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…”




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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.

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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.




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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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Solving deep problems with corporate governance requires more than rearranging deck chairs


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.

Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence



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Author Tom Keneally, actress Magda Szubanski and journalist Kerry O’Brien are among the ABC’s high-profile supporters.
AAP/Jeremy Ng

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.

In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.

So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.

Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.

It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.




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


Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.

In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.

In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.

A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.

Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.

This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.

Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.

It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.

It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.

The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.

A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.

The key passages stated that:

  • the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members

  • full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor

  • the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.

The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.




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The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.

Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.

Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.

But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.

Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.

It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.

It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.

The ConversationIf editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.

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

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

ABC chairman Milne attacks ‘self-serving’ commercial critics


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

ABC chairman Justin Milne has gone on the offensive against the organisation’s critics, linking the public broadcaster to preserving the nation’s identity and strongly warning against the push to clip its digital wings.

Putting the present battle over the broadcaster in an historical context, Milne said in a Wednesday speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia that “Australia has reached another decision point in respect of public broadcasting, just like those of the past.

“The first was whether to establish an ABC, then whether to equip it to deliver a news service independent of the commercial media barons, then once again whether to invest in a public television service.

“And now, as we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.”

Milne – who was appointed chair by Malcolm Turnbull – said that “in a world of global platforms and content, it has never been more important for Australia to retain its identity.

“And in a world of contested views and facts, it has never been more important to provide an independent and trusted voice, to promote informed democratic debate, and to drive public accountability through investments in investigative journalism.”

With reviews into the ABC underway on its competitive neutrality and efficiency, Milne said that, echoing the past, some rivals have suggested the ABC be banned from providing digital services and restricted to linear radio and television.

“Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist. Linear broadcast audiences are in steady decline because Australians, just like people everywhere else on the planet, value the convenience of consuming their favourite content whenever, wherever and however they like.”

The competitive neutrality review, which was set up as part of a deal with Pauline Hanson, is looking at the ABC’s role in the modern media environment. An efficiency review of the public broadcasters, including SBS, was announced in May, when the budget froze the ABC’s funding until 2022, for a saving of $83.7 million.

Milne said complaints about the ABC’s coverage were taken seriously, because mistakes were made. But the biggest question facing the ABC was not whether a journalist made a mistake or even a question of bias – because some 80% of Australians thought it was not biased. The bigger question was: “How can Australia have a public broadcasting system that is fit for purpose, as efficient as possible, and just as valuable to our children as it has been to us?”

He derided the case put by commercial interests and some partisans who said public money should not be used for a media service that duplicated commercial ones. This argument was “simplistic, facile and entirely self-serving,” he said.

A key challenge facing Australians was how to maintain diversity of voice in a media landscape that was rapidly consolidating, Milne said.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – the FAANGs – had fundamentally transformed the media landscape around the world.

“Facebook and Google alone capture two-thirds of the digital ad market in Australia. Amazon has become a trillion-dollar company. And Netflix’s annual spend on content is now three times that of all Australia’s commercial, public and pay television businesses combined.

“By contrast, audiences and revenues for incumbent commercial media organisations are tumbling, and ownership is consolidating, especially Down Under.

“Our three pay television operators have become one, owned by the Australian arm of News Corporation in New York. Channel Ten is now in US hands too. And since 2003, the number of owners of Australian newspapers has halved.

“In television and radio, some 70 per cent of the market is now owned by just four organisations. And in print, 90 per cent is owned by three organisations. These figures will worsen if speculation is correct and Fairfax merges with another incumbent, or regional television businesses merge with their capital-city partners.”

Milne said federal governments had dealt with the onslaught of the FAANGs by enabling further consolidation in Australian media, diluting ownership restrictions and boosting commercial incumbents with licence-fee cuts.

“Whatever your view on the business or political logic of this, the effect has been to hand control over many Australian media voices to businesses in the US – while substantially diluting the diversity of voices that remain.

