Media Opinion

ABC failing to fact-check the powerful

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Australia's national broadcaster is letting the public down by failing to prioritise fact-checking and hold the powerful to account. Dr Victoria Fielding reports.

AFTER ENDING its partnership with RMIT University, the ABC has published its last ever RMIT ABC Fact Check article. As we await the launch of ABC News Verify – the ABC’s new in-house fact-checking unit – it is crucial that the ABC does not delegate all fact-checking to a small group of specialists. Rather, fact-checking and analysis should be the central function of the ABC’s quality watchdog journalism. If the ABC is not delivering that, it is not serving democracy.

Fact-checkers often work to debunk misleading claims spreading on social media, correcting mis/disinformation created by grifters and conspiracy theorists. Although it’s useful to call out these small-fish manipulators, this cannot be the only type of fact-checking the ABC concerns itself with.

Every journalist at the ABC should think of themselves as a fact-checker and prioritise correcting the lies, manipulation and deceit spread by the most powerful voices. Call out the social media posts, sure. But don’t forget the chief manipulators — Right-wing politicians in concert with their Right-wing media cheer squad.

Too often, rather than fact-checking power, journalists at the ABC let politicians use the public broadcaster’s platform to make false claims without scrutiny and accountability. A disappointing recent of this problem was an ABC News interview with Nationals leader David Littleproud on the day Opposition Leader Peter Dutton launched the Coalition’s nuclear “plan”.

ABC journalists knew this plan was coming. They should have been prepared to refute false claims to ensure the public was not misled. Yet, in the interview, Littleproud was given a platform to promote an incredibly sketchy and under-developed nuclear power plan and make false claims to undermine public confidence in renewable energy.

For example, Littleproud claimed renewable energy would not meet Australia’s energy needs – would not “keep hospital lights on”, that renewable energy investment was driving up food prices and that nuclear was a cheaper energy option than renewables – all demonstrably false claims that went unscrutinised by the interviewer.

In the days after this interview, the ABC produced quality analysis examining and correcting the many lies the Coalition had been spreading about renewable energy in comparison to nuclear power. This included this piece reporting that the Coalition claims that nuclear energy would reduce power prices ‘don’t stack up’ and this one reporting the rapid growth in renewable energy across Australia.

The ABC also republished a Conversation piece by Peter Martin analysing the rise of solar and the shrinking share of nuclear in global energy markets.

A month before the announcement, ABC journalists had already reported that a CSIRO report found nuclear energy would cost twice as much as renewables. They cannot therefore claim not to have had this information to hand to refute Liberal and National misrepresentations. Yet, far too many untested claims about nuclear were allowed to circulate around the ABC, misleading audiences and giving unearned legitimacy to the Coalition’s policy.

It is not only politicians who need to be fact-checked by the ABC. The ABC should also fact-check other media. If the ABC thinks its job is to call out disinformation spread by faceless conspiracy theorists on social media, its job is also to call out lies being platformed by mainstream media outlets.

This would of course create a huge amount of work for ABC journalists. Sky News has characteristically been cheerleading for the Coalition’s nuclear agenda, claiming nuclear is the ‘fastest way to reduce emissions’. Sky News host Rita Panahi even sourced endorsement for nuclear energy from disgraced climate change denier Ian Plimer, just to make it absolutely clear that the Coalition’s pro-nuclear push is actually a strategy designed to destroy investment in renewables and prolong the use of fossil fuels.

And that’s the thing. Why can’t the ABC just say that? Why does it need to give unearned credibility to the Coalition’s nuclear plans, fact-checking its claims after it has already platformed them, when everyone knows Dutton’s motives are propping up fossil fuels and destroying climate action by damaging public and investor confidence in renewables? Why can’t the ABC be a true watchdog on power and be honest with their audience, making it plain that the only reason Dutton is interested in nuclear power is to destroy the renewables industry, in service of fossil fuel interests?

Calling out the lies of powerful people takes courage because powerful manipulators hate to be held accountable. To fact-check power effectively, ABC journalists need to be brave and need to be backed up by their managers when they’re attacked for doing their jobs. Indeed, ABC journalists need to learn if they’re not getting pushback for scrutinising powerful people, they’re not serving the public.

Editor's note: This article originally claimed that ABC ended a partnership with RMIT FactLab. This was incorrect and has been amended accordingly.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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