Words to flail and words to nail

ABCFained

By Peter Clarke
February 7, 2013

Even the toughest journalist, with the most scar tissue, flinches at any accusation of bias. Or unfairness. Or lack of impartiality and balance in their reporting and analysis. It is a matter of personal pride and professional integrity.

These words and the meanings they bear lie at the heart of the current controversy swirling around veteran ABC Local Radio broadcaster, Jon Faine, and the negative findings by the national broadcaster’s internal Audience and Consumer Affairs Department.

Sadly, these words are hurled at perceived “opponents” by journalists and peeved citizens alike, in a range of differing contexts, with little regard to their actual meaning both in theory or professional practice. Of course, the antidotes to these accusations from whatever source are nearly always “facts” and logical calm analysis. Both, paradoxically, are rare commodities in these days of intense partisanship and ideological passions demonstrated by journalists, political players (not only politicians) and politically engaged citizens.

To make clarity and reliability even more elusive, the digital revolution has brought us ever-greater volumes of “journalistic” opinion, commentary and ostensible analysis, often masquerading as “straight reporting” or presented as a mélange of hybridised forms. The former clearer boundaries and marking of journalistic genres have fallen away.

So, as we pursue the story around Jon Faine’s on-air interviews with Michael Smith and Mark Baker and the negative findings against him, I offer a reflection on these key terms terms to anchor, to some extent, these notions for all of us as the discussion and debate unfold further, here and elsewhere.

But first … the ABC’s continuing silence about the Faine affair and what that might portend.

In the contemporary spirit of keeping you well aware of the enquiry process and able to access as many primary documents as possible, here are the emails I have sent so far to the first obvious contact points within the ABC.

Denise Musto works within the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs Department. Despite that inviting title, it was not easy to get through even to her. Her first response when I asked for the detailed reasons for the negative findings against Faine was to ask me (reasonably enough) “What is your interest in this?”

She initially indicated that there would be no release of any detailed reasons to clarify the brief public statement (online within the Department’s site) of a negative finding against Faine.

She then avowed she was not a “spokesperson” and somebody from Radio Policy in Adelaide would ring me. They didn’t.

I then rang Denise Musto again. She assured me the assigned person from Radio would ring me. They haven’t.

Yesterday, I emailed Denise to prompt her to expedite the contact from the person from Radio Policy. Naturally, I have many questions to ask that person regarding the complaints process itself and the ABC’s policy around it.

 Dear Denise,

 I really appreciate your assistance so far in obtaining clarifications on the negative findings against Jon Faine at 774 Melbourne.

 As I discussed with you, and as you well know, the ABC has so far published a minimal and bald statement of the findings.

 There is no set of detailed reasons. This is despite the fact that a range of statements are made in the released findings with no reasoned justification of those statements measured against the Editorial Guidelines and the real world events surrounding the Faine interviews in question nor the larger context around those interviews in the days leading up to the Smith/Baker exchanges with Jon Faine.

 The original broadcasts were public. The findings are public and now amplified by reportage and commentary including from the ABC’s own Media Watch. And the ABC’s Editorial Guidelines are public as is appropriate for a tax-payer funded national broadcaster.

 It is more than remarkable that the key piece of the mosaic – the detailed, reasoned findings – have not yet been released despite the widespread interest and discussion around these events.

 As I said to Michael Millett in an earlier email, I do so far remain confident that the documentation of the complaints process would have been thorough and above reproach. Similarly with the rationality and discipline of the complaints process itself.

 However with the continuing “silence” from the ABC despite my legitimate journalistic enquiries, my confidence is being tested and my concerns about the process sharpened.

 I am wondering as the day continues when that person from Radio Policy in Adelaide will contact me?

 It was supposed to be yesterday.

 We continue to report, question and analyse the ABC’s silence on this matter.

 Our key aim is to identify accurately all the facts relevant to the process to inform open and legitimate reporting, analyses and public discussion.

 I believe that aim is aligned with the ABC’s own journalistic mission.

 Thanks, Denise.

 Regards,

 Peter

There was again no contact from anybody from the ABC as requested. Nor any follow-up from Ms Musto to explain that lack of promised contact.

Before emailing Denise Musto, I emailed Michael Millett, a former journalist himself, and now Director of Corporate Affairs at the ABC with a prime responsibility to communicate externally on behalf of the ABC. He was the person who responded to the ABC’s Media Watch program’s enquiries about the applicability and scope of the current ABC Editorial Guidelines in relation to programs such as Faine’s.

Good morning, Michael,

 I am sure you are aware there is considerable controversy swirling around the Faine findings.

 At one level, detailed analysis of those findings in company with the actual broadcast interviews set against the relevant sections of the public Editorial Guidelines and the detailed reasons for the negative findings awaits. 

 One crucial element in that mosaic is missing. The detailed reasoning underpinning the findings. So far we have only the bald statement of findings. That statement raises more questions than it clarifies.

 I remain confident the committee documented their process comprehensively as they applied the guidelines to the actual interviews (presumably using the transcript AND the audio). However, so far their detailed reasons have not been made available, as clearly they should be for clarity around the “judgment” and the integrity of that process within the publicly funded broadcaster.

 I have read your reply to Media Watch offering some insight into the “criteria”.

 I now seek your advice on exactly when the full and detailed reasons from the committee’s proceedings will be released for public analysis and comment?

 In this election year, this would appear to be crucial for clear understanding all round especially regarding the finding’s reference to “argumentative”.

 For your information, here is the link to what has been published so far: http://australiansforhonestpolitics.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/who-is-wearing-the-kafka-mask-at-the-abc/

 Thanks, Michael for your assistance in clarifying this matter.

