JAKE’S COMPLAINT TO THE AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION (ABC)

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 3 Jul 2009

Jake Lynch

Peace journalism is a way for news organizations in general, and broadcasters in particular, to fulfill their obligations and practise their values and aspirations in stories about conflict. In Johan Galtung’s words, “peace journalism makes audible and visible the subjugated aspects of reality”. News conventions mean that important stories, and bits of stories, are always in danger of slipping off the edge of the news, and peace journalism represents a creative strategy to restore them.

This has never been better exemplified than by reporting from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, of a recently published Defence White Paper, and matters arising from it. I enjoy ABC programs, but large slices of reality have been framed out of their coverage. So I seized the opportunity, while listening to one on the car radio, to intervene, with a phone call, leading to the following correspondence.

I sent the complaint to rcaffaudience@your.abc.net.au

If you want to add your own complaint, following on from mine, please do so – and let me know. I’ll update with any reply I receive.

Dear ABC,

I’m writing to complain about a lack of balance in your coverage of the ‘defence capability plan’, announced by the Department of Defence, in Wednesday’s edition of the PM program on Radio National. This represents an explanation by the government of how items of military hardware will be procured in order to equip Australia’s armed forces along the lines set out in the recently published Defence White Paper.

This was, therefore, a significant development in a major running story – significant enough, certainly, to be selected as the lead item in the program. A package by reporter Sabra Lane, from the launch in Adelaide, featured comments from the Defence Minister, John Faulkner and his deputy, Greg Combet. Nothing wrong with the package as such, however I was surprised and dismayed to find the subject was then dropped.

This means the only two speakers on the story, in this episode of the program, were both from the government. I immediately called the production team to offer a comment by way of balance. This was turned down, however, on the grounds that the program’s running-order for that day was already full.

I am aware of the distinction between program and platform impartiality, and content with the principle that balance can be restored in other episodes of the same program. Therefore I was happy to send the following email to your research teams, commending my services as an interviewee for PM the following day:

Dear ABC,

I’m enjoying your radio sequence programs, in particular, thank you. My point is, please begin to treat defence and security matters as more controversial and contestable than you do presently. You can begin by having me on tomorrow!

An otherwise competent report on today’s PM program covered plans for defence procurement, from Adelaide, with comments from just two speakers – the Defence Minister and, er, his deputy.

My points:

1. This is still a live issue since we’re only at the stage of a White Paper. We should be treating this as a debate, to be held on principles, not a fait accompli or a conversation over technical minutiae, although that’s clearly where the government wants to divert our attention.

2. Real question: what do we want to do with all this military hardware we’re proposing to buy? Who is the enemy?

3. Kevin Rudd’s answer is, ‘China’, as set out in the White Paper text and made still more explicit in briefings the Prime Minister gave to journalists covering its launch.

4. However, the notion that China is a threat, limbering up to throw its weight around militarily, is flatly contradicted by advice both from the Defence Intelligence Organisation and top military commanders.

5. They say China – and others such as Indonesia and Malaysia – are (a) engaging in normal military modernisation and (b) in so far as they are expanding their capabilities, it’s only in response to sabre-rattling by US and allies, notably the major upgrade presently underway of the military base on Guam.

6. What’s going on here is a conspiracy to beguile us into accepting increases in military spending that we don’t want. Defence hawks set up a ‘think-tank’, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, with $15m of public money to provide ‘contestability’ in advice to ministers. ASPI came out with an obliging and timely report, at the start of the White Paper drafting process, saying Asian neighbours were awash with the proceeds of sustained economic growth and would be spending money on more weapons, so we must, too. (That advice was immediately invalidated by the Global Financial Crisis, by the way – none of these countries has large amounts of spare cash any more).

7. The ASPI view prevailed in Canberra – thanks partly to a ‘public consultation process’ chaired by an arms dealer, Stephen Loosley, a director of Thales – but not in the country. A comprehensive opinion poll by the Australian National University just a few weeks ago showed a majority of Australians now oppose increases in military spending, a reversal of a 20-year trend.

I then followed this up with another telephone call to the PM office, at about 2pm on Thursday, and an email addressed to the Executive Producer, Brendan Trembath, proffering my services as an interviewee. These efforts proved unavailing, however.

The last of the points I make in my list – that the most recent opinion poll shows a majority of Australians now want defence spending to be frozen or reduced, not raised any further – means, surely, that my point of view counts as ‘reasonable’ and ‘relevant’, the terms used in different parts of your Editorial Policies to qualify for fair coverage.

The decision to confine comment on this story to members of the government appears to contravene articles 5.2.2 (d) and (e) of the Policies, as below:

(d) Be impartial. Editorial judgements are based on news values, not for example on political, commercial or sectional interests or personal views. Do not unduly favour one perspective over others.

(e) Be balanced. Balance will be sought but may not always be achieved within a single program or publication; it will be achieved as soon as reasonably practicable and in an appropriate manner. It is not essential to give all sides equal time. As far as possible, present principal relevant views on matters of importance.
 
May I ask you, therefore, to do two things, please:

1. Arrange for me, or another suitably qualified speaker on this subject, to give some of the other angles on issues in the Defence White Paper story, as set out above, on the PM program as soon as possible, to restore the sense of balance missing since the episode last Wednesday;

2. Inform me of any occasion, in any of your coverage of this story, on any radio or TV program, when an opponent of increased defence spending has commented. I am an ‘ABC fan’ but my viewing and listening is confined by opportunity, so I can by no means claim comprehensive knowledge of your output. However, I cannot recall any interviewee, in any program I have heard or seen, who has offered criticisms along the lines I set out in my points above.

As a former professional journalist for many years, most spent at the BBC, I appreciate you have a problem here. You would, not unreasonably, look first to speakers from the frontline of politics to comment on a story about a major piece of draft legislation. On this subject, however, the front benches of the two main parties, government and official opposition, have more in common with each other than they do with a recorded majority of the Australian public. A ‘disconnect’ has emerged, between mainstream political opinion, and public opinion.

The same is true of defence and security matters generally – hence my call to you, to begin treating them as more contestable and controversial than you have done hitherto. Two out of the three most recent opinion polls – by the ANU, before that the Sydney Morning Herald and the Lowy Institute – have shown a majority of Australians now want to see our troops called home from Afghanistan. An opinion poll commissioned two years ago by colleagues here at the University of Sydney, in the US Studies Centre, raised the question of whether we want to keep the US military alliance, or pursue an “independent foreign policy” instead. Nearly half – 48% – favoured the latter option.

These are reasonable points of view, shared by large numbers of your audience. However, I cannot recall any of them being offered on any ABC news or current affairs program I have seen or heard in recent years.

You will not, as things stand, be able to produce balanced coverage by sticking to your usual sources – you will have to adopt a strategy of reaching out to new sources, if you are to fulfill your obligations as set out in the Editorial Policies. I would welcome any indication you can give me that such a strategy is now under consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Jake

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, BA, Dip Journalism Studies, PhD
Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies
Room 121 | Mackie Building (K01)
The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006
AUSTRALIA

phone: 61 2 9351 5440 | fax 61 2 9660 0862
email: jake.lynch@usyd.edu.au  

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Jul 2009.

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