By Peter Clarke
February 5, 2013
A remarkable story around the reliability and transparency of our public broadcaster is unfolding as this fraught federal election year begins.
Remarkable, because it seems the ABC is applying one set of journalistic “rules” to others that, so far, it is very reluctant to apply to itself when it comes to legitimate examination of its own internal processes that respond to external complaints of bias and unfairness.
The back story: on November 23 2012, ABC leading local radio broadcaster at 774 Melbourne, Jon Faine, interviewed journalists Mark Baker from The Age and Michael Smith, formerly a 2UE broadcast journalist, regarding the AWU “slush fund” affair and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s alleged role in it.
They were certainly robust interviews. Faine is a lawyer by training and background as well as having thousands of hours of flying time conducting live, tough, forensic interviews with politicians and many others facing public accountability.
His style and approach is well known to his listening audience. And his dogged, often very insistent, search for more than spin and propaganda is much appreciated and valued by many.
You can listen to the interview here.
There were a number complaints of bias against Faine made to the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs Agency. Their role and task was to consider the relevant circumstances of the complained about interview and apply the publically available ABC Editorial Guidelines.
The committee delivered this brief finding against Faine:
Audience and Consumer Affairs found that the interviews were in breach of the ABC’s editorial requirement to gather and present news and information with due impartiality. The argumentative style of the interviews, combined with a pattern of strongly stated personal opinions by the presenter that at times oversimplified the issues at hand, was not in keeping with the ABC’s rigorous impartiality standards for news and information. Seventeen complaints were upheld.
The finding, as delivered, contains serious and fundamental ‘allegations’ against Faine. One of them is his ‘argumentative style’. Another Faine’s ‘strongly stated personal opinions’.
Any experienced interviewer knows that live, forensic interviews involve a highly skilled process of using a range of techniques to elicit the best quality and most authentic information possible for the audience – citizens all.
These techniques differ from interview to interview according to context and the status and perceived intentions of the interviewee. They have for a long time included challenging well-practiced interviewees using ‘arguments’ to the contrary.
With politicians, fully media-trained and in the hands of relentless spin-meisters, the interview becomes a feisty contest of challenge and often concealment or ‘staying on message’.
No self-respecting interviewer who conducts broadcast accountability interviews within our democracy can afford to become simply a conduit for partisan propaganda. It is self-evident.
Many observers fully expected this ‘summary’ statement of negative findings against Faine to be swiftly followed up by a very detailed statement of reasons applying the generalised wording of the relevant ABC Editorial Guidelines to the specific real world act of broadcast journalism complained about.
Today I have been informally told by an ABC source that no such statement of detailed reasoning will be forthcoming.
This is almost incomprehensible.
Firstly, the ABC has a clear duty to make public, in detail, with clear argued reasons, such findings. In a way, this ‘judgment’ acts as a form of precedent for working ABC interviewers and for us, the ‘consumers’ of its news journalism. There is a clear public contract between us as citizens and the tax-funded ABC to be fair, balanced and transparent in its journalism and its internal processes that address complaints of bias and unfairness.
Jon Faine has made clear his strong displeasure at the findings. He does not agree with the outcome and, as I understand it, has received no clear reasoning or analysis of the interview against the ABC editorial guidelines either.
It is not hard to imagine he would feel a sense of ‘twisting slowly in the wind’.
As for his peers, and more junior colleagues, are they scratching their heads and wondering exactly how this finding applies to the fine-grain details of their on-air interviewing. Of course they are. Faine is a model to many of them and the profound lack of clarity, especially around the cited criterion ‘argumentative’, within the findings must be acting as a pre-emptive dampener and source of professional confusion for many ABC journalistic interviewers.
Some have already broken out to state their views unequivocally. The ABC’s high profile Political Editor, Chris Uhlmann from 730, formerly Faine’s producer at 774 Melbourne, has used his Twitter account to state his strong support for Faine and to call on ABC management to back one of their key political interviewers.
The silence from ABC management so far is deafening.
This situation is simply unconscionable. And deeply destructive to the ABC’s journalistic integrity. The structures in place at the ABC including the Editorial Guidelines, are essential. But trying to avoid close external and public scrutiny of those structures and processes is having the effect of calling into doubt and distrust their effectiveness and legitimacy.
So the key questions are relatively simple ones:
Where is the detailed reasoning behind the findings of “bias” against Jon Faine?
How were the Editorial Guidelines rationally and authentically applied in the Faine case?
What is the significance of “argumentative” in applying the Guidelines in this specific case?
And how did this specific case and context modulate the committee’s views about the legitimacy and limits of being “argumentative”?
Essentially, in the interview, Faine was challenging two journalists to provide facts to justify their ongoing claims regarding Gillard’s involvement in the AWU affair.
One, Mark Baker, has said publically that he wasn’t fussed about his treatment by Faine.
Michael Smith had the opposite view. And so far it is mainly from his website that we are forced to glean any relevant (and naturally “self-serving”) information to assist us to understand the ABC’s Complaints Committee findings against Faine.
For an organisation whose central task is communication this is almost risible if it were not so damaging.
This is just the beginning of the growing call for clarity around this affair.
At a later date, once I have those detailed reasons (if the ABC sees the light and provides them at last) I would like to analyse the Faine/ Baker/Smith interview, in detail, against the ABC Editorial Guidelines and the detailed reasons for the negative findings against Faine. For now, I can only shake my head in dismay and wonder and wait for somebody with both good ethical journalism and the professionalism of the ABC truly at heart to take off the Kafka mask and let the sun shine in.
DECLARATION: Peter Clarke is a former ABC broadcast journalist who spent part of his ABC career at 774 Melbourne and was a colleague of Jon Faine. He is a Melbourne-based broadcaster, writer and educator who teaches at RMIT and Swinburne universities. He pioneered national talkback on Australian radio as the inaugural presenter of Offspring (now Life Matters) on ABC Radio National. @MediaActive. Peter has a chapter – The Contemporary Media Interview: A Hollow Dance Looking for New Moves? in Australian Journalism Today, Edited by Matthew Ricketson. Mark Scott launched the book and praised Peter’s chapter. Peter is currently researching a book on interviewing.