The dismissal of the CEO of the ABC raises issues of governance. Are the directors and journalists at the ABC subject to different obligations to those at Fairfax or News?
The ABC is funded by public money. So are News (Murdoch) and Fairfax. There are at least two differences. First, all citizens contribute in one way or another to the ABC and all have rights to get the services provided by the ABC for free. They do not have to acquire shares in News or Fairfax or pay for any of their products. Secondly, the functions of the ABC are set out in an act of parliament. Those of News and Fairfax are set out in the constituent documents of the relevant corporations and the history of the role of a free press in a democracy like ours.
When considering that role, two questions may arise. Are the journalists allowed to practise their profession independently? What professional standards must those journalists apply? The answers to those questions reflect the integrity of the corporation as a member of the press. If you look at the two differences between the ABC on one hand and News and Fairfax on the other hand, is there anything there that may dictate different answers to either of those two questions?
Some people refer to the charter of the ABC in its act (section 6). It contains motherhood statements, but three things can be said. First, the obligation to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity’ might make people other than me feel queasy. (Is that not the precise mission of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Pauline Hanson?) Secondly, the words ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ appear in the context of broadcasting programs that are specialised or of wide appeal. Thirdly, the obligation in broadcasting overseas to ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’ is one of straight propaganda.
Another provision (section 8) provides that the board must ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the ABC and ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation…of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.’
But the same obligations attach to the directors of News and Fairfax. In neither provision – section 6 or 8 – do I see any basis for saying that there is any difference between the ABC, News and Fairfax on their need to preserve editorial independence or their standards of journalism – that is, their integrity. If that is right, much of the commentary on the ABC is based on false premises.
The essential difference is that the ABC is susceptible to political interference in a way that News and Fairfax are not. As part of the free press, the ABC has to investigate and report on government. In other words, it has to do things the government will not like. You have only to look at the role of the press in investigating and reporting on our finance industry to see how fundamental this function of the press is to our democracy. But for the reporting by the ABC and Fairfax, the Royal Commission, which was opposed to the last by government and News, would never have taken place, and we would be far, far worse off. The press had to be good because government was so bad.
So, the ABC has to get stuck into government, and government must keep its hands off the ABC. There must, therefore, be conflict. In my view, the ABC generally handles that conflict much better than the government.
In The Australian, a News publication, Chris Kenny, a former Liberal Party staffer, said of the fracas about the ABC chairman:
And anyone with knowledge and experience of journalism, politics and public broadcasting should realise how unwise and improper it is to convey even the perception of political interference.
May I make two comments about The Australian? First, in my view, too many of its journalists accept instructions to attack the ABC. That conduct is unprofessional and it directly contradicts the need for editorial independence. Secondly, too many of those journalists are too close to people in government. The friendship between Messrs Abbott and Sheridan is just one example – and it shows, at both ends. Journalists generally might follow the example of judges and steer clear of politicians. A fortiori, they should not be pawns in political coups. People at News go out of their way to suggest that they do just that.
What is the upshot? Any suggestion that for either editorial independence or the standards of journalism or integrity generally the ABC is in some way inferior to, say, News, is at best just bloody laughable.
What’s your leadership style?
Collaborative, decisive, authentic and passionate. Leadership requires tremendous amounts of positive energy. Energy to inspire your people to be their best, to drive change in a rapidly evolving world, and to ensure we deliver superior outcomes.
Cindy Hook of Deloitte. Australian Financial Review 18 September, 2018