Media Sauce: Putting criticism of the ABC into perspective

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Noel Pearson: "The ABC is racist, miserable bigots" (Image via http://www.bandt.com.au/)

After sticking his golden boots into the ABC for the past week, Doc Martin says it’s time to balance the books, to find out why The Age dropped a story about Radio National and to defend Aunty from allegations of racism.

Putting criticism of the ABC into perspective

The Doc doesn’t disappoint; I wrote a week ago that Michelle Guthrie’s honeymoon is well and truly over. And this week, ABC staff affected by cuts at Radio National have met to pass a no confidence motion in senior management.

I’ll get to allegations that Aunty is racist, and why the ABC got Fairfax to take down a story about Radio National from The Age and SMH websites in a minute, but first I had a long chat with an old friend from my ABC days this week. She’s still at the national broadcaster in a senior capacity and while her worries about “business school thinking” in management circles are very real, she still believes that the ABC is streets ahead of its commercial rivals.

That’s a good and important point to make. My friend points out that ABC journalists are among the best in the country and are still breaking stories despite the “constrained resources”.

To make things easier, I’m going to give my friend a name. Let’s call her Hermione Jones.

Ms Jones says that the issues facing the ABC today are the same ones facing all global media, particularly broadcasters:

  • Ageing demographics.
  • Teenage disengagement from "appointment media".
  • The need to chase audiences into online spaces and to have mobile, downloadable content available.
  • Rising production costs and a shrinking revenue base.

The difficulty for the ABC, Hermione suggests, is that attempts to appease the corporation’s political masters and its critics will only hasten Aunty’s demise, reduce her independence and give succour to her enemies.

One of the key problems that has arisen under Michelle Guthrie’s leadership is the emphasis on trying to achieve 100 per cent audience "reach". In essence this means attempting to make every Australian a regular consumer of ABC content.

Hermione says, and it’s hard not to agree, that this is just “stupid” and that the 80 per cent reach that the ABC has currently is “about as good as you can hope for”. Ms Jones adds that the national broadcaster is “never” going to be the go-to outlet for the “Kardashian’s audience”, but that there is a reason to be concerned about the ABC’s ageing demographic. As the ABC’s baby-boomer audience dies off, who is going to be listening and watching?

When I asked her how hiring middle-aged white broadcasters like Patricia Karvelas, Amanda Vanstone, Tom Switzer and Kim Williams would help Radio National reach a younger audience, all Hermione could say was “that’s a good question".

Indeed, it doesn’t make sense. Hermione acknowledged that and her response that it was management’s flawed way of appeasing the ABC’s critics in the Murdoch press and within the Liberal-National Coalition Government.

The ABC does well among older Australians and with children’s programming, but it is the large chunk in the middle that Guthrie’s 100 per cent reach target is aiming for. Chasing the younger, mobile "Kardashian" kids would push the ABC towards more populist programming, which Hermione believes would shift resources away from “important work”.

This important work is mainly in news, current affairs and in telling Australian stories. Hermione believes that for “all the ABC’s problems”, the corporation’s news coverage is “better today than it was 15 years ago”.

The ABC’s newsroom is still the largest in the country and its young reporting team is “dynamic” and doing “good investigative work”, according to Ms Jones. She points to stories broken by the ABC. Such as the 7-11 wages scam, which even this week is an ongoing investigation. “There’s a lot of good journalism being done, despite everything,” Hermione says.

However, Ms Jones also thinks that this success is likely to be jeopardised in a time of “worrying” budget cuts – the ABC will lose more than $250 million over the next 2-3 year funding cycle – and emphasis on “cross-platform delivery”.

What makes the ABC unique at the moment is the network’s "linear" programming on radio and television. The broadcaster still has big audiences, but they are in decline, particularly in radio. Hermione says this presents a “difficult balancing” act for Michelle Guthrie and the danger is that the “digital tail will wag the broadcast dog”.

A vigorous tail … but the dog’s on life support

If the ABC moves towards prioritising digital platforms and mobile content over resourcing radio and television, Ms Jones believes the corporation will lose its unique identity. It will just be the provider of “more content in a soup of content”.

Thus, what should we make of a story that briefly existed on Fairfax Media online platforms this week about Radio National moving to "podcast only" broadcasting in the next few years?

I saw a tweeted link early on Thursday morning, but when I tried to follow it got a "404 error" message, which means the content was no longer there.

A few of us wondered what was going on:

While Fairfax pulled the story, the ABC was quick to issue a denial:

There are categorically no plans to end linear broadcasting on RN. We expect it to be a full linear service well beyond 2020.’

