Did Al Jazeera’s undercover investigation into One Nation overstep the mark?


Andrew Dodd, University of Melbourne

The sheer audacity of Al Jazeera’s three-year ruse is astounding.

The news company’s investigation unit has carried out a sting that has captured both the National Rifle Association of the United States and Australia’s One Nation Party in all sorts of compromising positions.

The series, “How to sell a massacre”, has exposed the NRA’s manipulative media practices and revealed One Nation’s desire to cosy up to the US gun lobby to find ways of funding its domestic campaign to overturn our gun laws.

The documentary has exposed the thinking of some of the party’s most senior figures about taking control of the parliament and their obsession with Muslim immigration.

How to Sell a Massacre P1 | Al Jazeera Investigations.

Al Jazeera senior producer Peter Charley did this by placing actor-turned journalist Rodger Muller in the field to impersonate the head of a fake pro-gun lobby group called Gun Rights Australia. The pair then pandered to One Nation’s desire for financial support and international endorsement and exploited US gun lobbyists’ fears about Australia’s strict gun laws.

They got away with this for three years, gaining unprecedented access to the halls of the NRA and to the minds of two One Nation officials, Queensland state leader Steve Dickson and the party’s controversial chief of staff, James Ashby.




Read more:
How Australia’s NRA-inspired gun lobby is trying to chip away at gun control laws, state by state


A matter of ethics

There are at least two ethical questions about this documentary.

The first is whether the producers have overstepped the mark by not only reporting what they saw but creating the scenario in which the events occurred.

The second concerns the program’s extensive use of hidden cameras.

On the first matter, the issue is whether the program created the meeting between One Nation and the NRA and therefore acted irresponsibly by entrapping the subjects of the film.

In his account of what happened, Rodger Muller put it this way:

Then Charley asked me to contact Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – a far-right pro-gun Australian political party. Charley wanted me to find out if any connections existed between One Nation and the US gun lobby. And so began another chapter in my life as an avid “gunner”.

When I approached One Nation Chief of Staff James Ashby and mentioned my NRA connections, he told me he wanted to visit the US to meet them. I set up meetings in Washington and soon Ashby and One Nation’s Steve Dickson were on a flight to the US.

I was there, ready to meet them. And our hidden cameras were all primed and ready to go.

This suggests that Muller and Al Jazeera were catalysts and enabled the connection between One Nation and the NRA. But it also demonstrates that there was a desire on the part of One Nation to meet the US gun lobby, and – as later becomes clear – the party was motivated to do so to raise funds and make political connections.

So is this responsible journalism?

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics – the protocols by which thoughtful journalists operate in Australia – is largely silent on this issue.

It doesn’t say anything explicitly about creating the news by making connections between players to observe what happens next. But it does stress the need to “report and interpret honestly”.

It calls on reporters to use “fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material” and to “respect personal privacy”. But the code also acknowledges journalists both scrutinise and exercise power. The preamble makes the point that journalism animates democracy.

Most importantly, in its guiding cause, the code states:

ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context.

It allows for any of its other clauses to be overridden to achieve “substantial advancement of the public interest”.

So is it wrong to make and enable connections that might not otherwise happen in order to observe the outcomes? Is this fair and honest and responsible?

Like many things, the answer might be dependent on the motivation. From where I stand, it looks like Al Jazeera’s motivation was to get to the heart of something fundamentally important that would otherwise remain opaque.

Breaches of privacy and deceptive conduct

And while we’re pondering that one, there’s the perennial ethical question about hidden cameras.

This isn’t your garden variety case of a tabloid TV program exposing a dodgy car salesmen or a real estate scammer. In this film, the use of hidden cameras directly places several parts of the code of ethics against that all important public interest override.

The question is whether the public’s right to know is so important that it justifies the film’s deceptive conduct and breaches of privacy.

For me, the use of hidden cameras can clearly be defended when a publicly funded Australian political party, that knows what it’s doing is dodgy, is making connections to “change Australia” by gaining the balance of power in the parliament and “working hand in glove with the United States”.

It is highly likely the extent of One Nation’s behaviour could only be exposed through this sort of reportage. James Ashby is captured repeatedly reminding others they need to be secretive in their dealings with the NRA.

The public has a clear right to know what One Nation is up to. This is especially the case when part of its mission is to learn new techniques to manipulate the public debate to pursue an agenda of overturning the ban on guns following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre.

The NRA are media experts

There’s something else about this program that justifies the use of hidden cameras. It exposes the utter cynicism of the media messaging and media training that underpins the NRA like nothing I have ever seen before.




Read more:
What the NRA can teach us about the art of public persuasion


In a closed meeting with NRA officials, One Nation is given a crash course on how to deal with bad press, particularly following mass shootings.

Lars Dalseide, an NRA media liaison officer, is captured saying pro-gun lobbyists should smear supporters of gun control by accusing them of exploiting the tragedy.

He even provides a useful retort to anyone who might suggest that gun ownership might be a factor in a mass shooting. He says:

How dare you stand on the graves of those children to put forth your political agenda.

“Just shame them to the whole idea,” he suggests, by arguing pro-gun campaigners should declare to opponents:

If your policy isn’t good enough to stand on its own, how dare you use their deaths to push that forward.

