I began my working life as an ABC cadet journalist 15 years before Michelle Guthrie was born.
As a regional journalist reading my own news bulletin in outback Queensland, as news editor responsible for training the first Papuans and New Guineans as journalists, as a foreign correspondent leading a talented team during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and finally as the ABC’s (only) economics and finance correspondent, I was proud to work for the Majestic Fanfare. Today, I would be ashamed to be associated with ABC news and current affairs.
My view is the result of observing, listening and watching the decline of news coverage and output across 70 years. By contrast, Guthrie’s real knowledge of the ABC dates only from her appointment as its managing director two years ago.
Our perspectives, understandably, are poles apart. She knows only the organisation she was bequeathed; I measure the decline in news values, accuracy, balance, impartiality, leadership and self-control across two generations.
The community’s simmering disquiet with the public broadcaster’s decline in credibility has been trying for years to find its expression in policy terms. The recent populist clamour to “sell off the ABC” can be seen as a final incoherent shout from the frustrated and disappointed.
Much nonsense has been talked in arguing that proposition. It misses the point, just as Guthrie’s recent speech to the Melbourne Press Club did.
The speech demonstrated how little she understood of journalism. Not only did she confine her admiration of “hallowed names” of ABC journalists to those who were retired or dead, she also went on to define the role of her journalists as “their relentless drive to ensure that the institutions and processes which are the foundations of our democratic system work to the benefit of that community; their determination to provide a voice for the powerless, the weak and the intimidated; their ability to shine the light on malfeasance and corruption”.
Wrong! That’s exactly the problem with ABC news and current affairs. One might think a managing director who had assumed the unearned title of editor-in-chief would at least make seeking facts and objective truth the hallmark of a news service. It used not to be difficult to define news in those terms.
Instead, with the ABC there is too much excitement about “investigative journalism”, exposing malfeasance and corruption, co-operating with newspapers it was formed to distance itself from, and celebrating loudly its petty exposures. If Guthrie’s virtues are the consequence of good news gathering, well and good, but they are not the principal purpose.
ABC news is now trivialised. Every night the flagship 7pm television bulletin runs petty local stories ahead of news of consequence to the nation and the world. The audience decline reflects its loss of credibility.
Sixty years ago I always had to have a coin in my pocket to phone in a story. Today’s technology allows pictures and sound to be transmitted wirelessly from an event and put to air live. But the ABC is so seduced by this ability, its policy is to have journalists report live every possible story.
That completely distorts news values. Trivial crimes, road accidents and court reports occupy minutes of airtime, a reporter ad-libbing tedious detail against a backdrop that adds nothing.
That supposedly is the new virtue of “immediacy”, but what the viewer notices is the reduction in the number of stories in a bulletin and the foreshortening of major reports. The latest overuse of the technology is the live cross to a press conference. Politicians twigged to the advantage of cutting out the reporter and speaking direct to voters. I have timed them as lasting seven to nine minutes, because they’re hard to interrupt.
When I remonstrated with the ABC that the live-streaming technique put editorial control in the hands of the politicians, editorial policy chief Alan Sunderland replied that immediacy was fundamentally important in a news environment. In other words, technology is not merely a tool; demonstrating technical prowess is more important than content.
How the wheel has turned. Forty-five years ago general manager Talbot Duckmanton chided me as London editor for sending voice reports for the morning national news: “There’s too much talking in the bulletins,” he said.
The multiplicity of news programs across many radio and TV channels has put supervision of news content in the hands of the producer of each. Gone are the knowledge, wisdom and authority of the chief sub-editor, who caught mistakes before they went to air and put a stop to any juvenile attempts to introduce comment or opinion.
ABC news once had a style guide. If it still exists, it’s been watered down, or allowed to be flouted. For example, adjectives were banned, except in quotation. Today reporters use them to subtly colour their stories. Preambles and summary conclusions were prohibited because they were comment, potentially indicating how a listener should interpret the item. Opinion, unless as a direct quote, would see the reporter sent back to rewrite. Yet the other day a Washington correspondent took it upon himself to characterise Donald Trump as “a President under siege”, then interpreted his comments about past policies as “insulting the other side”.