“Those who would cripple or even abolish the ABC would clearly exacerbate that consolidation, leading to further homogeneity of voices.

The Conversation“That may mean that pretty soon our kids only see American stories and perspectives to mould their morals, culture and behaviour as adults. And
those same kids would need to give up any aspiration to work in a healthy domestic production sector,” Milne said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

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



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ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has launched a strong defence of the public broadcaster.
AAP/Julian Smith

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In January 1931, as the newly elected United Australia Party government of Joseph Lyons was contemplating the establishment of a national broadcasting service, the prime minister received a deputation of prominent Melburnians, including a barrister and member of the Victorian parliament, Robert Gordon Menzies.

They urged that the new broadcasting service “be organised on an independent basis and that cultural potentialities of the Broadcast Service be considered a matter of primary importance”. The broadcast service came to be named the Australian Broadcasting Commission and went to air for the first time on July 1 1932.

It is a measure of how far today’s Liberal Party has drifted away from the values and ideals of its founder, Menzies, that last Saturday its federal council should have resoundingly adopted a motion that the ABC should be privatised.

One of the proponents of the motion was Mitchell Collier, the federal vice-president of the Young Liberals. He said there was no economic case to keep the broadcaster in public hands.




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No economic case. Where the ABC is concerned, that is a false premise on which to proceed. The ABC was explicitly not established for economic purposes or in pursuit of an economic ideology. It was established for social, educational and cultural purposes.

It was also established on an explicitly non-commercial basis: it takes no advertising. Why? Because it was believed advertising would weaken its independence. The policymakers of the 1930s had seen only too clearly how beholden the newspaper proprietors of the day had become to commercial imperatives: the demands of advertisers and the pressure to increase circulation, even at the cost of editorial quality and integrity.

The newspapers of the day had also become mouthpieces for sectional interests. In Melbourne, The Argus stood for the interests of the mercantile classes and conservative political causes; The Age for a kind of Protestant liberalism and social justice. It supported the miners at Eureka.

The bipartisan political vision for the ABC was that it should not be vulnerable to sectional interests or commercial pressures, but should exist to serve the public interest in the widest sense.

The first paragraph of its charter captures the essence of these expectations:

The functions of the Corporation are to provide … innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard … and … to provide broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and broadcasting programs of an educational nature.

No mention there of economic criteria.

Nonetheless, in a political age dominated by the narrow perspectives of neoclassical economics, it is self-evidently no longer enough to rely on ideals of the kind promoted by Menzies and reflected in the charter.

In her reply to the privatisation motion, the ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, told the Melbourne Press Club the ABC contributed more than $1 billion last financial year to the Australian economy, on a par with the public investment in the organisation.

She also advanced an efficiency argument, saying the ABC’s per capita funding had halved in real terms over the past 30 years, and warned that the latest cuts in funding – $83.7 million in a so-called efficiency dividend – would serve only to punish audiences.

Herein lies the political sting for the government, and especially for the National Party.

A motion to privatise the ABC, no matter how vigorously repudiated by the government, is political poison, especially in regional, rural and remote Australia.

These voters have watched as the Abbott-Turnbull administrations have cut the ABC’s funding by $338 million since 2014. They have watched as the ABC has been used – in Guthrie’s words yesterday – as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests.




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


Guthrie was too diplomatic to nail the government or the Murdoch press. But the overt hostility to the ABC shown by the government over the past four years may now reap a political harvest.

That hostility has been demonstrated not only by the funding cuts but by sustained carping criticisms, vexatious complaints and political stunts exemplified by the current competitive neutrality inquiry.

It would be more accurately called the editorial neutering inquiry. Its focus is clearly on the ABC news service, as its own issues paper makes clear. That is the part of the ABC most detested by the government and the politician for whom the government is a cat’s paw in this, Pauline Hanson.