As he says this, Ashby is recorded replying: “That’s really good, very strong”.

Some of that phrasing seems familiar in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, suggesting parts of the NRA’s playbook have already made their way down under.

This documentary underscores two things.

The brutal tactics of the gun lobby and the operations of One Nation need exposing. Journalism sometimes has to take on the unsavoury job of extracting the truth from those who do not want to share it.The Conversation

Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The ABC didn’t receive a reprieve in the budget. It’s still facing staggering cuts



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According to new research, the ABC stands to lose A$783 million in total funding by 2022, unless steps are taken to reverse budget cuts.
Shutterstock

Alexandra Wake, RMIT University and Michael Ward, University of Sydney

Despite some reprieve in the 2019 federal budget, the ABC is still in dire financial straits. More job losses and a reduction in services remain on the agenda.

The Coalition government has provided another three years of tied funding of A$43.7 million specifically for the national broadcaster’s “enhanced news-gathering” program. This program supports local news (particularly regional and outer-suburban news gathering), national reporting teams and state-based digital news.

But this funding doesn’t address the broadcaster’s need for more stability in its operational funding.

In July, the ABC will start to feel the full impact of a three-year, A$83.8 million indexation freeze on its funding, which was contained in the 2018 budget. So devastating is the size of that cut – and the ones prior to that – that ABC managers are almost completely focused on money, undermining their capacity to be strategic about the future.

There is no provision in the 2019 budget to restore the funding lost over the past six years and certainly no boost to cater for the dynamic and changing media environment.

Audiences who value what the ABC does now – and what it needs to be doing to support Australian democracy into the future – should take a closer look at the numbers, the way the money has been allocated and the impact of that.




Read more:
ABC inquiry finds board knew of trouble between Milne and Guthrie, but did nothing


Accumulated losses to ABC are staggering

To illustrate the need for more secure operational funding for the ABC, one of the authors of this article, Michael Ward, conducted research on just how much the broadcaster stands to lose in the aggregate over the course of an eight-year period. Ward used a number of public financial sources to build the table below, including ABC portfolio budget statements and ABC answers to Senate Questions on Notice

One of the difficulties in looking at budgets is the way forward estimates work. As the figures in the table show, the past six budgets have included measures to reduce, remove or freeze (indexation) ABC funding, without adding any new funding initiatives.

This has resulted in an accumulated reduction in available funding of A$393 million over a five-year period, starting from May 2014. According to current budget forecasts, this also means the ABC stands to lose A$783 million in funding by 2022, unless steps are taken to remedy the situation.

The Coalition government and others would argue, however, the ABC actually received a reprieve in this year’s budget with committed funding for “enhanced news gathering” because it treats as “new” the renewal of tied fixed-term funding as it expires.

The “enhanced news gathering” and digital delivery funding was first enacted by the former Labor government in 2013. Although “enhanced news gathering” funding has been renewed twice by the Coalition government since then, including in this year’s budget, the amount allocated for the program was slashed in 2016.

So, while it appears that the current budget announcement is good news for the ABC, the reality is, it is simply a continuation of what should be seen as core business.




Read more:
ABC budget cuts will hit media innovation


One way governments of all ilks have tried to control the ABC – and to win voters over – is by providing tied funding to specific programs like this. One of the earliest examples of tied funding was a National Interest Initiative by the Howard government in 2001, and later the Rudd government’s Children’s Channel and Drama Funding Initiative of 2009. These were seen as core to the ABC’s work, and were eventually made part of the ABC’s ongoing budget.

The problem, of course, is that voters do not understand the impact of the cessation of limited-term, tied funding programs.

We argue that tied funding is also contrary to the principles of independent public broadcasting because it effectively forces the broadcaster to prioritise its activities and programs at the current government’s whim. It also inhibits longer-term effective financial planning by the ABC.

Tied funding used by all parties

If elected, the ALP has committed to restore the A$83.8 million indexation freeze for the ABC included in last year’s budget. It has also promised an additional A$15 million for specific projects to restore short wave radio to the Northern Territory and add more local and regional content, emergency broadcasting and a news literacy program aimed at combating misinformation campaigns online.

Labor has also pledged “funding stability for the ABC over the next budget cycle”, though this has not come with a guaranteed boost in funding.

These commitments are important, but the freeze is just the tip of a funding iceberg that the ABC has been dealing with for the past six years. The continuation of a tied funding approach doesn’t address the underlying budget problem. More needs to be done.




Read more:
Cut here: reshaping the ABC



The Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia, a group that represents journalism academics in Australia, drew on Ward’s research at the recent Senate hearing into allegations of political interference of the ABC to call for more secure operational funding for the broadcaster.

JERAA argued that the ABC has been cowed by repeated parliamentary inquiries, funding cuts and efficiency reviews. These have had a severe impact on the broadcaster’s ability to perform its important role for the Australian people, which includes production of excellent public affairs reporting, local programming, international news, children’s programming and services on a range of current and emerging platforms.

Tied funding stops the ABC from meeting the core components of its legislated obligations, particularly digital content delivery, where the cost of success – increased take up of services – carries an extra financial burden, unlike analogue broadcasting.

