22 November 2014

It's TIME for the ABC to improve the integrity of its news and current affairs coverage

From The Australian editorial, November 21, 2014:
...On Wednesday, [Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull] delivered a stinging critique of the ABC ...

Previous pointed criticisms clearly fell on deaf ears. So it has come to this. The ABC must now demonstrate it can

  • focus on its charter, 
  • absorb modest budget cuts and 
  • improve the integrity of its news and current affairs coverage.

The primary function of the ABC is to be a market failure broadcaster — filling the gaps that commercial organisations don’t or can’t cover in news, sport and entertainment.

In recent decades, the ABC has strayed from its core mission. It has not used its generous taxpayer funding wisely.

It must speak for all Australians, especially outside the major cities, and reflect its unique characteristics. 

Instead, the ABC has opened a new frontier of mobile and digital services to compete with commercial providers, who themselves face new competition and have been forced to cut costs.

That is why Mr Turnbull’s intervention is welcome. 

He announced $307.7 million in cuts to the budget of the ABC and SBS over a five-year period. This represents a modest $254m, or 4.6 per cent, in savings at the ABC. Mr Turnbull challenged decisions by management, overseen by the board, to run a scare campaign claiming several programs were at risk. It is nonsense to suggest these savings place Lateline, state versions of 7.30 or even Peppa Pig at risk. This would be a lazy solution. Mr Turnbull is right to point out that savings can be absorbed by streamlining administrative back office functions and curbing excessive management salaries with no impact on programs. Mr Turnbull urged management to demonstrate its abilities and to innovate and drive productivity gains — just as commercial operators are doing.

Most importantly, the minister flagged his intention to write to the board under section 8 of its act advising it to remove Mr Scott as editor-in-chief. He rightly noted that coupling the roles of managing director with editor-in-chief is now unworkable. 

Mr Scott has demonstrated repeatedly that he has not adequately enforced proper standards and accountability in news and current affairs coverage. The board has been indifferent to the need to enforce objectivity, balance and fairness in its reporting. With such a lack of interest by the board in enforcing the ABC’s statutory obligations, Mr Scott has not been held accountable for the failure to perform his duties adequately.

It is now incumbent upon the board and management, including Mr Scott, to accept the minister’s intervention over efficiency, accountability and editorial direction, and to act on it. 

If the ABC does not, the minister would have no other option but to remove the board and put in place a team that will.