Each Tuesday, I engage in a pro-bono 25-minute segment on media issues with the presenter of ABC Radio Statewide Drive, Nicole Chvastek. The program is broadcast across regional Victoria and southern New South Wales, covering the National seats of Riverina, Mallee, Murray and Gippsland, and the Liberal seats of Farrer, Wannon, McMillan, Corangamite and McEwen.

Yesterday the talkback calls ran hot on this one issue: privatisation of the ABC. Yes, the ABC needed scrutiny; yes, the ABC was a bunch of lefties. But: where would we be without it?

The ConversationJust after 5pm, the Nationals served up their deputy leader, the Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, to answer talkback calls on this issue. It was like something from the Colosseum.

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

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

ABC contributes as much to the economy as it costs the taxpayer: Michelle Guthrie


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has hit back against critics with a Deloitte Access Economics assessment that the public broadcaster contributed more than A$1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year.

This was on a par with the public funding of the organisation, she told the Melbourne Press Club, in an address coming days after the Liberal Federal Council urged the ABC be privatised – a call rejected by the government.

Far from being a drain on the public purse, the audience, community and economic value stemming from ABC activity is a real and tangible benefit,“ she said. The Deloitte study was commissioned by the ABC; Guthrie said its report was still being compiled and would be released next month.

Of the $1 billion, “more than a third is economic support for the broader media ecosystem. Far from being Ultimo-centric, the ABC is boosting activity across the country,” she said, giving as examples the filming of Mystery Road in the Kimberley and the production of Rosehaven outside Hobart.

Deloitte calculated the ABC was helping sustain more than 6000 full-time equivalent jobs across the economy. “It means that for every three full-time equivalent jobs created by the ABC, there are another two supported in our supply chain – local artists, writers, technicians, transport workers and many more.

“In hard figures, the research shows that the ABC helps to sustain 2500 full-time equivalent jobs in addition to the 4000 women and men who are directly employed by the public broadcaster.

“When broken down this equates to more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, over 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector, and close to 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the professional services.

“Amidst the debate over the ABC’s purpose and its funding we should all remember that there are 2500 jobs outside public broadcasting at risk in any move to curtail our remit and activities”.




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Addressing the critics’ argument that the ABC’s about $1 billion funding wasn’t well spent, Guthrie pointed out that the broadcaster’s per capita funding had halved in real terms in three decades while the demands on it had increased, and that this financial year 92% of its budget would be spent on making content, supporting content makers and distribution.

“Thirty years ago, the ABC had five platforms and 6000 people working around the country. Today, Your ABC has two-thirds the number of people operating six times the number of platforms and services with half the real per capita funding”.

Guthrie argued that the claim that the latest 1% efficiency dividend could easily be accommodated ignored the accumulation of efficiency takes over the past four years, and the fact these efficiencies robbed the organisation of its ability to finance new content and innovation.

She rejected what she described as two other “fallacies” – that the ABC should be stripped back to servicing gaps in the market, becoming a “media failure operator”, and that the ABC served only sectional interests.

Referring to the ABC charter, she said that “as the independent national public broadcaster, our purpose is to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal as well as specialised interest”.

Public broadcasting was “about providing the distinctive programs that Australians young and old, left and right, rich and poor, in Bourke and in Brisbane, both want and need”.




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She attacked those commentators and politicians who liked “to pigeonhole our audience as being of a particular political bent or social strata.

“In the two years since I’ve been in this role, I have been constantly reminded how wrong that is”, she said, citing the 12 million Australians who would watch ABC TV this week, the nearly five million who’d listen to ABC radio, and the 13 million ABC podcast downloads that occurred every month.

“If all those listeners and viewers were on the one side of politics, there wouldn’t be much politicking left to do.

“I note also the findings of the recent Reuters Digital News Report. Australia may have an increasingly polarised media sector, but ABC television attracts viewers from across the political spectrum for its news coverage”.

The ConversationGuthrie said that Australians regarded the ABC “as one of the great national institutions” and “deeply resent it being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

View from The Hill: Threat to the ABC is not sale but more bullying


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A re-elected Turnbull government wouldn’t sell the ABC, whatever scare Bill Shorten might be raising. But you’d have to be an optimist to think that if it wins, it won’t intensify its bullying and denigration of the public broadcaster.

