View from The Hill: Ita isn’t saluting the captain who picked her

Originally published on theconversation.com

Ita Buttrose was Scott Morrison’s “captain’s pick” for chair of the ABC. When he appointed her in 2019, he said “Australians trust Ita, I trust Ita and that’s why I have asked her to take on this role.”

If he was right that “Australians trust Ita”, she has shown why, in pushing back in the most unequivocal terms against a Senate inquiry into the ABC’s complaints procedure. With a long, diverse and demanding media career behind her, Buttrose is her own woman.

The inquiry was announced by NSW Liberal Andrew Bragg, chair of the Senate’s communications committee, late last week. What has particularly raised Buttrose’s ire is that the move is despite the ABC itself having underway an independent inquiry into the handling of complaints.

In his announcement Bragg, who says it was his idea, described the inquiry, which also takes in SBS, as “surgical”, a rather odd term.

Bragg drew on his own experience of making “extensive complaints” in saying the current arrangements are wanting. His inquiry will report late February, before the ABC one is concluded.

Buttrose was quick out of the blocks with a long, strongly worded statement, targeting Bragg directly, and she followed up by appearing on ABC radio.

Her core accusation was succinct.

“This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism. If politicians determine the operation of the national broadcaster’s complaints system, they can influence what is reported by the ABC,” she said.

Governments over the years have had a history of battles with the ABC, but under this Coalition government the conflict has been more sustained and intense.

The period has also included a major implosion in the ABC (admittedly not the first) which led to the sacking of Michelle Guthrie, who was managing director, and the departure of then chair, Justin Milne, amid accusations of his interfering in the organisation’s editorial independence, with a swirl of controversy about high profile journalists.

ABC investigations and stories have caused much angst in the government, most dramatically those relating to Christian Porter, but also to other individuals and a range of issues. In general, government critics claim the public broadcaster is biased to the left, in political orientation generally and in the subjects it features.

Tensions have deepened as the media have become more polarised. News Corp in recent years has increasingly run unrelenting attacks on the ABC, driven by a combination of ideological and commercial factors. Some Coalition parliamentarians feel much more at home with Sky, believing they’re talking to their base when they appear on Sky-after-dark.

News Corp was angered by a recent Four Corners investigation calling out Fox News, about which Fox News lodged a complaint.

It’s not always the right of politics complaining – a program on the Luna Park “Ghost Train” fire stirred wrath for a reflection on the late Neville Wran.

Bragg describes himself as pro-ABC. He said, when interviewed on the ABC on Monday:“There’s been quite a lot of concern from different community groups about the way that the ABC has handled complaints. So as a supporter of the ABC, I’d like to see those complaints handled in a better and stronger way.”

Bragg mentioned veteran and multicultural groups, an apparent reference to discontent over reporting of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and complaints by Jewish groups about the coverage of the most recent Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Dealing with complaints properly is vital to a media organisation’s credibility. But even with the best intentions, it is not as easy as it sounds.

Some lapses – errors of fact, unacceptable behaviour – will be clear. Others will be a matter of interpretation. (Federal energy minister Angus Taylor and NSW environment minister Matt Kean, both Liberals, might view the same report on a climate issue and have different opinions on whether it was “biased”.)

Acknowledging this is a very tricky area, the ABC needs a complaints procedure in which the public generally, and the political class to the extent possible, have confidence.

The independent inquiry, being undertaken by former federal ombudsman John McMillan and former SBS director of news and current affairs, Jim Carroll is directed to ensuring that.

It’s hard to see, beyond the politics, how a Senate inquiry can be justified on the grounds of need. Buttrose wants the Senate to stop or suspend the inquiry until the ABC one is finished.

But despite a report in The Australian that Bragg had been “rapped over the knuckles” by the Prime Minister’s Office for his initiative, there has been no retreat by the government, or Bragg.

Morrison on Monday supported Bragg, not Buttrose. The PM said it was a matter for the Senate “and I don’t understand why that would be an extraordinary initiative to take”.

Pressed on being comfortable with the inquiry, Morrison said the ABC was “a government agency. Yes, they have their independence, and no one’s questioning that. But they’re not above the scrutiny for how they conduct themselves using taxpayers’ money.”

A lot of public money does go into the ABC – of course there has to be accountability. And there is: ABC executives regularly appear at Senate estimates, at which they are questioned about a range of things including editorial decisions.

But the ABC is not like any other “government agency”, and its “independence” is of a special nature. To subject its complaints procedure to what inevitably will be a political inquiry, with senators very likely dividing along party lines, is not simply or even primarily an exercise in accountability – it is sending a wider message.

Buttrose says Australians should see the message “for what it is: an attempt to weaken the community’s trust in the public broadcaster.”

When it comes to “trust” the surveys indicate the ABC starts well ahead of the politicians. Nevertheless, the ABC is in for a testing time between now and the election. That might, however, be mild compared with how it would fare under a re-elected Coalition.

Michelle Grattan does regular commentary on the ABC.

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