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ABC dismisses complaint claiming privatisation not 'newsworthy' in 2009 Queensland elections

Five weeks after I made my complaint, the ABC has responded. The reponse defends the ABC Brisbane local Radio journalists' failure to hold to account the Queensland Government over these issues: privatisation, encouragement of runaway population growth, housing unaffordabilty, plans to triple our coal exports as the polar ice caps melt, and the devastation of agricultural and wilderness areas by open cut coal mining, etc. The ABC deems these issues not to be newsworthy.

See also: "Brisbane ABC suppresses alternative candidates in state elections despite listener dismay with major parties" of 30 Apr 09, "Brisbane's local ABC radio fails to hold Anna Bligh to account over privatisation" of 28 May 09.

Five weeks after I made my complaint, the ABC has responded. The reponse defends the ABC Brisbane local Radio journalists' failure to hold to account the Queensland Government over these issues: privatisation, encouragement of runaway population growth, housing unaffordabilty, plans to triple our coal exports as the polar ice caps melt, and the devastation of agricultural and wilderness areas by open cut coal mining, etc. The ABC deems these issues not to be newsworthy. The full text is included below.

See also: "Brisbane ABC suppresses alternative candidates in state elections despite listener dismay with major parties" of 30 Apr 09, "Brisbane's local ABC radio fails to hold Anna Bligh to account over privatisation" of 28 May 09.

Dear Mr Sinnamon

Thank you for your email of 1 May concerning 612 ABC Brisbane's coverage of independent candidates during the 2009 Queensland State election, and your email of 27 May concerning talkback on the 612 ABC Brisbane Morning program with Madonna King of the same day. In keeping with the ABC's complaints policy, your emails have been referred to me for investigation and response. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.

With respect to your concerns about the ABC's coverage of independent candidates, including yourself, during the 2009 Queensland State election, we note you raise a number of matters in your blog post of 30 April on the website http://candobetter.org, and have responded to your substantive concerns in turn below. However, by way of context, please note that the editorial principles fundamental to the ABC are articulated in the ABC's Code of Practice and Editorial Policies. Complaints made in respect to ABC content are assessed against these editorial principles. The ABC's provisions in respect to political and election broadcasts are outlined in section 12 of the Editorial Policies. Copies of both the Code and the Policies are available at: http://www.abc.net.au/corp/pubs/charter.htm.

The ABC's approach to election coverage focuses on the Government and official Opposition on the basis that one of the two major parties will ultimately form government and thus represent the principal points of view. Whilst not discounting the views or policies of the other parties and independent candidates, coverage in respect to such parties and candidates is determined on the basis of newsworthiness. The Policies also note that the ABC reserves the right to withhold free broadcast time to political parties, including those not currently represented in the Parliament concerned, on the basis of the measure of demonstrated public support for the party.

Whilst we note you refer to a number of specific broadcasts of concern, which are addressed in further detail below, we believe that the 612 ABC Brisbane coverage of the Queensland State election was consistent with the ABC's approach to election coverage, as outlined in the Editorial Policies. By way of illustration, external monitoring of 612 ABC Brisbane's coverage of the first week of the election campaign by Media Monitors showed the 'share of voice' coverage to be 43.3% ALP, 38.3% LNP, 13% Greens and 5.4% Independents. We note your view that listener dissatisfaction with the major parties should encourage a greater level of coverage of non-ALP and non-LNP candidates; however, we cannot agree that this changes the ABC's editorial obligations as stipulated in the Policies, or that the ABC's level of coverage of independent candidates was discriminatory.

We note you raise concerns that the ABC failed to cover the issues of privatisation and population growth during the campaign. Whilst we do not dispute that such issues may be of some interest, and we note they were platforms on which you conducted your campaign as an independent candidate in the electorate of Mount Coot-tha, we believe that the two issues were not raised as significant election issues and hence were not afforded detailed coverage on the basis of newsworthiness.

ABC Radio notes that the Morning program took hundreds of talkback calls during the campaign on a variety of issues and the matter of privatisation was only raised by you. We further note that your question on the topic was put to State Treasurer Andrew Fraser by Ms King on 13 March and answered on-air. Ms King was clear in putting the question to Mr Fraser that it was submitted by you, noting you were an independent candidate for the seat of Mout Coot-tha, and that you had previously written directly to Mr Fraser on the matter. This was as part of a weekly segment on the Morning program during the campaign in which Mr Fraser and his LNP Opposition counterpart Tim Nichols discussed the big political issues of the week. The segment covered a range of topics that day including preference deals, uranium in north Queensland, the mood of the electorate in key Brisbane seats and the Leaders debate.