Unless the ABC has ongoing stability of funding and ideally an increase that allows it to keep innovating, it won’t be able to maintain relevance in this fast-moving, globalised media world, nor will it be able to continue as a watchdog on people in power, particularly governments.The Conversation

Alexandra Wake, Program Manager, Journalism, RMIT University and Michael Ward, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ita Buttrose’s appointment as new ABC chair a promising step in the right direction



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It is hoped new ABC chair Ita Buttrose will bring “a touch of healing” to the public broadcaster.
AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In appointing Ita Buttrose to chair the ABC, the Morrison government might just have got it right, having got it so hopelessly wrong last time.

Buttrose comes with what might be called three big negative advantages:

  • she is not a former business associate of the prime minister

  • she is not a well-known climate-change denier like Maurice Newman, whom John Howard appointed in 2007

  • she is not a strident culture warrior like Keith Windschuttle, Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen, with whom Howard stacked the ABC board in the early 2000s.

She also has many positive advantages.

She’s tough. She worked for the Packers — Frank and Kerry – and for Rupert Murdoch at senior management and board level. That is not territory for shrinking violets.

She knows the media – albeit mainly print and commercial television. She was founding editor of the ground-breaking magazine Cleo, an assertive magazine for women, openly discussing what were then taboo subjects such as women’s sexuality, which it celebrated with a nude male centrefold.

Its advertising pitch was, “What Cleo wants, Cleo gets”, a statement encouraging women to be ambitious and take their place in the world.

She went on to edit The Australian Women’s Weekly, the Packer flagship, and later was editor-in-chief of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, before being appointed by him to the News Limited board.




Read more:
Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government


As an editor in the 1980s, she exhibited a strong sense of decency and fairness by standing out against the moral panic in some elements of the media over HIV-AIDS when that disease first emerged in Australia.

Hysterical preachers thundered about how the wrath of God was being brought down on homosexuals and people who engaged in extra-marital sex. Buttrose was part of the more responsible elements of media that repudiated this untruthful and prejudicial drivel.

When tragic cases emerged of HIV-contaminated blood having been used in blood transfusions, she and others such as the then chair of the National AIDS Task Force, Professor David Penington, worked hard to restore public trust in the blood bank, once procedures had been adopted to eliminate the risk.

More recently as national president of Dementia Australia she has been a high-profile advocate for a stronger public policy response to dementia and greater public awareness of the needs of people with dementia.

Given her background, and her demeanour at the media conference at which the prime minister announced her appointment, she promises to bring strong moral leadership to the ABC.

And if it’s one thing the ABC needs in the wake of the disaster that engulfed the former chair Justin Milne and managing director Michelle Guthrie last September, it is strong moral leadership.

Buttrose said she was a devoted ABC listener who believed passionately in the ABC’s independence. She said her priority was to restore stability to the board and management.

She also endorsed the ABC’s continued involvement in digital media, which will give no comfort to those in commercial media who have been campaigning to have the ABC’s wings clipped in this area.

Twice she reiterated the level of trust the Australian public has in the ABC’s news service, making the point that on ABC news, the public got stories they did not get on commercial media.

Asked whether the ABC needed more funding, she said she had not seen the books, but if she thought more funding was needed, “I won’t be frightened to ask”.

Buttrose’s stated attitude to the ABC and the answers she gave at the media conference evoked memories of Sir Zelman Cowen.

He was appointed governor-general in 1977 after Sir John Kerr had bitterly divided the nation by sacking Gough Whitlam as prime minister in 1975.

Upon his appointment, Sir Zelman said he wanted to bring “a touch of healing”.

There is still a lot of healing to be done at the ABC, and the scrutiny arising from last year’s crisis is not over yet.

The surviving members of the ABC board are scheduled to appear next Tuesday (March 5) at the Senate inquiry into political interference in the ABC. What they did – or failed to do – in protecting the independence of the ABC will undoubtedly be a central question.




Read more:
Michelle Guthrie’s stint at ABC helm had a key weakness: she failed to back the journalists


A major cause of that crisis was the stacking of the board with political mates and special-interest groups who share the government’s worldview.

The ABC Act contains a provision designed to prevent this, but it has been routinely ignored by ministers and prime ministers for decades.

The act provides for an independent nominations panel whose job is to present names to the minister for communications and the prime minister.

Ita Buttrose was not nominated by the panel, as the prime minister revealed in his announcement. Even so, it is a choice that has merit, and if she succeeds in reasserting the ABC’s independence from political interference, that will make a pleasing irony.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tale of two media reports: one poses challenges for digital media; the other gives ABC and SBS a clean bill of health



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The competitive neutrality report has given the ABC, and SBS, a clean bill of health.
Shutterstock

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Two reports out this week – one into the operations of Facebook and Google, the other into the competitive neutrality of the ABC and SBS – present the federal government with significant policy and political challenges.

The first is by far the more important of the two.

It is the interim report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission of its Digital Platforms Inquiry, and in a set of 11 preliminary recommendations it proposes far-reaching changes to media regulation.

Of particular interest are its preliminary recommendations for sustaining journalism and news content.

These are based on the premise that there is a symbiotic relationship between news organisations and the big digital platforms. Put simply, the news organisations depend heavily on these platforms to get their news out to their audiences.

The problem, the ACCC says, is that the way news stories are ranked and displayed on the platforms is opaque. All we know – or think we know – is that these decisions are made by algorithms.




