The independence of the ABC - response to the SMH editorial today

November 22, 2014
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The Sydney Morning Herald today (22 November 2014) editorialises about "ABC cuts and the threat to editorial freedom". 

It refers to my proposal that the Board of the ABC should not combine the title of "editor in chief" with the position of Managing Director. 

The SMH writes "He seems to suggest he wants the board to take responsibility for objectivity and editorial balance and if they feel incapable of doing so to resign. With respect, a board's functions in a corporate sense is to oversee strategy and hire/fire the managing director. In the ABC's legislation, it must ensure the charter is fulfilled. If Mr Turnbull is suggesting the board should have a direct role in deciding what is good journalism and then directing news staff accordingly, that threatens to destroy the editorial independence of the ABC and undermine its role as a crucial voice in Australian media."

In my speech on Wednesdday about the ABC, SBS and the cuts to their funding "The Future of our Public Broadcasters"  I noted that under section 8 of the ABC's Act of Parliament the Board of Directors has certain express responsibilities. I will set out section 8 in full and highlight the part which refers to news and journalism. 

 AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION ACT 1983 - SECT 8

Duties of the Board

             (1)  It is the duty of the Board:

                     (a)  to ensure that the functions of the Corporation are performed efficiently and with the maximum benefit to the people of Australia;

                     (b)  to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation;

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

                     (d)  to ensure that the Corporation does not contravene, or fail to comply with:

                              (i)  any of the provisions of this Act or any other Act that are applicable to the Corporation; or

                             (ii)  any directions given to, or requirements made in relation to, the Corporation under any of those provisions; and

                     (e)  to develop codes of practice relating to:

                              (i)  programming matters; and

                             (ii)  if the Corporation has the function of providing a datacasting service under section 6A—that service;

                            and to notify those codes to the ACMA.

             (2)  If the Minister at any time furnishes to the Board a statement of the policy of the Commonwealth Government on any matter relating to broadcasting or digital media services, or any matter of administration, that is relevant to the performance of the functions of the Corporation and requests the Board to consider that policy in the performance of its functions, the Board shall ensure that consideration is given to that policy.

             (3)  Nothing in subsection (1) or (2) is to be taken to impose on the Board a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court."

 

As you can see, there is nothing radical or novel in my saying that the Board should take responsibility for ensuring the accuracy and impartiality of ABC news and current affairs. The law of the land says that they should do so.

Of course taking on this responsibility does not mean as the SMH suggests that "activist board members" should be unilaterally providing free editorial advice, let alone direction,  to individual journalists at the ABC. A board of directors acts collectively and so the responsibility set out in the Act must be discharged collectively (I made this point to Leigh Sales on 730 a few days ago in fact).

The suggestions I foreshadowed in my speech are designed to strengthen the corporate governance of the ABC and better enable the Board to fulfill its duties under the ABC Act.

Ensuring that news and current affairs are accurate and impartial is a core duty of the board as is the duty to ensure the ABC is run efficiently. Having an independent CFO reporting to the Board would be of considerable assistance to the Directors. Having the person who is actually in charge of news and current affairs reporting to the Board would be of equal assistance. 

My reason for suggesting that the Managing Director role and editor in chief title should be separated is simply that it is misleading. An "editor in chief" is in normal parlance the senior editor of a publication who, like Chris Mitchell at The Australian or Darren Goodsir at the SMH, ultimately determines the content of the paper. Mark Scott made this point himself this week inSenate Estimates but then, defending his retention of the title at the ABC, said that while he did not determine the content of news programmes in the final analysis the "buck stopped" with him. 

But the buck stops with him because he is the managing director. That logic would justify him describing himself as "accountant in chief" (because responsibility for all financial matters ultimately stops with him) or indeed "make up artist in chief" because, one assumes, ultimate responsibility for any cosmetic disasters also stop with him.  

As Mr Scott acknowledged in his evidence at Senate Estimates he neither IS responsible for the news and current affairs output of the ABC nor would he have the time to be so if he wanted to. 

So my point simply was that he should not have a title which is misleading. I added that because the accuracy and impartiality of news and current affairs is so central to the ABC's mission and the Board's responsibility for ensuring same so important, the person who actually IS in charge of news and current affairs, currently Kate Torney, should report directly to the Board to enable it better to fulfill its statutory duty. Of course the head of news and current affairs would, in a management chain of command, also report to the Managing Director.

The relevant part of my speech is set out below. 

"Equally I propose to recommend to the Board that the position of Editor in Chief no longer be combined with that of Managing Director. It creates the impression that the Managing Director is directly in charge of ABC News and Current Affairs which he is not, and given the wide range of his responsibilities, could not be.

The Board should expect the head of news and current affairs, like the CFO, to report directly to the Board as well as to the managing director thus enabling the Board to discharge its statutory obligation referred to below.

Another matter is providing more granular detail on where the ABC, and SBS, spend their money and how it relates to their charter obligations.

In my view the ABC and SBS should so far as possible seek to be as transparent as a public listed company. The best cure for suspicion is sunlight.

Other matters I propose to include are to co-operate closely (between broadcasters) to maximize the efficiency of public broadcasting in Australia (as identified in the SBS Act) and to set out each year the steps the Board has taken to meet its statutory obligations including that in section 8(1)(c) of the ABC Act  " 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."

This last point is a very important one, and I acknowledge Mr Spigelman's recent reviews of the ABC's news coverage of certain issues.

But it is widely thought (including by many people who either write to me or write about me) that the Minister is responsible for ensuring that the ABC's news and current affairs is accurate and impartial.

The Government does not and should never have any control over the news and current affairs of the ABC or SBS. Mr Putin's model of media management is no more worthy of emulation than his foreign policy.

But their boards are responsible for their objectivity and accuracy. I have on occasions heard directors say "they do not want to get involved" Well if they do not want to get involved they should resign. The Board of each broadcaster has that responsibility and must discharge it, and be seen diligently to discharge it."

 

 

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