We note you raise concerns that Mr Fraser's on-air response to your question concerning privatisation appeared contrary to the written correspondence you received from Mr Fraser on the matter, and that you were 'entitled to air-time... to rectify that misinformation'. Having reviewed the broadcast, we note that Mr Fraser's on-air response to the question 'yes or no: are there any assets you plan to privatise' was 'no, and I've written back to James and we don't have an ideological commitment to pursuing privatisation'. We cannot agree that further correction or clarification was required by you; the statement made by Mr Fraser on-air was not presented as factual content by the ABC but clearly were the views of Mr Fraser and the ALP. Accordingly, we believe that if you have any concerns as to the level of assurance Mr Fraser provided in his written correspondence with you on this matter is most appropriately raised by you directly with Mr Fraser.

With respect to the interview with Mr Fraser by Ms King on 13 March, we note you raise specific concerns of 'lightweight' treatment, when compared with Ms King's treatment of Ms Bligh in an interview on 18 March, most notably in respect to the issue of privatisation. The Editorial Policies state that, with respect to interviews, it is a matter of editorial judgement as to how, if and when the completed interview will be broadcast or published. Accordingly, we assess each interview for compliance with the ABC's editorial principles. In respect to the two interviews to which you refer, we can find no evidence to suggest they were not in keeping with the ABC's editorial standards.

We note you raise concerns regarding the interview with Ms Bligh's husband, Greg Wither, on 17 March on the Morning program. ABC Radio advise that the interview intentionally focussed on Mr Wither's experiences as the spouse of the leader of a political party, not policy information. ABC Radio also note that the Morning program sought an interview with LNP leader Lawrence Springborg's spouse, but this was not granted. Having reviewed the interview, we consider it to be appropriate and relevant in providing a different human interest angle to the current major news event of the time - the election - and of interest to the listening audience.

As indicated above, coverage in respect to the non-major parties and independent candidates during election campaigns is determined on the basis of newsworthiness. Whilst we note you provided information in respect to issues you considered to be worthy of coverage - including population growth, privatisation, and a survey being conducted on your website - the ABC determined, consistent with the principles outlined in the Editorial Policies that note staff are responsible for exercising editorial judgement, that these issues were not of news value at the time, and hence detailed coverage was not warranted. We further note that it is not the ABC's role to 'use its influence to prevail upon the major parties to respond' to the survey you were conducting on your website.

In addition to your question concerning privatisation being put to Mr Fraser on 13 March, you spoke on-air on the Breakfast program with Spencer Howson on 10 March. ABC Radio advise that Mr Howson had asked if community members were willing to pay $130 for a ticket to attend the Leaders debate. We note that your talkback call on the matter was put to air, you were identified by your full name and as an independent candidate for the Mount Coot-tha electorate. In addition to expressing your views on the Leaders debate ticket pricing, and concerns that the media and the debate would not address a number of important issues, you advised that you were participating in a free public debate in the Mount Coot-tha electorate and advised the date, time and location.

We regret you feel that the ABC demonstrated disdain for independent candidates in the Queensland State election, based on your experiences and those of fellow independent candidate Dave Zwolenski. However, we again point out that ABC coverage of independent candidates is determined on the basis of newsworthiness, consistent with our statutory obligations.

We note you make specific reference to a comment by either Ms King or Kellie Higgins-Devine on 20 March that noted an independent candidate was very late in releasing their policy statement, some two days before the election. On the basis of the information you have provided, we have been unable to identify the comment in the broadcasts of that day.

In both your blog and your email of 1 May, you allege 'shabby treatment' by 612 ABC Brisbane Program Director Kellie Riordan. ABC Radio advise that Ms Riordan telephoned you in March to assist you in understanding the process by which stories should be pitched to program teams, and also provided to you contact emails for those program teams. Ms Riordan explained that stories are judged on newsworthiness and relevance to the listening audience. We understand Ms Riordan noted you had already appeared as a talkback caller on the Breakfast program once, and had your question concerning privatisation put to Mr Fraser, and considered you had been provided sufficient coverage. We note that following this telephone conversation, you emailed Ms Riordan on 20 March regretting having argued so heatedly with her for so long, and reiterating your concerns that 612 ABC Brisbane was serving Brisbane voters very poorly.

Having reviewed your exchanges with Ms Riordan, on both the information provided by you and ABC Radio, we cannot agree that you were treated disrespectfully or inappropriately. Instead, we note that Ms Riordan articulated the ABC's editorial principles with respect to election coverage, and provided you with appropriate means by which to pitch stories to program teams to enable opportunities for coverage.

In your email of 27 May, you raise concerns that Ms King deleted two blog posts you submitted to the Morning program website. Please note that the ABC publishes blog posts based on numerous criteria including their relevance to the on-air program, their coherence and focus. The ABC is under no obligation to publish all blog posts submitted, and the moderation principles for user-generated content are outlined in section 9 of the Editorial Policies.

Unfortunately, the two blog posts you submitted are no longer available. However, ABC Radio advises that the Program Director, Ms Riordan, recalls that they articulated a general view as to why the Government should be opposed to privatisation and, on the basis of lack of relevance to the matters being covered on the program, were not published. Further, Ms Riordan advises that she cannot recall any posts that were critical of Ms King being submitted by you, but notes that posts that are critical of the program are routinely published on the blog.