Such lazy, undisciplined writing goes unremarked, but is understandably seen as evidence of bias. Too often, interviewers don’t just ask questions, they argue.
What explains the ABC’s departure from its charter and its own code of practice and editorial guidelines? How does the public get the impression of “groupthink” on issues from Palestine to same-sex marriage to climate change?
The news staff has always been “bolshie” in the sense of rooting for the underdog, critical of authority and politically left in inclination. At the Labor split in the 1950s, half the Brisbane newsroom went down the road and joined the ALP in protest at Vince Gair and the Democratic Labour Party. When BHP announced its first $1 million profit, sub-editors on the national newsdesk were outraged — until I pointed out it represented only 2 per cent return on its steel assets.
In the past, there was discipline. Personal views were never allowed to intrude. Management control and sub-editorial oversight ensured that, and reporters understood instinctively that impartiality was fundamentally the basis for public trust. It was our role to provide the facts, not to change the world.
Management lost control with the arrival of current affairs. While news was strictly held to editorial standards — and its journalists were actively deterred from broadcasting — ambitious executives recruited young university graduates to launch current affairs programs — AM and PM on radio, and This Day Tonight on TV.
Fact, analysis, opinion and political barrow-pushing — together at times with undergraduate clowning — became inseparably confused.
What’s forgotten is that in 1976 news journalists were on the verge of striking over current affairs trying to take over the right to break news. On the day of the Whitlam dismissal, AM/PM staff seized control of the phone circuits to Canberra with the concurrence of senior management, preventing Canberra news staff from filing their stories. Four years later, the growing conflict escalated when current affairs tried to cover the national wage case decision in a live broadcast. A strike by journalists was averted only when management brokered a peace deal that involved the two departments sharing the broadcast.
Now, a story that’s never been published. In an attempt to persuade management to impose the same editorial standards on current affairs staff and programs, a nationwide journalists’ conference in 1976 voted unanimously to merge news and current affairs. I was studying for my MBA degree part-time, and persuaded John Hunt, a leading behavioural scientist, to conduct the all-day seminar for us for free. Duckmanton ignored the findings. It was years before the merger took place, but left current affairs, with its loose editorial principles, ascendant.
At the heart of the community’s frustration with the ABC is its refusal to enforce its charter. For more than 30 years it has been fighting to escape accountability for its news and current affairs broadcasts. It first resisted government attempts to impose an external complaints review body, then watered down its internal self-regulatory system so that only the most egregious breaches can be upheld. It amended its editorial policies five times in 10 years. It even introduced a new category of “resolved” to avoid classing a complaint as “rejected” or “upheld”.
It could well be argued that the ABC board is not fulfilling its duty under section 8 (1) (c) of the ABC Act, which requires it: “to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”.
The ABC board has consistently shown its inability or unwillingness to investigate, let alone enforce, the key attributes, impartiality and objectivity. If it cannot carry out its obligations under the law, it’s time for the government to impose a remedy.
A simple amendment to the act would establish an independent external body — call it an ombudsman — to handle all complaints about breaches of the ABC charter, its code of practice and editorial guidelines. It would bring all programming under the same rules. The internal audience and consumer affairs section only masquerades as independent, a case of the policeman investigating the police.
Nine years ago the ABC proudly published a paper, Change with Continuity, in which it said: “Media professionals need to grow thicker skins. They need to accept more and harsher criticism, disseminate it more readily, correct errors swiftly, be willing to clarify, explain their decisions, acknowledging their misjudgments, and where appropriate, apologise.”
Bringing the broadcasters to heel by making them answer to an external umpire would sidestep the powerful staff interests, neutralise Guthrie’s nonsense, and enable the board to restore discipline. With a stroke of the pen, the government could stop the rot.