Read more:
Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government


The ACCC says this lack of transparency causes concerns that the algorithms and other policies of the platform giants may be operating in a way that affects the production of news and journalistic content.

To respond to this concern, the preliminary recommendation is for a new regulatory authority to be established. It would have the power to peer into these algorithms and monitor, investigate and report on how content – including news content – is ranked and displayed.

The purpose would be to identify the effects of the algorithms and other policies on the production of news and journalistic content.

It would also allow the authority to assess the impact on the incentives for news and journalistic content creation, particularly where news organisations have invested a lot of time and money in producing original content.

In this way, the ACCC is clearly trying to protect and promote the production of public-interest journalism, which is expensive but vital to democratic life. It is how the powerful are held to account, how wrongdoing is uncovered, and how the public finds out what is going on inside forums such as the courts and local councils.

So far, the big news media organisations have concentrated on these aspects of the ACCC interim report and have expressed support for them.

However, there are two other aspects of the report on which their response has been muted.

The first of these is the preliminary recommendation that proposes a media regulatory framework that would cover all media content, including news content, on all systems of distribution – print, broadcast and online.

The ACCC recommends that the government commission a separate independent review to design such a framework. The framework would establish underlying principles of accountability, set boundaries around what should be regulated and how, set rules for classifying different types of content, and devise appropriate enforcement mechanisms.

Much of this work has already been attempted by earlier federal government inquiries – the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review – both of which produced reports for the Gillard Labor government in 2012.

Their proposals for an overarching regulatory regime for all types of media generated a hysterical backlash from the commercial media companies, who accused the authors of acting like Stalin, Mao, or the Kim clan in North Korea.

So if the government adopts this recommendation from the ACCC, the people doing the design work can expect some heavy flak from big commercial media.

The other aspect of the ACCC report that is likely to provoke a backlash from the media is a preliminary recommendation concerning personal privacy.

Here the ACCC proposes that the government adopt a 2014 recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission that people be given the right to sue for serious invasions of privacy.

The media have been on notice over privacy invasion for many years. As far back as 2001, the High Court developed a test of privacy in a case involving the ABC and an abattoir company called Lenah Game Meats.

Now, given the impact on privacy of Facebook and Google, the ACCC has come to the view that the time has arrived to revisit this issue.

The ACCC’s interim report is one of the most consequential documents affecting media policy in Australia for many decades.

The same cannot be said of the other media-related report published this week: that of the inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the public-sector broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.

This inquiry was established in May this year to make good on a promise made by Malcolm Turnbull to Pauline Hanson in 2017.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


He needed One Nation’s support for the government’s changes to media ownership laws, without which they would not have passed the Senate.

Hanson was not promised any particular focus for the inquiry, so the government dressed it up in the dull raiment of competitive neutrality.

While it had the potential to do real mischief – in particular to the ABC – the report actually gives both public broadcasters a clean bill of health.

There are a couple of minor caveats concerning transparency about how they approach the issue of fair competition, but overall the inquiry finds that the ABC and SBS are operating properly within their charters. Therefore, by definition, they are acting in the public interest.

This has caused pursed lips at News Corp which, along with the rest of the commercial media, took this opportunity to have a free kick at the national broadcasters. But in the present political climate, the issue is likely to vanish without trace.

While the government still has an efficiency review of the ABC to release, it also confronts a political timetable and a set of the opinion polls calculated to discourage it from opening up another row over the ABC.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC and SBS are not distorting media market, government inquiry finds


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are competing
fairly with the private sector’s media operators has given a tick to
the public broadcasters.

The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest”. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.

The review arose from a 2017 deal between the government and Pauline
Hanson to get One Nation support for media law changes which
liberalised ownership rules. It has been chaired by Robert Kerr,
formerly from the Productivity Commission. The report was released by
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Wednesday.

The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has
been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The
former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained
about the competition eating into the market of commercial media
groups.

The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that
competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate
advantage of government ownership.

“It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to
relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing
benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services”.

The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they
were “abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive
neutrality.” It suggested there should be some improvements in
transparency and internal procedures.

Beyond that, “the question arises as to how competitive neutrality
principles about competing fairly without distortion might apply to
the free services delivered by the ABC and SBS.

“Free ABC and SBS services are having some competitive impact.
Submissions included complaints about the ABC’s online news service
and SBS’ multi-channel and streaming services. But the National
Broadcasters are established and funded to provide free services. So
long as they operate within their statutory Charters they are
operating in the public interest”.

The report said submissions questioned whether the broadcasters were
operating within their charters. But, it said, these charters were
very broad, and reporting against them “is not detailed or robust
enough to settle doubts”.

“Accountability is difficult, especially as there is no opportunity
for Charter complaints to be addressed”.

The broadcasters should improve their reporting of charter performance
in the context of competitive neutrality. “If this enhanced reporting
does not occur, the government should consider a way of managing
complaints about Charter performance in this area,” the report said.

“While the National Broadcasters are not prohibited from competing,
some improvements in the way they interact with markets should be
contemplated”.

The report also said the government should consider options for a
longer term funding framework for the national broadcasters,
accompanied by increased transparency and accountability.