There is more than a little irony in the Liberal federal council on Saturday delivering Labor a campaign issue around the ABC before the Super Saturday byelections.

Just a while ago, the government was surfing on the skirmishing on refugee policy ahead of the ALP national conference, only to see that dispute put on the backburner when Labor delayed the conference because the byelections were set for the same date.

The council motion came from the Young Liberals – who over the years are variously on the left or the right of the party – and called for “the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”

Unlike Labor, where conference policies formally carry heft with the MPs, Liberal council motions are non-binding.

This one has been described as “virtue-signalling” to the base. I think it is rather more serious than that. It will reinforce the anti-ABC sentiment of some in government ranks – which has reached, frankly, absurd levels.

The fact that Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues did not, would not, could not prevent its passage says a lot, especially about the Prime Minister.

When he was clawing his way towards the leadership, Turnbull was the conspicuous friend of the ABC. Now he’s critic-in-chief, as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the Prime Minister’s Office fire off complaints about errors and interpretations.

No one should object when the prime minister or ministers call out journalists’ factual mistakes (though they make quite a few of their own). And it is absolutely their right to argue the toss on commentary.

But we know there’s a lot more to this than robust criticism. Much of it is an attempt – that to a degree has been successful – at intimidation.

This isn’t the first government to engage in ABC bashing. On the other side of politics the Hawke government at one stage had (to borrow a Turnbullism) a red hot go. But I don’t remember any government sustaining the onslaught so strongly for so long.

What makes the assault even more concerning is that it’s part of the culture wars now engulfing multiple fronts of public debate. The media provide battlegrounds and targets in these wars.

News Corp, fuelled by financial imperatives as well as ideology, relentlessly stalks the ABC. News Corp is squeezed between the strains on the commercial media’s business model and the successful expansion, especially online, of the ABC.

The ABC is cast not simply as another competitor, but one that must be discredited in terms of both professionalism and legitimacy, by portraying it as out of touch with the “mainstream” and robbing the commercial media of what’s rightfully theirs.

As parts of News Corp have increasingly become bold, self-declared standard-bearers for the right, they are ever drawn to the ABC as a useful punching bag.

One can see what’s in this for the ABC’s commercial competitors, and indeed for a right wing think tank such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which urges that the ABC be privatised.

It’s more difficult to discern what the government gets out of its obsession with attacking the ABC to a degree disproportionate to the alleged sins of individual journalists or the organisation as a whole.

Perhaps it’s a gesture of frustration – kicking the car tyres when you find you have a puncture. Or the feeling that if you can just cow the buggers, they mightn’t be so “biased” – ignoring that the perception of “bias” mostly varies according to where you’re coming from, and in journalism the notion of giving diverse viewpoints a fair go can be a more manageable one.

It’s noteworthy that for all their carrying on, ministers still seem anxious to appear on the ABC. If it were so bad, so unresponsive to the “mainstream”, you’d think some might be calling for a boycott now and then.

One reason why they line up is they actually know the public regards it as a trusted and credible media outlet.

The Australia Institute at the weekend released an ABC question taken from its earlier ReachTEL poll in Mayo that showed crossbencher Rebecca Sharkie leading Liberal Georgina Downer 58-42% in two-party terms. The June 5 poll asked: “In the budget the government cut the ABC’s funding by A$83.7 million. Do you think funding for the ABC should be reduced, increased, or stay the same?” Nearly three quarters said funding should be increased (40.5%) or stay the same (33.5%), with only 23% saying it should be decreased.

Last week Shorten promised a Labor government would restore that funding. The Liberal council motion has played into his hands.

In Mayo, the council motion has handed Sharkie a small gift. There will be interest in what Downer, who comes from the IPA, has to say about how she would like to see the future of the ABC.