The story by Aja Styles had a lot more besides the sensational claim that RN would "likely" be off-air by 2020. IA understands that the story was posted late on the evening of 22 November, before the ABC was asked for a comment. When the ABC told Fairfax that the story was "wrong", it was hastily rewritten, but then, early in the morning of Wednesday 23 November, it disappeared for good.

Styles’ report, which has been given to IA, quotes from people who were at a staff meeting at which the digital strategy was discussed and her story suggests people were very angry at what they were hearing:

ABC insiders described the meeting as being filled with “a lot of anger" that descended into a shouting match, as many tried to argue the case for the need for diversity and maintaining shows which gave voice to every type of ethnic and religious minority.

We've not seen that in the past. We have gone through a number of restructures and this was very, very heated.

Styles was also given access to a leaked memo to staff from Radio National manager, Deborah Leavitt, which outlined the loss of seven positions and seems to indicate that, as Hermione fears, the digital tail is wagging the radio dog:

While serving our current audience remains critical, we must also look beyond those we currently engage with to ensure that RN continues to contribute and shape Australian cultural and intellectual life into the future.

This approach is about valuing our rich and distinctive spoken-word audio, long form text and digital content and delivering it to more people than ever before. I want new audiences who are not currently experiencing RN content to discover it, and for us to build a stronger platform for the network in an environment of greater media choice and fragmentation.

Changes to production models and ways of working means there will be potential redundancies. This is a particularly difficult decision on many levels, especially when it impacts talented and cherished colleagues.

Given Hermione’s concerns about shifting resources away from radio and towards online delivery, the ABC’s media statement, issued in response to the Fairfax story, perhaps raised more questions than it answered:

The News and Radio Divisions are looking at ways to improve how the ABC delivers audio current affairs, for both current and future radio and digital audiences. This project is about increasing the ability of our radio journalists and teams to do original and investigative reporting and making sure that content will reach the widest possible audience. It is not about finding budget or job cuts. The project is still in its early stages, with a working group of senior radio current affairs journalists from the News Division and Radio recently formed to examine how a new model might operate.

We will have to wait for the "working group" to finish its deliberations before coming back to this story, but one possibility that, after talking to Hermione I’m not prepared to rule out, is that the "new model" might "operate" as digital-first, like it already does at Fairfax newspapers.

In the Fairfax case, I believe it’s a complete disaster and probably the reason why many people are deserting the print edition. In my experience, buying a newspaper in the morning is a waste of money and time. Many, if not most, if not all, stories are already available online and sometimes in the print edition they are more than 24 hours old.

At Fairfax, it seems that this is a deliberate strategy to drive consumers away from the expensive "dead trees" edition and onto the tablet or mobile platforms. If a similar "digital first" approach is taken at the ABC, will it drive audiences away from Radio National too?

In time, maybe it will, but the proposed changes have already upset staff. An angry union meeting on Thursday passed a "no confidence" motion in ABC management. No doubt we’ll see more action like this from the ABC staff union and, hopefully, the MEAA.

Why Noel Pearson is wrong — the ABC is not racist.

Another non-event story this week on which The Australian and other NewsCorpse outlets are running hot is the alleged racism of the ABC in relation to reporting of Indigenous issues.

The allegations were made in a speech by Noel Pearson, and the ABC was forced to react when the speech was given wide coverage in the Murdoch press and other outlets.

Front page of the Daily Telegraph, 22 November, 2016 

What Pearson’s outburst had to do with him launching a biography of former PM Paul Keating is not clear to me, but there you go.

Pearson didn’t hold back, describing the ABC as

"... a spittoon’s worth of perverse ­people willing the wretched to fail."

For good measure, Pearson added:

"They need blacks to remain alienated and incarcerated, leading short lives of grief and tribulation because if it were not so, against whom would they ­direct their soft bigotry of low ­expectations?"

It was an extraordinary spray, but perhaps not unexpected. In the past, Pearson has been known to abuse his opponents in the most unseemly language.

Here's an example, courtesy Crikey freelancer Greg Roberts, on 12 August 2016:

Noel Pearson is an articulate exponent of what he regards as the best interests of his people, but there is another side to him. When I was a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald, I dared to write about connections between some north Queensland indigenous organisations and big mining companies. I was subjected to a 30-minute raging rant on the phone from Pearson, during which he called me “a fucking cunt” on no fewer than 15 occasions. As has been written elsewhere, there is another side to this man, which the public has not largely been privy to.