Fifield said he recognised the broadcasters’ charters were broad and
allowed flexibility in how their boards implemented them.
“It is now up to the national broadcasters to act on these
recommendations,” he said.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the
government’s “fishing expedition” had spent half a million dollars to
establish what the public broadcasters had said all along – that they
“are operating in a manner consistent with the general principles of
competitive neutrality.

“Australians trust and value the ABC and SBS and should not have to
foot the bill for Mitch Fifield and Pauline Hanson’s vendetta against
public broadcasting,” she said.

Also in return for Hanson’s support the government agreed to bring in
legislation to require the ABC to be “fair” and “balanced” in its
coverage.

Under the legislation, the board would be required “to ensure that the
gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information
is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised
standards of objective journalism.”

But the legislation is bogged down, with no chance of being passed
before the election.

The government has yet to appoint a new ABC chair, after the implosion
within the organisation involving the board sacking managing
director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of Justin Milne as chair
amid a row over editorial interference.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How ABC chairman Justin Milne compromised the independence of the national broadcaster



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Reports this week revealed that ABC Chairman Justin Milne called for a journalist to be fired after receiving complaints from the government.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Peter Fray, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, University of Technology Sydney

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


Behind the extraordinary events engulfing the national broadcaster lies a rather ordinary and clear statement of principle enshrined in the ABC Act. It clearly stipulates that one of the functions of the board is to maintain the corporation’s independence and integrity.

Has Justin Milne, as chairman of the board, done that?

Reports from Fairfax Media this week revealed email correspondence between Milne and the then managing director, Michelle Guthrie. In the emails, Milne called for chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici to be sacked over a report on government funding for research and innovation.

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had complained about the article; this followed complaints in February about two other pieces by Alberici on corporate tax, also critical of government policy. The ABC amended and reposted one of these pieces and eight days later republished the other, an analysis.

An internal ABC review found fault with both earlier articles, which had attracted considerable attention.

Another report this week in The Daily Telegraph makes further claims that Milne later demanded the resignation of ABC political editor Andrew Probyn, following anger from Turnbull. “You have to shoot him”, Milne is claimed to have said to Guthrie.




Read more:
ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


On one view, the performance of a journalist is an operational matter for the MD or other executives, not a strategic matter, and there was no cause for intervention by Milne.

But others might ask, isn’t it the role of the board to intervene if there’s possibly severe reputational damage to the organisation and executives are not acting?

Both points seem reasonable, but this is the ABC, not a commercial operation.

It’s hardly contentious to say that its journalistic role distinguishes a news organisations from other businesses. Watchdog, fourth estate – however we describe it – news media are different. Editorial independence, along with editorial standards, is important.

But this is even more pronounced for public broadcasters. While government funds the ABC and SBS using public money, these are not state broadcasters. Being free from state control is a part of the legislation under which the ABC operates. It’s when we look at the ABC Act that we see the problem for Milne.

Although we often speak of the ABC “charter”, this is really just section 6 of the ABC Act. It sets out the functions of the ABC and it’s where we find reference to the ABC providing “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.

But important obligations are found elsewhere. The requirement to provide a news service, for example, is in a later, operational section.

And it’s section 8 where we find the twin requirements of independence and editorial standards. These are worth setting out in full:

  • 8(1)(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation

  • 8(1)(c) 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 problem for Milne is that these obligations are not imposed on the ABC as an organisation. They are imposed on the board. The lead-in to section 8 is: “It is the duty of the Board…”




Read more:
Media Files: ABC boss Michelle Guthrie sacked, but the board won’t say why


Returning then to the emails, at issue was a report by Alberici on the main 7pm television news bulletin on May 6. According to the Fairfax report, Turnbull sent an email to news director Gaven Morris the next day complaining about the report.

Morris sent it to Guthrie, who contacted Milne. Milne responded, saying “they [the government] hate her” and “get rid of her”.

This apparently is before Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complained about the same report on May 9 and before the ABC’s complaints review unit had a chance to assess the complaint. When it did, it found no problem with the article except for one inaccuracy – certainly nothing that would justify the dismissal of the journalist.

It appears Milne acted to protect the reputation of the ABC. He and the board are required to do that – protecting its “integrity” is a part of their statutory duties. And the board also has a role in upholding standards.

Had the ABC’s complaints unit found there was a serious problem for a second time and executives had failed to act, maybe the board would have been right to intervene. But that step – assessing the validity of the complaint – was skipped, and it seems the main reason for proposing Alberici’s dismissal was to appease the government.

In this case, “independence” should have trumped the reputational aspect of “integrity”, especially when the risk was political. Instead, the chairman of the ABC may have compromised both values.The Conversation

Peter Fray, Professor of Journalism Practice, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, Co-Director, Centre for Media Transition, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


Andrew Linden, RMIT University

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


Reports of the contents of leaked emails written by ABC Board Chair Justin Milne provide a powerful insight into how governments of the day can exert influence over what parliament had intended to be an independent agency.

The emails have emerged in the wake of the ABC board’s termination of ABC managing director, Michelle Guthrie.




Read more:
Government sets up inquiry into embattled ABC chairman’s email


Milne is correct in asserting that the ABC Act requires the board “to independently govern the Corporation, protect its best interests, ensure that it is well funded, well managed and that our content is of the highest standards”.

