The ABC's staff choose what gets seen and heard on $1BN worth of prime media space every year. That makes this story very much about the ABC.
The problem with the ABC is that the ABC doesn't see the problem.
The ABC's managers control what gets seen and heard on more than $1BN worth of prime media space each year - funded by captive taxpayers. So the ABC's choices in what makes a story are choices of immense public importance.
The ABC's MD Mark Scott, news director Kate Torney and editorial policy chief Alan Sunderland have published statements explaining why the ABC was right to report claims Australian Navy personnel recently tortured asylum seekers.
Scott, Torney and Sunderland agree on one point - the "story" is an important one and is worthy of the ABC's (taxpayer) resources. So important was the "story" that the fact of allegations having been made (regardless of their truth) justified the ABC turning the allegations into news. And the ABC's editors decided that news was so important it could not wait while facts were checked.
So the ABC presented what turned out to be false, uncorroborated and highly damaging allegations against Naval personnel on the say-so of failed asylum seekers, people of whom it knew nothing.
From the Scott/Torney statement today:
This is an important story and the ABC makes no apologies for covering it.
Claims of mistreatment by the Australian military are very serious and a responsible media, acting in the public interest, will need to seek an official response and pursue the truth of the claims.
Asking questions and seeking evidence is in no way disrespectful of such important institutions.
.....ABC ha(s) continued to undertake further investigation, interviews and reporting in an effort to come to a full understanding of what went on.
The ABC's editorial policy chief Alan Sunderland published a lengthy essay which helpfully puts a few things on the record.
This is an important story. It is a story that is emerging thanks to the hard work of committed journalists trying to do their job in difficult and highly politicised circumstances.
My role in all of this is as the person responsible for the ABC's editorial standards. So I look on from a comfortable desk in Sydney, with the luxury of coolly assessing how well our journalists are performing and whether there is anything to learn from such a complex, fast-moving and highly charged story.
And yes, there are always things to be learned. Journalism is, as they say, the first rough draft of history.
But if we relied only on information from official channels then little or nothing would have been reported and the Australian public would have been left in the dark about the dramatic events......
Sunderland also explained the ABC's decision to apply significant resources to this story:
Behind the scenes, the ABC's journalists kept probing. Our contacts on the ground in Indonesia were strong, and we worked them relentlessly. We travelled to where the asylum seekers were and sought as many different accounts as we could. We reached out to all of our contacts in Australia, including among the armed forces, to get information from as many sources as possible. And at every possible opportunity we sought official information on the details of precisely what happened.
As the result of a lot of hard work and persistence from many good journalists, we now know that some extraordinary and dangerous things happened on the open seas and Australian personnel were involved.......
All of this based on false claims made by aggrieved people unhappy at being denied illegal maritime entry to Australia.
Sunderland's essay published on The Drum is entitled "The story is the boats, not the ABC". He may wish it were so but it's not. Sunderland says
By any measure, and regardless of whether you consider the Government's decision to turn back asylum seeker boats good policy or bad, these are important and highly newsworthy matters
Well now we know. By any measure these are important and highly newsworthy matters. Certainly by Scott, Torney and Sunderland's measures.
By going in so hard on this "matter of public importance", the ABC invites comparisons of its decisions and statements on stories it decided are not "highly newsworthy". Which makes this story very much about the ABC, its staff and the way they spend $1,000,000,000.00 every year.
On 3 September last year The Australian newspaper reported on court documents and proceedings in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court. It was not conjecture, rather a simple factual statement that set the record straight on a story the ABC had studiously refused to acknowledge - that while Julia Gillard was Prime Minister of Australia Victoria Police executed a search warrant on her former office. Here are the opening paragraphs of The Australian's front page story:
Documents obtained exclusively by The Australian confirm the former prime minister is a focus of the investigation surrounding Mr Wilson, the former Australian Workers Union secretary who was dating Ms Gillard while she was his lawyer at Slater & Gordon in the 1990s.
The revelations are contained in the form and details of the search warrant police successfully obtained in May and which has been detailed in full in court documents.