Despite Pearson’s obvious anger issues, his attack on the ABC is music to the ears of Paul "Boris" Whittaker, the crayon-wielding editor-in-chief of The Australian.

The Oz piece is behind a paywall, but here’s summary provided by Roy Morgan Research

The former MD of the ABC, Maurice Newman, has accused many left-leaning media outlets of racism, including the public broadcaster. Newman also claims that SBS, Fairfax Media, The Guardian and Crikey are also racist, due to their coverage of Aboriginal issues. His comments follow claims by Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson that the ABC is racist, a view that is supported by the head of the Prime Minister’s ­Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine.

"Boris" set three of his finest newshounds onto the Pearson yarn to get to the bottom of his allegations of racism at the national broadcaster. The ‘three stooges’ must have thought they’d struck gold when former ABC chairman Maurice Newman popped up to give them a juicy quote:

'Asked to identify the names of racist media organisations, Mr Newman singled out “Fairfax Media, the ABC, The Guardian, SBS and Crikey,” saying the dominated “so much of the national conversation”, creating a “narrative” to the detriment of Aboriginal people.'

Hang on, why is The Australian quoting, for the gazillionth time, its tame in-house octogenarian curmudgeon?

In case, like me, you find this baffling, there’s a simple explanation:

Mr Newman’s comments carry significant weight – it is just four years since he left the ABC’s top post…

“Noel Pearson is a very measured, sensible person who has the interests of Aboriginal people very much at heart,” [Newman said].

Perhaps the redundant Mr Newman has never had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of a Noel Pearson expletive-laden blast.

But is Pearson’s commentary about the ABC justified?

It certainly serves a purpose for Boris and his minions, who will use any excuse to chuck bombs at the ABC. After all, as Rupert and his children have been saying for years that it’s not fair the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster gets to play in their sandpit.

However, the ABC is not racist towards Indigenous Australians. In fact, the ABC has done and continues to do an excellent job of covering Aboriginal Australians and their issues.

Former ABC reporter and living legend Quentin Dempster has shown incontrovertibly that the national broadcaster has a proud history of coverage of Indigenous Australia.

Just a few examples should be enough to counteract Maurice Newman’s fact-free assertions:

The consistency of the coverage over the years raised city white consciousness about policing practices leading eventually to the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.

Four Corners' exposure of Aboriginal exploitation at Weipa in the early 1980s resulted in the mining company Comalco suing the ABC over its report of the mistreatment of Aboriginal people.

In 1983 Chris Masters broadcast the Four Corners' episode Black Sickness Black Cure.

Mr Pearson's attack would be particularly hurtful to the great Four Corners' reporter Liz Jackson who has exposed horrendous police brutality.

We could go on, but you get the picture.

The ABC also issued its own statement on the matter, which is worth noting.

With its 60 locations across Australia, the ABC covers the everyday experiences of Indigenous communities and provides a range of programs to give voices to Indigenous Australians and to showcase their achievements.

The ABC has also been at the forefront in recognising Indigenous talent. ABC Radio, ABC TV and ABC News have set up Indigenous units to better reflect Indigenous culture in staffing and in story-telling. These initiatives have delivered programs including the award-winning series Redfern Now and Gods of Wheat Street and the recent hiring of journalist Stan Grant, whom Mr Pearson has described as “speaking for black Australia”.

Hermione also mentioned Stan Grant, who is heading up the indigenous Unit with a team of “good young Indigenous reporters”. She also suggested another reason for Pearson’s attacks on the ABC and other media outlets: their sometimes negative coverage of Pearson’s troubled school in Arakun.

Pearson is popular with conservatives, ironically including the right-wing journal Quadrant, which he also accused of racism, because he rejects the narrative of dispossession as a cause of Indigenous disadvantage and talks almost exclusively in terms of individual effort to lift Aboriginal people and communities out of poverty. He’s “essentially a neoliberal”, says Hermione and this is what makes him popular with the Murdoch papers.

Pearson is certainly controversial, even among his own people.

As for Newman and Boris’ trio of flunkeys tarring SBS, The Guardian, Crikey and the Fairfax press as racist, that’s crap too. Which media organisation was it that published this cartoon?

Cartoon by Bill Leak, The Australian.

[Editor's Note:


At just after 1pm today (25/11/16), a response was received from Fairfax as to why the ABC Radio National story was pulled.

A Fairfax spokesperson said: 

"The story was removed from publication as part of normal editorial processes regarding fact-checking." 

[IA's response:  "Pigs cleared for take-off!"]

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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