But it doesn’t operate in exactly the same way as other corporate boards.

The ABC board is different

For example in most corporations, commercial or otherwise, boards exercise control over management by using specific delegations and determining corporate policy.

Boards also appoint the chief executive and in some instances other members of the management group.

However that’s not the case for the ABC.

The ABC Act provides that on advice of the prime minister and communications minister the governor general appoints the chair and other directors with the exception of the managing director and the staff elected director.

Partly non-political

The Act bars former members of parliament and senior political staffers (for a time) from being appointed as the chair or as non-executive directors.

Appointments to all other ABC board positions, including the chair, must follow a merit-based process with candidates interviewed in a process that the government does not control.

But that requirement does not apply to the managing director. This gives the board greater latitude to appointment a candidate that may draw less criticism from the Government of the day.

And partly political

This is highly problematic because of real (but usually latent) potential that a managing director might arrive with an agenda to undermine the board’s statutory role and parliamentary-determined Charter to be an independent public broadcaster.

The potential conflict is more acute because at the ABC the managing director is designated in the Act as the editor-in-chief.

Because the managing director is responsible for content, the reported instances of the Chair pressuring the managing director to remove individual journalists and approaching ABC editorial staff are inappropriate.

Setting the scene for conflict

The Act sets up a potential conflict between most of the ABC directors (who essentially have a trustee role) and the managing director who might be a non-merit based appointee.

The ABC board used to avoid this conflict by sticking to the public service tradition of appointing technocrats to the managing director role.

But over time perceptions about the appointment have become increasingly politicised.



As Marco Bass, ex head of ABC news and current affairs Victoria has written, the temptation to control the news is becoming harder to resist:

What [Guthrie and Shier] shared was an implicit brief to disrupt the ABC, dismantle internal fiefdoms and, importantly, bring the news and current affairs division under control.

Make no mistake, federal governments, regardless of political complexion, don’t care about Peppa Pig. They care about political coverage by the ABC’s journalists and broadcasters.

These idiosyrantic governance rules amplify flaws in the design of boards on which both executives and non executives sit.

Other boards have similar problems

As I and colleagues have written previously, mixing executive and non-executive directors on a single board creates governance problems.

On corporate boards managers who are also directors can (and usually do) position themselves as very powerful gate keepers and dominate both other directors and senior executives.




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This was a problem at the Commonwealth Bank and from some reports was becoming a problem at the ABC.

If a government can use the idiosyncrasies of the the ABC Act to cower a much-loved and very public institution like the ABC, imagine how pliable agencies like APRA, ASIC and ACCC might be in accommodating the views of a government who might not want to deal with the political fallout of, for example, tough but necessary decisions such as cancelling banking or superannuation licences.


This piece has been edited to remove an earlier incorrect statement that under the ABC Act the managing director is appointed by the governor general on the advice of government ministers. The managing director is appointed by the board, but without the constraints imposed on the government in appointing other board members.The Conversation

Andrew Linden, Sessional Lecturer, PhD (Management) Candidate, School of Management, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media watchdog’s finding on Sunrise’s Indigenous adoption segment is justified


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Protestors rally outside Channel 7 studios in Sydney following the controversial segment on Aboriginal adoption.
AAP/Crowdspark

Alana Schetzer, University of Melbourne

In March this year, Sunrise aired a panel discussion about the removal of Indigenous children from dangerous or abusive family situations.

It wrongly claimed that Indigenous children could not be fostered by non-Indigenous families and one panellist, commentator Prue MacSween, suggested that the Stolen Generation might need to be repeated in order to save children from physical and sexual abuse.

The reaction was swift and fierce: the segment was condemned as racist and insensitive, with many questioning why the panel featured no experts or Indigenous people. There were protests at the show’s Sydney studio, and multiple complaints were made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

This week, ACMA announced that the Channel Seven breakfast show did indeed breach the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice in airing false claims that Indigenous children could not be placed with white families.

It was also found that the segment provoked “serious contempt on the basis of race in breach of the Code as it contained strong negative generalisations about Indigenous people as a group”.




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Seven has defended their actions, labelling the ACMA’s decision as “censorship” and “a direct assault on the workings of an independent media”. They are also considering seeking a judicial review of the decision.

However, it is not correct to assess ACMA’s decision, nor its role, as censorship. Rather, the ACMA monitors and enforces basic journalistic principles governing ethics and responsibility.

The decision is more symbolic than material – Channel Seven will not be forced to pull the segment from online; indeed, it is widely available. ACMA also has no power to order any compensation to be paid to a wronged party or fine the broadcaster; nor can it force Channel Seven to apologise or correct its error.

This dispute is but one of many examples that raises questions over the power of the media and what happens when media make a mistake, deliberately bend the truth or publish information that may cause harm to people, especially from marginalised groups.

In his research on the media portrayal of Indigenous people and issues, and the difference between sensitivity versus censorship, Michael Meadowsargues the media are resistant to admitting there is a problem with racist or insensitive coverage. He writes:

Aboriginal Australians have had to be content with a portrayal which is mostly stereotypical, sensational, emotional or exotic, with an ignorance of the historical and political context in which these images are situated.

