Media Analysis

ABC in 2024: Facing the challenge of change-management

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The ABC is always in the news, this year introducing a new chairman, Kim Williams, and going to court over pulling off air part-time announcer, Antoinette Lattouf.

Dr Lee Duffield, a veteran of ABC journalism, says the chairman and management have a battery of crisis management tools, but they must also manage change — never easy.

A PRESENT SOURCE of stress is about how the ABC is prioritising Indigenous identity, race and ethnicity, women’s rights, disability issues and LGBTQ+. Thousands of ABC audience members of a conservative bent don’t like this new moral universe called “diversity” or “inclusivity”, especially if it threatens to displace what they are used to. Everybody seems to have an angle on what the ABC should be doing and what they want out of it.

The ABC is ready for that and will invoke “rules” to prevent conflict, and block efforts to get control and monopolise the culture it should represent. It has coped since the 1930s by setting out its standards and guidelines according to founding legislation, and although the current communication environment is greatly complicated, that remains its key approach.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 gives it a charter and from that, you get editorial standards and guidelines for staff members, available for public viewing. Guidelines spell out what broadcasters can do on air and what the limits are. One of the more explicit expressions of the doctrine is found in the editorial policies, giving approval of evidence-based analysis and frowning on broadcasters giving opinions, both to be very constrained.

The requirement:

‘The language is more descriptive than judgemental and the tone is explanatory and reasoned. It should indicate awareness of complexity, rather than instructing with an air of certainty.’

What are all these rules?

The documents go into detail and come together as well-worn themes, which tend to be blunt and restrictive as instructions, at the same time qualified, justified and explained at some length. They are themes of impartiality and objectivity, fairness, accuracy, innovation, checking and deployment of evidence, accessibility for the public to the ABC, independence of the ABC as a priority, and recognition of Australia’s multi-cultural composition. 

These are regulations focused on defining a broadcasting and journalistic professionalism as a kind of framework for all operations. They expressly forbid the co-opting and use of ABC channels for broadcasters’ individual or group purposes. They can create a painful dilemma, as with broadcasters of Palestinian or Islamist background enduring the current tragedy and outrage in Gaza.

It must bother anybody who has difficulty understanding boundaries, to separate nurtured personal passions and beliefs from the requirement to adjudicate, fairly — a bureaucratised version of “love thine enemy”?

Which ideology?

At issue in 2024 is how far the ABC can afford to embrace “inclusivity” — an ideology started up on ideas of decency and fairness, and like most ideologies open to distortion. How far might the ABC go in the representation of minorities in its recruitment and promotions policy, in on-air presence, loading of broadcast agendas, or allocation of air-time?

It could strike bad trouble with too much of that, reputation damage on the way, especially considering the presence of concomitant narratives. One of those is the advanced cousin of the ideology, “critical race theory”, an ingenious, maybe sinister narrative of “good racism” coming out of American scholarship, angled pro tem at excluding just White men. (Further expressions are in the offing against White women, to be characterised as grasping, spoilt, “entitled”.)

It becomes layered up with ideas about a structured colonial domination of society as an outgrowth of 19th-century colonialism.

Such ideas are perceived in the background to the case of Antoinette Lattouf who has been seeking to sue the ABC for unfair dismissal. Lattouf, a personable talker with credible journalistic background, has cultivated an independent public profile. Billed as a ”diversity advocate”, active in social media, something in the mode of an “influencer”, she was dropped, on pay, two days into five shifts as a casual radio announcer. 

ABC officials said Lattouf had breached advice not to be outspoken on Gaza while engaged by ABC. Actual evidence for that was threadbare, her re-posting of a social media post by an NGO critical of Israel.

In rough journalistic parlance, journalists are instructed to pull their heads in all the time — keep themselves out of the story. Reporters can be expected to talk with people they dislike and disagree with. But the times and this issue are not normal.

Antoinette Lattouf has said her Lebanese background worked against her; several ABC staff have accused the management of giving in to pressure to remove the broadcaster, exerted by a consortium of Jewish lawyers. Former staff members in the ABC Alumni organisation, with many such battles behind them, published a considered statement explaining issues in the case.

Refreshing the rule book

The ABC’s composite “rule book” reflects great experience of juggling with such trouble, showing a knowingness, thoughtfulness, magnanimity-with-firmness and deviousness that ABC managers have striven for over 80 years — with uneven levels of achievement. The “book” in question, as well as requiring objectification and the like, does provide some relief for rebels against the long-standing system, especially as it is today supplemented by a portfolio of federal legislation relating to rights.

The rules, exaggeratedly enforced even into the 1970s, have become relaxed. Today a standard is given where interviewers outside of news and current affairs can give personal responses to what they hear — breaking an old ban. Much concentration is given to protocols for permitting, though still trying to restrain adversarial interviews, in the minefield of current affairs (interrupting, “gotcha” games, a fixated line of questioning, moving the focus from the talent to the interviewer, often to get them to “answer the question”).

There is some concentration also on controlling the obverse: free kicks, gushing at interviewees and only talking to “friends”. In a prescribed way, commercial products and brands can be named, no longer automatically avoided as “free advertising”. Procedures are set up to support investigative projects and whistleblowing by informants, with admittedly an eye on containing unnecessary legal costs also. Such regulations are several steps away from old habits.

Certain journalists in the past would argue not only that they should objectify their work, but that they and their colleagues must have no contentious personal views; moral neutrality as a mark of personality and way of life, handy also for politically conservative ones committed to the status quo. Similarly, a prominent announcer would refuse to do interviews on any contentious issue to avoid emitting a “biased question” and failing in their duty as a “public servant”.

Vestiges of the “ancient regime” remain, as with high profile on-air staff enjoined not to disclose “how they vote”, a hedge against backlash from audiences, but close to the core on personal rights, and blocking off a possible safety valve, of openness neutralising suspicion.

On other legislation, an item in the Charter, to ‘take account of the multicultural character of the Australian community’, heads the list of change agents the ABC undertakes to reference, beyond the usual dicta of the ABC Act's editorial standards and guidelines.

It has to comply with: the new National Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2022, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, the Privacy Act 1988, the Freedom of Information Act 1982, and employment-related legislation that covers age, sex, racial and disability discrimination, equal opportunity, human rights, fair work, health and safety.

Main tasks of the ABC

The thrust of all these detailed and enforceable practices can be reduced to three main objectives for the ABC:

  • the first, as the national broadcaster, is for it to be an institution of society that addresses many audiences and absorbs all perspectives, providing the national democratic forum;
  • the second is to preserve liberal thought, setting an example with its insistence on informativeness, accuracy, accessibility and standards of fairness; and
  • the third is to survive — by achieving the first two to general satisfaction across Australia.

An example of the reality of the survival issue is the ongoing threat from the Liberal Party, which, being well served by Right-wing activist commercial media, does not need the ABC and has a policy overwhelmingly approved by its National Council to sell it. There is pressure from the National Party, where bush conservatives detest new ideas they might hear on air, but themselves get to talk on the ABC and appreciate its excellent services to the regions.

In a following article, Dr Lee Duffield will study details and examples of the programs and policies of the ABC. Will changes affecting the ABC, with shifting values in society and impacts of technology, cut deep?

Amongst Dr Lee Duffield’s vast journalistic experience, he has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic and member of the editorial advisory board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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