The ConversationNot quite as interesting, however, as hearing members of the Turnbull team protest they really are committed to the ABC, however badly they behave towards it. That they have to do so is a sort of perverse justice – the price of overreach.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Shorten promises to reverse budget cut to the ABC


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Bill Shorten has moved to make the ABC an election issue, promising to reverse the Turnbull government’s $83.7 million budget cut and to guarantee funding certainty over the broadcaster’s next budget cycle.

Ahead of appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program, Shorten and frontbench colleagues declared the Coalition had “launched the biggest attack on the ABC in a generation”.

In recent months Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has sent a stream of complaints to the ABC about stories, both online and on air, contesting facts and interpretations. The Prime Minister’s Office has also complained. Government frontbenchers and backbenchers frequently make cracks at or about the ABC, echoing a theme of many conservative commentators.

The ABC is also under constant attack from News Corp, driven by both ideology and commercial interests. The government has an inquiry underway into the ABC’s competitive neutrality, which was part of a deal with Pauline Hanson but also important in the context of News Corp’s argument about the government-funded ABC encroaching on financially strapped commercial media.

When the government made the $84 million budget cut – which took the form of a freeze to indexation – Treasurer Scott Morrison said “everyone has to live within their means”. Managing director Michelle Guthrie said that “the decision will make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and audience expectations.”

In a statement Shorten, communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland and regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones said Labor’s commitment would ensure the ABC could meet its charter requirements, safeguard jobs, adapt to the digital environment “and maintain content and services that Australians trust and rely on”.

They said the Coalition since 2014 had “overseen $282 million in cuts to the ABC that has seen 800 jobs lost and a drop in Australian content and services”.

“Labor will stand up for the ABC and fight against the conservatives’ ideological war against our public broadcaster,” the statement said.

The promised investment “demonstrates Labor’s commitment to the ABC’s independence and to maintain the ABC as our comprehensive national broadcaster.

“Now, more than ever, Australians need the ABC – our strong, trusted and independent public broadcaster.

The Conversation“At a time when too many Australians feel disengaged from their democracy and distrustful of their representatives, Labor wants to restore trust and faith in our institutions. Part of restoring trust is is supporting a healthy public interest media sector, and protecting that trusted institution – the ABC”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

ABC Four Corners: five articles to get you informed on sugar and Big Sugar’s role in food policy


File 20180430 135848 1ircyer.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The sugar industry has employed various tactics to influence health policy in its favour.
from shutterstock.com

Sasha Petrova, The Conversation

Tonight’s ABC Four Corners program investigates the influence of the sugar industry on global policy efforts to curtail the rise of obesity. This includes the industry’s involvement in thwarting implementation of a sugar tax, and in watering down Australia’s now largely ineffective health star rating system.

Called Tipping the Scales, the program will highlight some of the tactics the industry employs. The ABC reports companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever, Nestle and Kelloggs “have a seat at the table setting the policies that shape consumption of their own sugar-laced products”.

A public health advocate is quoted as saying:

The reality is that industry is, by and large, making most of the policy. Public health is brought in so that we can have the least worse solution.

The Conversation’s experts in health policy and economics have weighed into this debate over the years. Here’s our pick of five analysis pieces that will get you informed before tonight’s program.

1. How industry influences research

The sugar industry hasn’t only had its finger in the policy pie, it has also pulled some strings behind the scenes of scientific research into sugar’s health effects.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2016 revealed that, in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard University to minimise the link between sugar and heart disease. The paper’s authors suggested the sugar industry may largely have shaped many of today’s dietary recommendations. And some experts have since questioned whether such misinformation may have led to today’s obesity crisis.

The sugar industry has influenced research in the past.
from shutterstock.com

In an essay on health, the University of Sydney’s Professor Lisa Bero – an internationally renowned expert in the integrity of scientific research and its use in policy-making – has outlined how food companies can sneak bias into scientific research:

She writes:

Pharmaceutical, tobacco or chemical industry funding of research biases human studies towards outcomes favourable to the sponsor…

A 2007 paper that compared over 500 studies found those funded by pharmaceutical companies were half as likely to report negative effects of corticosteroid drugs (used to treat allergies and asthma) as those not funded by pharmaceutical companies.