While “censorship” is a label that is often used by the media in response to criticism, actual censorship in Australia by government or media watchdogs is thankfully rare to nonexistent. Other issue such as defamation law are greater sources of censorship.

In a 2018 report released by Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide organisation that advocates for a free press, Australia ranked 19th out of 180 countries on press freedom. This was a fall from ninth in 2017 due to of media restrictions on reporting on asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention centres, not the role of ACMA. In fact, ACMA and the Australian Press Council were not even mentioned.

Australian journalists are expected, although not obliged, to abide by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics. This states that journalists should “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts” and to “do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors”.

ACMA’s finding on the Sunrise segment that featured sweeping claims such as “children left in Indigenous families would be abused and neglected”, is simply holding those responsible to the minimum standards expected, not just within the industry, but from the public, too.

In the era of “fake news”, it is not surprising that the public’s trust in journalists is low; a 2018 surveyfound only 20% of Australians deemed newspaper journalists as being “very” honest and ethical, with television reporters fairing even worse, at 17%.




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The ACMA was created in 2005 following the public outcry over the infamous “cash for comment” scandals in 1999 and 2004. At the time, the then-Australian Broadcasting Authority was criticised for being “too soft” and ineffective in response, the ABA was abolished and replaced by the ACMA.

It’s incorrect to label the ACMA’s role as playing “censor” when they do no such thing. In fact, there is criticism that ACMA, like its predecessor, is a “toothless tiger” that lacks any power to actually hold the media to account.

No media can operate without a basic framework that places public interest, a commitment to accuracy and responsibility to the public.

In a statement released on September 4, ACMA chairwoman Nerida O’Loughlin highlighted this important distinction:

Broadcasters can, of course, discuss matters of public interest, including extremely sensitive topics such as child abuse in Indigenous communities. However, such matters should be discussed with care, with editorial framing to ensure compliance with the Code.

With “clickbait” and inflammatory opinion increasingly finding a home in the media, it’s more important than ever that the media respect and abide by their responsibilities to fairness and the truth. And when they cannot or do not do this, regulatory bodies such as the ACMA are essential.The Conversation

Alana Schetzer, Sessional Tutor and Journalist, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can Australian streaming survive a fresh onslaught from overseas?



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shutterstock.

Marc C-Scott, Victoria University

Australia’s already punch-drunk streaming sector is set for even more upheaval, as CBS will launch its streaming service in Australia as early as October.

Disney is also set to launch its streaming service in 2019. Based on recent history, Australia will likely be first up when it goes global.

The question is whether Australian streamers can compete locally with the global mammoths. Doing so might require coordination the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

This will impact not just what media Australians have access to, but more than 31,000 people employed by Australian media.




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We have already seen huge upheavals in Australian streaming.

Stan is the last remaining Australian streaming service from 2015, when I wrote about the official launch of Netflix in Australia. At that time there were two Australian-based subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) services, Presto and Stan.

Presto, a joint venture between Seven and Foxtel, was shut down in early 2017.

Foxtel then launched FoxtelNow in June 2017. It is already set for an overhaul later this year, to include 4K streaming, along with sports and entertainment streaming packages.

Aussie streaming services, more than just subscription

In addition to Stan, there are also transactional video-on-demand (TVoD) services in Australia, although these are discussed far less. A TVoD service is based upon a single payment being made to view singular content for a limited time, e.g. you have streaming access to the latest release for 48 hours.

One such Australian service is Quickflix, which launched in 2014. It went into receivership in 2016, before being saved and later relaunched.

Quickflix is still a streaming company, but retains the older disc mail-out service. This mail-out service could help Quickflix survive against global streaming services.

With the closure of video stores and retail stores removing discs from their shelves, a mail-out service still has value for Australians with poor internet speed and access.

The other Australian TVoD service is OzFlix, which some Australians may not be aware of.

Its differentiation is plans to source “Every Aussie Movie. Ever.”. A big task, but its specific niche may help it survive the onslaught of global media streaming services, while also giving local content a dedicated home.

Global media giants set their sights on Australia

Australia has been the first country that many media companies expand to when moving outside their own region. Netflix and YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) are two examples.

More recently we have seen Amazon Prime Video launch in late 2016, although it is yet to have a major uptake locally.

The arrival of CBS All Access will impact Stan particularly. Stan features a number of CBS programs, so future programming will need to be from other distributors or through greater investment in original content.

Disney is also set to acquire 21st Century Fox. This will expand its catalogue on the new streaming service beyond its already huge catalogue. The Marvel movies look set to remain on current services, for now.

Australians and streaming…. what next?

A recent Roy Morgan report found over 9.8 million Australians had access to Netflix, with Stan at over 2 million. While Stan is clearly behind, it has had a 39.2% increase in the last 12 months.

YouTube premium has over 1 million subscribers, FetchTV 710,000 and Amazon Prime Video last at 273,000 (an 87% increase year on year).

The arrival of CBS All Access and Disney will make an already crowded market only more so. But is more choice a good thing?

A 2014 Nielsen report showed the average channels receivable by US households grew from 129 in 2008 to 189 in 2013. But the average channels tuned in remained at 17.

On top of larger content libraries, the global players also have deeper pockets. Disney looks set to spend US$100 million on a new Star Wars series for its streaming service. Netflix will spend more than US$8 billion on content in 2018 alone, and Amazon last year spent US$4 billion on content.