Police seized hundreds of documents under the warrant, which specifically sought files held by Slater & Gordon relating to Mr Wilson and Ms Gillard, including her personnel files, invoices, travel records and documents from the firm's partner meetings relating to Ms Gillard and the AWU.
As The Australian reported, the barrister representing Victoria Police told the court that police would allege that Bruce Wilson (Ms Gillard's former lover) committed a substantial fraud "through his solicitors". The police submission was wholly accepted by Victoria's chief magistrate who would later find that each document was created and each communication was made (between Wilson and his lawyers, Gillard or Gillard-government appointee Judge Bernard Murphy) in the furtherance of fraud.
Here then in context is some correspondence between a citizen and the ABC, starting the following day - 4 September, 2013 (for context, the Federal Election would be held 3 days later on 7 September).
ABC program: ABC news network
Date of program: 2-4/09/2013
Contact type: Complaint
Subject: Police Investigation into three people including J Gillard.
Comments: I would like to know why the ABC has not reported the following information:
1. Police removed boxes of evidence from Slater and Gordon in May, as a result of a search warrant that names Julia Gillard as a person of interest.
2. Police have confirmed in writing that Julia Gillard is under investigation for her role in a Fraud. Copies of this document are publicly available!
3.Police will be in Court on October 16 and will be asserting that Julia Gillard created documents that were created in furtherance of a fraud and will be seeking to use those documents to pursue the conviction of people, including possibly Julia Gillard herself.
In summary; what the hell is wrong with you people? Why is it that you are deliberately avoiding reporting this issue, a matter of significant public interest? Why did you quickly end the coverage on live TV this week when Rudd was asked by a reporter about the matter? When is your recalcitrance on this issue going to end and when can we expect some factual reportage in exchange for our dollar ?
Finally, can you PLEASE assure me that you will have a reporter in Court on October 16 to provide the community with factual reporting on the matter? As the best resourced news organisation in the Southern Hemisphere I think this is the least you can do!
The response was extraordinary - particularly when compared with the ABC's defence of its false stories based on uncorroborated reports from people with an axe to grind against Australia.
Thank you for your email regarding investigations being conducted by Victoria Police.
It is a matter of public record that some form of investigation is underway. We know this because the ABC extensively reported the fact that Ralph Blewitt and others took information to the Police.
Beyond this, there are few confirmed facts which would reach the threshold of ABC editorial standards for reporting. We accept that other media may operate to a different standard, but we do not intend to compromise our own.
Reporting that the (then) Prime Minister of the nation is under police investigation is an enormously significant call to make. It cannot be made on supposition, on rumour, or on hearsay.
You have said that Vic Pol have confirmed this in writing, but we have not cited this media release or public communication. According to The Australian they’ve been collecting files but you would expect any Police investigation to gather up this sort of primary documentation. That does not mean Ms Gillard is under investigation.
For all we know, the investigation could be into Ralph Blewitt, or Bruce Wilson or Slater and Gordon or any number of other individuals and entities.
Rather than mimicking other media reports, the ABC is following fine principles of reporting confirmed fact.
When such facts become available, you can be sure the ABC will report them.
There was no:
Behind the scenes, the ABC's journalists kept probing. Our contacts on the ground were strong, and we worked them relentlessly. We travelled to where the court documents were and sought as many different accounts as we could. We reached out to all of our contacts including on the counter of the court's registry to get accurate information from as many sources as possible. And at every possible opportunity we sought official information on the details of precisely what happened.
There was nothing. No report. The ABC made a conscious decision that court documents filed by police after the Magistrates' Court ordered the search and seizure at Slater and Gordon did not "reach the threshold of ABC editorial standards for reporting. We accept that other media may operate to a different standard, but we do not intend to compromise our own".
So the more important story today really is about the ABC. It is, frankly, more important to Australia and Australia's interests than providing a platform for false stories invented by people from Somalia. It places the ABC's editorial judgements front and centre and it demands that the ABC's editor in chief show cause as to why he should not be shown the door.
The ABC failed all of us last year. Today they've shown us how it could have been. And the problem with the ABC's management is that they don't see the problem.