Read more:
Essays on health: how food companies can sneak bias into scientific research


2. Sugar’s role in health star ratings

The ABC’s Four Corners team interviews the Obesity Policy Coalition’s executive manager, Jane Martin, who is frustrated that industry lobbying has scuttled efforts to make the health star system mandatory.

The health star rating system was introduced in June 2014. It’s a front-of-pack labelling system that rates the nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars. The more stars, the healthier the choice.

As Deakin University’s public health and nutrition professor, Mark Lawrence, and Curtin University’s public health research fellow, Christina Pollard, explained:

The system is supposed to help consumers discriminate between similar foods within the same food category that contain different amounts of undesirable ingredients. It should, for instance, help compare two loaves of bread in terms of their salt content …

Writing a year after the rating system’s implementation, the authors note the flaws in the policy. The main flaw is its voluntary nature, which can lead to manufacturers putting labels on only those foods that will get a high rating:

While manufacturers might be happy to display stars on foods that attract between two and five stars, they are less likely to put one or half a star on their products.




Read more:
A year on, Australia’s health star food-rating system is showing cracks


3. How a sugar tax would benefit health

Since Mexico introduced a sugar tax in 2014, nearly 30 countries have gone on to do the same. Last month the UK introduced a levy that manufacturers must pay for their high-sugar products.

More than 20 countries have taxed sugary drinks.
from shutterstock.com

Companies will have to pay 18 pence per litre on drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100g. Drinks with more than 8g per 100ml will face a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre.

But the ABC reports efforts to introduce such a policy in Australia have failed, due to the lobbying efforts of the Beverages Council.

The evidence for sugar’s negative effects on our health is well known. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE in April 2016 showed a tax on sugary drinks in Australia would prevent 4,000 heart attacks and 1,100 strokes.

The researchers examined the potential impact of a 20% rise in the prices of sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters on health, healthcare expenditure and revenue.

Writing for The Conversation, the study’s authors note:

As expected, the tax would result in people decreasing their consumption of sugary drinks. The influence of a price increase would be greatest on those who drink a lot of sugary drinks, so the greatest impact would be on younger age groups. This is an important result that is difficult to achieve through other obesity-prevention measures.




Read more:
Australian sugary drinks tax could prevent thousands of heart attacks and strokes and save 1,600 lives


4. How a sugar tax would save us money

The UK’s Treasury is estimating the sugar tax will raise £240 million per year. Modelling done in Australia by the Grattan Institute shows that a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar could raise about A$400-$500 million per year.

The Institute’s Stephen Duckett and Trent Wiltshire write that the sugar industry’s concerns over the tax are overblown. They say:

A sugar-sweetened beverages tax will reduce domestic demand for Australian sugar by around 50,000 tonnes, which is only about 1% of all the sugar produced in Australia. And, while there may be some transition costs, this sugar could instead be sold overseas (as 80% of Australia’s sugar production already is).




Read more:
A sugary drinks tax could recoup some of the costs of obesity while preventing it


5. How bad is sugar, really?

And finally, if you’re wondering how much sugar you can eat to stay healthy, here’s an article written by Flinders University nutrition lecturers Kacie Dickinson and Louise Matwiejczyk that explains exactly that.

In brief:

If you’re an average-sized adult eating and drinking enough to maintain a healthy body weight (roughly 8,700 kilojoules per day), 10% of your total energy intake from free sugar roughly translates to no more than 54 grams, or around 12 teaspoons, per day.

A 600ml bottle of Coke contains more than 14 teaspoons of sugar.


The Conversation


Read more:
Health Check: how much sugar is it OK to eat?