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Australian services will need to have a point of difference. Quickflix and OzFlix have their points of difference, but what about a larger service like Stan?

Stan can’t compete with the global companies on quantity of content, so it must, like others, have a point of difference.

Stan could become a premium platform for content of which some is broadcast on Nine later. That would be a similar approach to when Australian FTA broadcasters would buy US content months after it was broadcast in the US – to save on costs.

For an Australian service to compete, a better solution would be a combined approach, an all-Australian streaming service that combines the strengths and finances of the Australian media industry.

The Freeview app is an example of how Australian television has tried to work collaboratively but failed. The users can view all the catch-up content from Australian broadcasters, but to view it they are taken from the app to the specific broadcasters’ own catch-up apps.

This requires six apps in total to be installed to view all catch-up content.

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The Conversation

But is the Australian media industry willing to come together to fight against global streaming media companies, or will they continue to battle each other? Failure here could result in a further decline in Australian media.

Marc C-Scott, Lecturer in Screen Media, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Starter’s gun goes off on new phase of media concentration as Nine-Fairfax lead the way


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

The Nine-Fairfax Media deal, billed as the biggest shakeup in the Australian media landscape for decades, was widely anticipated once the Turnbull government repealed the main anti-concentration laws in 2017. It may well result in the loss of a highly respected independent quality media voice. It has certainly fired the starting gun on a new phase of media concentration.

It’s the latest and arguably the most dramatic episode in the media concentration saga in Australia. This is already among the most concentrated media markets in the world, behind countries like China and Egypt. These developments signal that media diversity policies need a major overhaul to take account of the impact of the media-tech platform giants on traditional news media businesses.




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In many ways this by now widely telegraphed process of media convergence has been the strategy of two of Australia’s largest legacy media companies to survive a bit longer against the onslaught of the Silicon Valley FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) behemoths. If approved it will create Australia’s largest media company – and presumably the loudest private media voice with the most political clout in the country.

Former prime minister Paul Keating notes that this could have been predicted from the first implementation of cross-media rules back in the late 1980s. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield says he’s “ownership agnostic” – if we can just park the fact that it was the government’s horse-trading efforts directed towards crossbench senators that led to precisely this outcome. And the Coalition and its supporters would welcome regulatory approval of the deal by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Many believe that subsuming Fairfax Media will assist in muzzling the edgier, more critical journalism in the group’s mastheads and generally advance an editorial position that is favourable to the government. After all, former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello chairs the Nine board. In the lead-up to a federal election in 2019, the timing could not be better for the conservatives.




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Clock’s ticking for local news

The deal, if it goes forward, has also fired the starting gun on a process of further dismantling media in the bush. As print media audiences are reaching their expiry dates, we can expect to see the loss of important local newspapers such as the Newcastle Herald and the Launceston Examiner.

Newspapers like these play a key civic journalism role in those communities. They have, for example, pressured governments to set up royal commissions such as the inquiry into institutional responses to sexual abuse.

So local, regional and suburban journalism will be among the losers in this convergence of media platforms. Even major metro titles like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are under a cloud as Fairfax’s more profitable digital media assets, such as the Domain real estate site and streaming service Stan, have become the focus of the business.

While some sector-specific ownership and control rules remain in place, these are limited in number and scope. They apply only to legacy media of commercial television, commercial radio and associated (print) newspapers. The rules would not affect the combined reach of Nine News and Fairfax’s well-recognised online news brand.




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Who’s left to defend diversity?

So will the ACCC’s inquiry come up with any public interest regulatory antidotes? Its digital platforms inquiry does extend to investigating certain aspects of pluralism or media diversity. This was one of several outcomes of the legislative and policy changes of 2017, which included the repeal of cross-media ownership laws.

However, such a decision by the ACCC would be surprising. That’s because effective media pluralism policy that is capable of addressing these kind of integrated cross-platform deals requires bipartisan support at the highest political levels. That’s not something that tends to happen much in Australian media policy.

Yet the ACCC review and the possibility of regulatory intervention using competition law is the only alternative policy lever available to regulate the adverse consequences of cross-media concentration.

The ACCC inquiry is focusing mainly on market power in relation to advertising on digital platforms. But it is also examining the role of search engines, aggregators and social media platforms and their implications for the production, delivery and consumption of sustainable quality news online.

An issues paper noted that the inquiry would consider “the impact of algorithmic selection on the plurality of news and journalistic content presented to Australian consumers”. Recommendations about the implications of automated news delivery will be critical.

But this new baked-in logic of an automated public sphere is very different to the voice concentration that has arisen out of the calculated deregulation of cross-media laws. As US legal scholar Frank Pasquale argues:

New methods of monitoring and regulation should be as technologically sophisticated and comprehensive as the automated public sphere they target.

Although it is still early days, the regulator is unlikely to stand in the way of media businesses whose rhetoric is all about “scale” and “survival”. In other words, media voice concentration is recast as a second-order issue compared to the survival of these traditional Australian media corporations.

The ConversationPerhaps that survival duration should be measured in election cycles? Even better, why not look at laws and policies to ensure that the instruments of media policymaking maintain media ownership, pluralism and diversity objectives?

Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.