The ABC board has until December 15 to respond to a formal letter from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher seeking answers to his questions about the board’s compliance with the ABC Act.
Under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 the board has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.
The 14 questions posed by the minister in a formal letter to ABC chair Ita Buttrose on December 1 relate to the Four Corners program Inside the Canberra Bubble, broadcast on November 9.
The program exposed both cynicism and sexism and, simply put, men behaving badly, to the systemic detriment of women and their careers in public and political life.
The program’s contemporary examples controversially centred on two current federal ministers, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.
At the outset I want to note it is perfectly in order for a Minister of the Crown to write such a letter if they have any concern about the statutory functions of an agency under the minister’s portfolio responsibilities.
But under the ABC Act, the ABC is not subject to ministerial direction.
Among the ABC board’s duties is 8(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the corporation. Mr Fletcher’s 14 questions cover his concerns:
- That the privacy of Ministers Tudge and Porter has been compromised
- That Mr Porter has not been fairly treated by the program’s reference to his past behaviour as a university student or school student
- That ABC managing director David Anderson did not satisfy himself about the accuracy of his statement to a Senate committee that all relevant information had been provided to ministers Tudge and Porter before the broadcast
- That the ABC failed to ensure fair and honest dealings, accuracy and impartiality in that Four Corners failed to report that the woman the subject of an alleged incident in the Public Bar had denied the allegations to Four Corners
- That Four Corners‘ use of Senator Hanson-Young as a commentator was inappropriate
- That Four Corners breached privacy under its published Code of Practice
- That the board lacked judgment in deeming the personal lives of politicians were newsworthy
- That the board approved material irrelevant to compliance with the Ministerial Code of Conduct
- That the board approved politically biased material that only reflected adversely on Liberal Party MPs
- That the board approved the broadcast of politically aligned commentators in the report
- That the board approved a program clearly biased against the Liberal Party and failed to report on conduct engaged in by Labor, Greens or independents politicians.
And here’s the gravity of Minister Fletcher’s letter: “Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program demonstrates a failure by the board in its duty under Section 8 of the ABC Act to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information by the ABC is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.”
Breaking: Statement from Minister Alan Tudge: Tonight, matters that occurred in my personal life in 2017 were aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program. I regret my actions immensely and the hurt it caused my family. I also regret the hurt that Ms Miller has experienced.”
— Sally Neighbour (@neighbour_s) November 9, 2020
Such is the portent of this letter it is fair to say that if Mr Fletcher is not satisfied with Ms Buttrose’ response he has the power to recommend to executive council (that’s the Governor-General and federal cabinet) that the ABC board be terminated and replaced forthwith.
Now the two ministers exposed in the Four Corners report have responded differently.
Mr Tudge acknowledges his conduct and has apologised and sought forgiveness from family and friends.
Mr Porter rejects as inaccurate the report on his conduct and the corroborative eyewitness evidence used by Four Corners to justify its report on his conduct.
Mr Porter has the right to lodge his own complaint or to take legal action against the ABC for defamation of character.
But why his party political colleague, the Minister for Communications, should use the heavy hand of a formal letter to Ms Buttrose in these circumstances is a question worth asking.
Statement from Christian Porter on Four Corners story rejects as “totally false” the claim about the Public bar episode
“Given the defamatory nature of many of the claims made in tonight’s programme, I will be considering legal options.” pic.twitter.com/6UaIr0WewX
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) November 9, 2020
If he has complaints about Four Corners, why not lodge them with the Australian Communications and Media Authority for independent adjudication?
Like all broadcast media the ABC is held to account by this external regulator.
And it is subject to defamation and contempt proceedings like any publisher in our democracy.
So a headline covering Mr Fletcher’s letter could justifiably read: Fletcher threatens to sack Ita.
Under these circumstances why should an objective observer not conclude that Paul Fletcher, the Minster for Communications, is abusing his power?
The Four Corners report was about our political system’s treatment of women.
There’s one rule for the men it seems … and a different rule for the women.
And now Ita is being brought to understand that this is the way Mr Fletcher’s world works.
Quentin Dempster is an advocate for public broadcasting in Australia