I wish to assure you that the ABC is committed to editorial independence, and to coverage of election campaigns in accordance with its editorial principles outlined in the Code of Practice and Editorial Policies. The ABC establishes, for each election, an Election Coverage Review Committee which monitors and reviews the ABC's performance, balance and fairness in accordance with the editorial principles. Having reviewed the ABC's coverage of the Queensland State election, the Committee found it to be in keeping with the editorial principles. By way of illustration, 612 ABC Brisbane's cumulative coverage during the election, which closely matches polling, was 5:01:31 for the ALP; 4:53:59 for the LNP; 0:30:09 for the Greens; 0:46:59 for independents; and 0:20:45 for other coverage.

In summary, and having reviewed all the matters which you raise in your email of 1 May and blog post of 30 April, we believe that the 612 ABC Brisbane coverage of the Queensland State election, and the treatment of you as an independent candidate, was fair and appropriate, and in keeping with the editorial principles for election coverage and news and current affairs content as outlined in the ABC's Code of Practice and Editorial Policies.

With respect to your email of 27 May, we note you raise a separate concern as to whether you were deliberately cut off when you phoned in to the 612 ABC Brisbane Morning program that day to participate in talkback during a segment featuring Ms Bligh that covered, amongst other issues, privatisation. You also seek advice as to whether you are welcome to express your views on 612 ABC Brisbane, in particular the Morning program.

ABC Radio advise that you did not identify yourself by name when calling the program for talkback that day, and hence your call could not have been deliberately screened with the intention of not putting you to air. As is often the case with talkback, the volume of calls and time constraints were the likely cause of your call not being put to air. In this case, the Morning program producer, Simon Scoble, notes that callers telephoning after approximately 10:23am that morning were thanked for calling and advised there was no further time available for calls.

I understand Mr Scoble telephoned you on 28 May to explain the talkback process and your concerns in respect to this matter. As Mr Scoble advised, talkback calls are put to air at the producer's discretion and are judged on a number of factors including, but not limited to, relevance to the topic being discussed, whether the point to be made by the caller has already been sufficiently covered, and whether the point to be made will be of interest to the audience and can be made clearly and succinctly. Where possible, programs endeavour to give as many people as possible an opportunity to contribute to talkback, within the context of putting to air a diversity of voices and views, and other programming constraints and considerations.

I am assured by ABC Radio that you are welcome to contribute to 612 ABC Brisbane talkback, as is the case for all members of the community, noting that all calls will be assessed in respect to the editorial talkback considerations described above. In the case of your call on 27 May, we do not believe you were deliberately cut off or not put to air, and instead note that the management of the talkback session with Ms Bligh was in keeping with the ABC's editorial principles.

Nevertheless, please be assured that all of your concerns with respect to both election coverage and talkback on 612 ABC Brisbane have been conveyed to ABC Radio management.

Thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with us, and for providing us an opportunity to respond. Please note, for future reference, that complaints about ABC editorial standards are best submitted via our online complaints form at: http://www.abc.net.au/contact/complain.htm.

Yours sincerely

Kirsten McLeod

Audience & Consumer Affairs

See also: "Brisbane ABC suppresses alternative candidates in state elections despite listener dismay with major parties" of 30 Apr 09, "Brisbane's local ABC radio fails to hold Anna Bligh to account over privatisation" of 28 May 09.

Comments

The people at the ABC seem to be victims of their own bias. They actually believe that they should report the news according to the probability of a particular outcome, which they then make almost inevitable! This is a frightening failure to promote democracy and choice by providing information. Surely the letter writer (or the person who does the dictation) knows that both parties are just hacks for big business?

"The ABC's approach to election coverage focuses on the Government and official Opposition on the basis that one of the two major parties will ultimately form government and thus represent the principal points of view. Whilst not discounting the views or policies of the other parties and independent candidates, coverage in respect to such parties and candidates is determined on the basis of newsworthiness. The Policies also note that the ABC reserves the right to withhold free broadcast time to political parties, including those not currently represented in the Parliament concerned, on the basis of the measure of demonstrated public support for the party."

I noticed as well that the letter-writer, Kirsten MacLeod, says the ABC judged that "population growth" was among issues that "were not of news value at the time, and hence detailed coverage was not warranted."

This comment really seems to indicate ideological blindness on the part of the ABC because they incessantly report on population growth in the most unvaried booster fashion. But they cannot see that the public must have the right to hear the other side and that responsible journalism would sheet home the responsibility for population grwoth and its consequences to the Bligh gov.

And as if the ABC covered much at all that was newsworthy or sought any depth to views. I agree with tyou that interviewing Captain Bly's hubby was a ridiculous conceit and waste of public time.

With friends like the ABC, who needs enemies?

Please keep