ABC loses its way — solution: boutique broadcasting

The ABC has clearly lost its way. This is an increasing failure to complement commercial media with programs they cannot or will not provide.

There is also a widespread perception that the corporation is in constant breach of its charter, with certain notorious fiefdoms operating under not so much lackadaisical editorial standards, but rather, the absence of any.

This is especially so when  those fiefdoms engage in a favourite sport, destroying the reputation of some selected target. For this they have a penchant for conservative, white, heterosexual males such as Cardinal Pell and former Attorney-General Porter.

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The role of  the High Court in the appeal by the Cardinal was to determine whether the requirement of proof had been so radically changed that sex-abuse complaints were now to be proved merely on accusation. Under this proposed standard, the only question was whether the court believed the alleged victim. The High Court took the only course open to a responsible judiciary. They reaffirmed, with a rare unanimity, two fundamental principles: the presumption of innocence and the requirement that a crime be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

But in a last-ditch and grossly impertinent attempt to pressure the highest judges in the land into denying Pell justice, the ABC scandalously rearranged its schedule to get in ahead of the High Court ruling to present as new, two old and unsuccessful complainants against Cardinal Pell, who had served 13 months of a six-year sentence wrongly imposed.

Notwithstanding the Pell case, the ABC has continued in its apparent determination to wreck more lives. In its calculated defamation of Christian Porter, so serious it would shred his reputation, the normal editorial requirements of objective journalism were just not observed.

In any respectable newspaper or broadcaster, the editor would rigorously cross-examine the journalist to ensure that seriously damaging material submitted could be demonstrated to be true through admissible evidence, a task made easier for the ABC with its team of in-house lawyers. A newspaper editor who did not do this would not last long. This is done not just as a protection against legal action, but also as a matter of high ethical responsibility and decency.

So why did the editor not do what is standard ethical practice, something I particularly recall from my Press Council years? This is to give the person whose reputation is about to be shredded an opportunity to comment or to defend himself before publication. Despite the fact that Porter was sufficiently identified, he was not contacted.

The ABC has since admitted they could not prove their seriously damaging story even according to the lower civil standard, the balance of probabilities.

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Note however that this standard is subject to the ‘Briginshaw’ principle ― the more serious the allegation, the more satisfied one must be of its proof. Incidentally, we can expect to see that principle rigorously applied in the defamation case brought by national hero, Ben Roberts-Smith VC.

The Rule of Law Institute’s Chris Merritt points to the existence of information confirmed by the trial judge which could throw some light on whether the ABC was actuated by malice. As he says, this strengthens the case for a parliamentary inquiry into the ABC.

In the tradition of public broadcasting, the ABC’s standards should be at least as high as those of the best newspapers. They are clearly not. The ABC is especially fortunate neither Cardinal Pell nor the Prime Minister in relation to the latest attack are likely to sue and that Porter settled.

Let us not hear the usual excuse from the Board, including the Managing Director and Chairman, that they do not actually run the ABC and are powerless. Parliament has declared their duty is ‘to ensure that the gathering and presentation… of news and information’ is ‘accurate and impartial’. This must be ‘according to the recognised standards of objective journalism’: section 8 (1), Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act, 1983.

They have clearly failed the test of following those recognised standards.   

Just to make it clear, the Minister should exercise his power under that same section to furnish the Board with a statement as to the standards of accuracy, impartiality and objective journalism which the government expects. He should add the  warning that any failure to maintain those standards would result in the immediate removal of at least the non-executive directors and appropriate action against the Chairman and Managing Director.

In addition, the government should consider a solution to this different from privatisation which would not provide what the ABC should be providing. This is what commercial broadcasting does not or cannot do. The solution would be to move the ABC from monolithic politicised broadcasting to being an allocator of quality boutique broadcasting.

This would bring to Australia what is not now available or available in very limited amounts on free-to-air radio and television. Examples include motor car reviews, sports and levels of sports not presently seen, art, opera and dance, film, book and theatrical reviews, religious programs, farming, local news (especially in the country) and drama; but not, for example, talkback and cooking which are already more than adequately provided commercially.

Under this model the ABC would increasingly manage the channels and publicly allocate, on merit, both access for specified times with funding to different broadcasters, both cooperative not-for-profit and small business enterprise entrepreneurs. Advertising would be allowed but only between programs or well-spaced intervals.

Australians would then be getting those quality programs just not available now on free-to-air media.

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Professor David Flint AM is an emeritus professor of law and was chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Press Council, president of the National Federation of the English Speaking Union, Associate Commissioner with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and convenor of the Committee of Australian Law Deans. He has been National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy since the 1999 referendum campaign. He has authored books on topics such as the media, international economic law and on the Constitution. At Barcelona in 1991 he received a World Jurist Association award as World Outstanding Legal Scholar. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1995. His Good Sauce show,Take Back Your Country, discusses the problems and solutions to the decay of federalism and democracy.

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