalist to travel to Nauru. Nowhere in the transcript did the minister ever give any guarantee that he could make another sovereign government admit Mr Faine. Given Mr Faine's inaccurate characterisation of this matter, what action does the ABC intend to take on this? It is quite a serious misrepresentation, particularly when the minister took the effort to write to the Nauruan government.

Mr Sunderland : Briefly, without going into it, I'm not aware of that particular incident. To give you a bit of context, if we were aware of that as a potentially inaccurate statement and it came to our attention—often without there being a complaint—and we realised it was problematic, we would obviously take action immediately. In this case, I don't know if that's happened. I don't know if there's been a complaint about it and I don't know if any complaints have been investigated. I can look into all of that. I can also, if you wish, take this question from you as a complaint and deal with it so, if it hasn't been complained about, we'll look into it anyway.

Senator REYNOLDS: I would be grateful. As I said, we have the transcript here of the comments, so that would be good. Also in relation to Mr Faine—this is my last question—he made several comments about statements Minister Dutton, again, had made, which the ABC had already found were in breach of the corporation's editorial standards for accuracy and which did require a correction. As I understand it, the ABC then found that the on-air correction required of Mr Faine was 'demonstrably inaccurate and again indicated that reasonable efforts were not made to ensure that material facts were accurate or presented in context'. This required the ABC, as I understand it, to amend your corrections and clarifications online. Is this a serious breach of your ABC standards?

Mr Sunderland : I think I know the incident you're talking about. It was some time ago.

Senator REYNOLDS: No, it wasn't that long ago, in fact, there was a letter back. I'll give that to you as well. The ABC did write back. But the question is: what action have you taken since then?

Mr Sunderland : I will follow up on that. But can I provide just a small bit of context on that. We never like to make an error. The worst thing you can do is correct an error and not correct it properly and have to correct it again. These are serious issues. The one point I would make by way of context is that our complaints process, which involves referring them to Audience & Consumer Affairs to investigate, inevitably takes some time. For the right reasons and the best possible way, program teams who feel that there is merit in the complaint and that they need to make amends will often make amends quickly, without waiting for the formal reply. That sometimes means that when that comes through they have to do it again.

Senator REYNOLDS: In this case, Ms Guthrie did personally write to Minister Dutton on 13 December 2016, acknowledging that it was a serious breach and it will also be reported to the ABC board. So could you advise if it was reported to the board and how it has been followed up?

Mr Sunderland : Okay.

Senator McKENZIE: I have three very brief lines of questioning. It's great to see you all. I am really looking forward to the ABC rural and regional bill being presented to the parliament. Ms Guthrie, I know you made some comments in the press. You said, 'No pressing need to change the ABC act and its charter.'

Ms Guthrie : I made those comments in a speech to the Friends of the ABC conference.

Senator McKENZIE: Do you see as one of the potential issues, in the context of changing the charter, not making it explicit that the ABC does have a responsibility to serve the communities in rural and regional Australia—an explicit responsibility, which it's assumed it has in the community, which this committee's received evidence on, but isn't explicit in the charter?

Ms Guthrie : I assume you're talking about the inclusion of regional and geographic diversity in the charter. I will point out that the charter already requires the ABC to reflect national identity and cultural diversity.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes.

Ms Guthrie : We take that diversity to mean all of its characteristics, including geography. That's why we have 48 regional offices and that's why we've made the investment of $15 million for 80 roles. Obviously, it's up to the board to deliver for the third of Australians that live outside of the major population centres, but I actually think that what we have done so far has been extraordinarily good and we should be judged on it.

Senator McKENZIE: No-one is critiquing, and I would never critique, you coming on board to the ABC and your pivot towards rural and regional Australia. I have noted that publicly, and I welcome it—the short wave decision aside, which we will move to in a minute. Do you have an issue with the geographical diversity being explicitly in the ABC's charter—yes or no?

Ms Guthrie : Again, I don't think it's necessary, because—

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. Thank you. That's fine. I've only got limited time. I just wanted to table some correspondence between the ABC board and myself. Managing Director, in light of our longstanding debate around the decision by the ABC board to cut the short-wave services, particularly to the Northern Territory, and trying to understand the decision-making process of the board and the evidence they used to make that decision, I asked you; I've asked you in estimates; I've asked your directors et cetera. I have received, at best, very mediocre responses. I received redacted material; when I asked for those the redacted pieces to be provided you've claimed commercial in confidence, when there actually isn't any commercial consideration. So from my understanding, the board made the decision that to cut the short-wave services would only affect 500 Territorians. Is that the evidence?

