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Mark Scott puts lid on scathing report into quality of ABC journalism

ABC managing director Mark Scott has buried an internal report into the quality of journalism at the ABC that identifies weak editorial controls and is critical of the ABC’s leadership.

 The Australian can reveal Mr Scott commissioned a comprehensive report into the quality of journalism, with a view to acting on any recommendations made to improve the standard of journalism and content at the ABC.

The ABC’s former executive director of news, John Cameron, was chosen by Mr Scott to conduct the review, spending four months examining the process and quality of ABC journalism before submitting the report, titled ABC News Quality Review, in late 2011.

ABC insiders say the review is highly critical of the corporation’s editorial leadership and identified structural vulnerabilities in its journalism, from the news gathering process to individual program leadership. It looked at the proactive nature of what needed to be done to overcome the lack of effective editorial control within program areas and examined whether the editorial chain of command and editorial quality controls had broken down.

Without targeting or naming and shaming individuals, the review found there were not enough qualified people making sure material that went to air or was published online was being properly checked. Vulnerabilities were identified where material was published without proper oversight, creating problems with accuracy and bias.

It found that without adequate checks and balances in place, the ABC was at continuing risk of publishing stories that did not portray a fair and accurate picture.

The report did not find entrenched bias but rather unprofessional work at times, which the review attempted to address.

The Australian understands the review is in parts so critical and damaging that Mr Scott has refused to make it public or available to senior staff who were eager to learn from its findings.

Some staff attempted to obtain the review under FOI legislation but its release was blocked and it has never seen the light of day.

The report contained dozens of recommendations ranging from tighter editorial controls to more effective staff selection and management with more qualified people in senior roles. It warned there needed to be tighter editorial controls to protect the ABC’s reputation.

Since the review was handed to Mr Scott, the ABC has published several stories that were damaging for the public broadcaster, ­including the sensational and entirely inaccurate claim that Navy personnel had burned the hands of asylum-seekers.

It is understood the tone of the review does not reflect well on those in charge at the ABC, including Mr Scott and Mr Cameron’s successor, Kate Torney. When contacted by The Aust­ralian and invited to release the report, Mr Cameron declined to do so and refused to discuss its contents.

Some senior staff told The Australian that privately Mr Cameron was dismayed at the recent quality of many of the ABC’s news and current affairs radio and TV news bulletins and other programs.

Mr Cameron would not buy into that publicly, saying he retained the highest regard for the importance of the ABC in the Australian media landscape.

“Can you imagine the media in this country without the ABC in its midst?” he asked. “I had a great 25 years there and since then I’ve strictly avoided becoming a sideline critic.”

But, when asked about Mr Scott’s approach to finding 5 per cent efficiencies, which includes directing resources into digital and away from local and international services, Mr Cameron questioned whether the ABC was losing some of its most valuable assets. Mr Cameron said a 5 per cent saving was not so great that it required mass redundancies or cuts to programming.

“While Mark and his team are no doubt doing what they feel they need to, there are legitimate questions being asked about why both local and international editorial areas have been targeted,” he said, in his first interview since his departure.

“Two of the ABC’s proud points of difference have been its outstanding international news coverage, coupled with its regional content. I know from experience that the comparatively small amount of money involved in the budget cut could have been found without cutting at the foundations of the ABC’s reputation, and certainly without mass redundancies.

“The current management must have its reasoning, but I haven’t heard it, even though I’ve had some very frank informal chats with ABC management and staff in recent weeks.”

Mr Cameron said he did not actively seek to involve himself in ABC issues but maintained a natural interest in what’s going on, mainly as a consumer, and through old friendships or phone calls from ex-colleagues who want to “let off some steam”.

Asked about the so-called “shark strategy”, where staff were pitted against each other during the Fair Work consultation process to determine redundancies, Mr Cameron criticised the management technique.

“It sounds awful. Why would you associate yourself with that kind of managerial behaviour? I can only imagine there was industrial or legal advice that it was the only way to go. But even then, you’d wonder,’’ he said.

“All that said, the ABC has been through tougher political and financial times, so let’s hope the ship can be put right after this latest turmoil. The key is to remain editorially strong, which is a whole new challenge after the removal of so many staff.”

Mr Cameron has spent much of his journalistic career at the ABC. He was a reporter, producer and foreign correspondent in the 1980s, state news editor in Queensland and Victoria in the 1990s, national editor from 2000-03 and executive director of news from 2004-09.

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Posted on 2015-01-19 00:42:44 GMT