Sasha Petrova, Deputy Editor: Health + Medicine, The Conversation

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

How the government and One Nation may use media reforms to clip the ABC’s wings


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It would be easy to set up an inquiry into the ABC – with the findings already known.
Shutterstock

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Among the four concessions concerning the ABC that senator Pauline Hanson extracted from the federal government in exchange for her support of its recent media ownership law changes, one in particular has the potential to do real damage to the national broadcaster.

This is the promised inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality.

It has been on the agenda of News Corp for years to have the ABC’s wings clipped, for the obvious reason that it sees the ABC as a commercial rival. If News Corp had its way, the ABC’s big strategic move into digital broadcasting more than a decade ago would have been cut off at the pass.

So Hanson, whether she knew it or not, has played into the hands of New Corp on this, and given the government a political opportunity to do yet one more favour for Rupert Murdoch.

Since the government does not need a vote in parliament to set up an inquiry like this, it is easy to see how it might unfold.

An eminently well-qualified chairman could easily be found. To pick a name at random: Maurice Newman, former chairman of the stock exchange, former chairman of the ABC and now public ideologue opposed to public-sector broadcasting. He wrote a polemic in The Australian in April asserting that the ABC and SBS no longer served a public purpose.

The government could effortlessly craft terms of reference consistent with that axiom of politics – you never hold an inquiry without knowing the outcome.

A high-profile firm of economic consultants could be engaged to conduct an analysis of the impact of the ABC’s activities on private-sector media.

Using suitable assumptions, a selection of data and a fitting framework of economic theory, it might easily find that the ABC, despite manifold inefficiencies, was indeed using its public funding in an anti-competitive way to crowd out the private sector.

Recommendations would naturally ensue that the range of ABC activities had strayed well beyond the confines imagined by its founding fathers in the early 1930s. It would therefore follow that its funding should be cut in order to see it focus on outputs that no commercial broadcaster would touch with a barge pole.

Perfectly respectable.

Of the other three concessions to Hanson, the one likely to do the most mischief is the one requiring the ABC to publicly disclose the salaries and conditions of all staff whose packages amount to more than A$200,000 a year.

While in principle it seems reasonable that the salaries of people on the public payroll should be public, in fact the pay of individual public servants is generally a private matter.

This is the case not only because a person’s financial affairs are inherently private, but because it is a disincentive for good people to join the public sector if their private affairs are going to be trawled over in public for political purposes.

It has already happened with ABC salaries when they were inadvertently released under freedom-of-information laws a couple of years ago.

The combination of fame and their type of work magnifies the privacy issue for high-profile ABC journalists and presenters. No-one cares what some obscure under-secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs gets paid, but politicians like Hanson salivate over the pay of people like Leigh Sales and Barrie Cassidy.

The remaining two concessions are not likely to have much impact on the ABC.

The one that got all the attention at the start was the insertion of “fair” and “balanced” into the ABC’s charter.

This is a sideshow. The ABC’s charter is contained within section six of the ABC Act, so amending it will require a parliamentary vote. Senator Nick Xenophon has said his team will not support it, and since his team’s support is likely to be necessary, it looks like an empty gesture by the government.

In any case, the requirements for fairness and balance are already built into the ABC’s editorial policies, which are binding on ABC journalists, so the practical effect would be nonexistent.

However, a parliamentary debate on the ABC’s impartiality would keep this matter bubbling along in the public mind and furnish an opportunity for reactionary politicians to further ventilate their suspicions.

Finally, there was a concession concerning provision of broadcasting services to regional areas. The ABC has already announced a A$50 million package
to enhance regional services. And anyway, this is a level of operational detail that generally lies beyond the reach of politicians.

A bit of cosmetic arm-wrestling between Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the chair of the ABC, perhaps some pointed questions at Senate estimates, and a tweak of the ABC’s budget will probably satisfy this concession.

The ConversationTaken together, then, three of these concessions have considerable nuisance value. But the fourth contains the seeds of a serious challenge to the ABC’s future.

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

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