Ms Guthrie : The decision was made by the board in looking at the way in which we deliver our services and the ways in which we could, frankly, utilise our resources in a more cost efficient way.

Senator McKENZIE: When the ABC in all its various guises was asked how many people would be affected by the board's decision, the answer I kept getting was 500—less than 500.

Ms Guthrie : That is certainly the assumptions that we made, yes.

Senator McKENZIE: Based on that research, from PwC from memory—that was the board's decision-making papers. We had evidence to our committee that it was many, many thousands more people than that. It's not just me saying the ABC needs to have an explicit focus on rural and regional Australia in the charter; the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, in their evidence, felt betrayed by the ABC. I've sought to give the ABC the benefit of the doubt and have sought for you to quantify and clarify with the committee that it was more than 500—that you used some actual data—and I have been repeatedly stonewalled. To that end, I have wrote to your chair outlining my concerns about the failure of the ABC to provide adequate responses to any questions either in committees or estimates. The response I got back really, for me, is concerning, particularly in light of continuing resolution 53 in the standing orders, where the ABC has an obligation to cooperate and answer questions. I just feel it doesn't matter whether I write to the board, it doesn't matter whether I ask you in estimates, it doesn't matter whether I ask Ms Reynolds in committee, whether I pop on QONs that Millett fusses through and finds someone to answer. Either way, I do not get an adequate response from the ABC. It is as if you treat the Senate and its committees with contempt.

Ms Guthrie : That's absolutely not the case. I will say that we made this decision probably more than nine or 10 months ago—actually, more than that—and the service was switched off at the beginning of the year. I know that you and a number of other politicians are concerned about this issue. But, again, we are not getting this information directly from the public.

Senator McKENZIE: No, Ms Guthrie, it's moved beyond what the public is saying and the 13 calls you say, and the hundreds others say. This now goes to governance. My questions have been to you and your board about what information did the board use to make the decision, and how many people would be impacted?

Ms Guthrie : Senator, the governance is that the ABC is independent of government—

Senator McKENZIE: Absolutely.

Ms Guthrie : and the ABC board considered this issue—

Senator McKENZIE: But that assumption that you use evidence and data on which to make your decisions.

Ms Guthrie : And they did.

Senator McKENZIE: I would like an unredacted copy and an understanding—as I've asked previously—of the research paper that the board made its decision on that said only 500 people would be impacted when the evidence to the committee was clearly in the opposite—if you look at the fishermen, the transport industry, the cattlemen, the Northern Territory government's evidence. It just doesn't stack up. Finally, I just wanted to go to an issue to section 26 in your act that in performing your functions, 'the corporation must have regard to the services provided by SBS'.

Ms Guthrie : Yes.

Senator McKENZIE: When I go on your new app, the yellow one, there is a Bahasa Indonesian section and a Mandarin section. Given that SBS has significant Mandarin programming right across its platforms and significant Indonesian offerings across its platforms, how did the ABC take into regard the services provided by SBS in choosing to put up both its Bahasa and its Mandarin pieces on its app?

Ms Guthrie : Both the Chinese and Bahasa language services in the app that you're referring to are very much an experiment to understand whether there is demand for those services.

Senator McKENZIE: Sorry, Ms Guthrie, I only have 30 seconds, so let me be very clear in terms of the process for decision-making. I assume that when you're running a pilot you're not going to conflict with your act. So I want to know when did you consider section 26 in the decision-making to run this new pilot?

Ms Guthrie : We always consider our obligations under the charter, including our obligation to take into account other services offered by SBS.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you just provide it to me on notice, because I'm going to be cut off by the chair?

Ms Guthrie : I can finish this quite quickly.

Senator URQUHART: Just let Ms Guthrie finish her answer.

CHAIR: If you could please let us get on with it as well. So, please, Ms Guthrie, continue your answer and then we'll get on with everything else.

Ms Guthrie : Our main priority is actually internationalising our services as much as possible. The main priority for our app is to look at whether we can provide those services outside of Australia. So it is important for us to consider whether this is something that we should be doing on a permanent basis. The main target for that will be providing services outside of Australia.

Senator McKENZIE: And you don't see that in conflict with section 26, having regard to what SBS already offers into the Australian market?

Ms Guthrie : No, because the intention is for that to be offered outside of the Australian market.

CHAIR: As promised, it's 5.20 and we now have to move off the ABC. I'm sure we're all equally disappointed that that is the case. Is it the will of the committee that the letters tabled by Senator McKenzie are accepted? Yes, it is. Excellent. Thank you, ABC. We will call SBS, and we'll get underway very, very quickly if we can.