ABC gets stricter editorial guidelines

© Sydney Morning Herald  |  Article link

October 16, 2006

The ABC’s managing director has outlined to staff strict new editorial guidelines designed to tackle perceptions of bias at the national broadcaster. The guidelines will not only apply to news and current affairs, but spread across chat shows, documentaries, opinion programs and comedies.

Mark Scott, who was appointed managing director in May, said while the ABC should express a full range of opinions they must be clearly marked as such for viewers and listeners. They would also stop critics accusing the ABC of bias, he added. “In some ways I understand policies like these can be seen as a massive rod for our own back, a weapon our critics can beat us with, more grounds for more questions at Senate estimates (hearings,)” he told a staff meeting in Sydney. “But (it’s) a very important one for an ABC that takes its reputation for fairness, accuracy, balance and objectivity seriously.”

He met with staff to reveal the new guidelines but the meeting was closed to the media.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which represents ABC staff, has attacked the new guidelines, saying they are unnecessary, vindictive and damaging. CPSU national secretary Stephen Jones said it was hard to understand how the guidelines could work in practice. “Does this mean Communications Minister Helen Coonan will vet every gag on (comedy program) The Glasshouse before it goes to air,” he said in a statement. “This latest absurdity is the end result of stacking the ABC board with political appointees who have no understanding of, or experience in, broadcasting. “It appears the government won’t be happy until it has bullied the ABC into becoming a taxpayer-funded cheer squad.”

Mr Scott is expected to publicly release the full set of guidelines during a speech to the Sydney Institute on Monday night.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan said she was pleased to see that the ABC was paying attention to its editorial policies. “I think the categories they have spelt out make sense. I have got to have a good look at the detail, but my initial impression is that I think it is timely and very well targeted,” Senator Coonan said.

Prime Minister John Howard says he will not tell the management of the ABC how to run its operations. “The ABC is independent, it’s funded by the government, I support the ABC, I don’t believe in privatising the ABC, we should have a public broadcaster,” Mr Howard told reporters in Canberra. “I have expressed concerns about certain things relating to the ABC and I reserve the right to do so in the future, but I’m not going to start giving any public advice to the ABC at the moment regarding this.”