 Sincerely,

 Peter

 

Mr Millett has not responded so far.

It is more than passing strange that the ABC’s communications in response to my enquiries have been so stubbornly non-existent. Not even a pro forma brush-off – for the record (and corporate “politeness?).

One of my Twitter correspondents, with some significant experience in very similar matters earlier at the ABC, has opined that the ABC executives responsible for this process know they have “erred” and are looking for a way out of the situation. At this point, I have been unable to authenticate that view but the ABC have, by their refusal to clarify or provide even the most basic information so far, induced deeper suspicions and speculation of both the more sober and wilder kind.

The question remains: when will the ABC release the detailed reasons that resulted in the negative findings against Faine?

And the supplementary questions: Is there, in fact, a detailed record of the complaints committee’s proceedings and detailed reasons? Who was on that committee and what was their experience and expertise in making these complex, detailed assessments and judgments? Is a review of the findings possible within the complaints policy or process? Is, in fact, a review (formal or informal) occurring internally in response to Jon Faine’s request and submission as reported by Crikey

Further, if the ABC ultimately refuses or is unable to publish those detailed reasons (as is appearing now more likely than not) what is the actual reason for that bizarre refusal or inability? Some kind of claimed “policy”? If so, what animates and justifies such a policy of non-communication and obfuscation coming from a major, tax-payer funded, communication, journalistic organisation? One that makes a major public finding of “lack of impartiality” against one of its leading journalistic, daily broadcasters.

Now to some brief comments on the words in play within this debate and controversy.

FACTS

This is the journalist’s touchstone. It is a concept so deeply ingrained that we all pay homage to the power and reliability of THE FACT.

 I am reminded of Bertold Brecht’s support of his epic theatre style citing the thought experiment of ten different people witnessing a car crash. In describing and re-telling the story of the crash, each will tell it in different ways, firstly because they observed it from a different angle (a term used constantly by journalists and their editors “What is your angle on this story?”) and, more fundamentally, because each human being brings to the act of perception, observation and storytelling a range of internal mental forces including visual imagination, memory and, yes, forms of “bias” or inherent prejudice.

Objectivity and subjectivity simultaneously combining to produce what many would see as factually reliable – “the eye-witness report”.

Even more sharply relevant to the Faine case, which in many observers’ and Faine himself’s view hinges on the reliability of “facts”, is this reflection on the nature of facts from cultural historian, Mary Poovey in her book, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society.

In her opening chapter she identifies the basic problem we all face with “facts” and in our various ways manage:

What are facts? Are they incontrovertible data that simply demonstrate what is true? Or are they bits of evidence marshaled to persuade others of the theory one sets out with? Do facts somehow exist in the world like pebbles, waiting to be picked up? Or are they manufactured and thus informed by all the social and personal factors that go into every act of human creation? Are facts beyond interpretation? Or are they the very stuff of interpretation, its symptomatic incarnation instead of the very place where it begins?

  I fear most of us, for much of the time, despite our every day encounters with and experience of the contest of “facts”, hold tightly to the notion that facts are more like self-contained “pebbles”, sufficient and potent unto themselves, not, as Poovey implies, largely human constructs flowing from human acts of storytelling, induction, deduction and assumption.

The “pebble” metaphor seems to hold strong sway in the journalistic profession. It sits at the centre of the ideology surrounding news journalism. It is why, in my opinion, the live, unedited broadcast interview offers us citizens in a democracy one of the best chances to apprehend more reliable, authentic information, assuming, of course the interview is being conducted by an experienced and skilful practitioner.

BALANCE AND BIAS

 These two notions are in a seesaw relationship with each other. Balance would seem to exclude bias and bias destroys balance.

It is barely worth emphasising, these are attributes as observed by others (in journalists’ work or by some in their “attitudes”). They do not exist autonomously.

The ABC’s Editorial Guidelines are a comprehensive and semi-regulatory approach to minimising perceptions and complaints of bias and a solid framework for ABC journalists to work within. That doesn’t remove the deep ambiguity around the key terms used in the guidelines.

While we practitioners and our audiences use “bias” freely to mean many things in different circumstances, theorists have come up with many types of “bias” including conscious, purposeful “partisan” bias, most evident in propaganda (that pervades so much of our journalism), and less conscious or unconscious bias that flows from unwitting incompetence or a journalist’s ideology.

It is worth mentioning here that all storytelling, printed, aural, visual or a combination of all three, is highly selective.

Some journalism academics use “framing theory” to describe and analyse this inevitable phenomenon present in how individual journalists and their bosses decide how to approach a story: what to focus upon, what to include, what to leave out. The ANGLE.

Even the most determined claims of “objectivity and impartiality” by journalists are subject to this inevitability of journalism and storytelling.

The strictures of time and space themselves are forceful shapers of “bias, impartiality and objectivity”.

As we listen to the Jon Faine interviews with Mark Baker and Michael Smith on 23rd November 2012, three journalists in a feisty contest over “facts”, we should bear all this in mind.

Even more pertinent, especially in the absence of a public, detailed explanation of the ABC’s complaints committee’s process, we are left to wonder how that committee actually approached their task? How did each member understand the notions in play: fairness, impartiality, open-mindedness, bias, balance etc? Did the committee as part of their process clarify that for themselves sufficiently well to make an authentic and appropriate judgment against the guidelines and the recording of the interview?

How did they go about applying the words and notions to this specific case? Did they merely read the transcripts or listen carefully to the audio (essential in my view in appraising the dynamic and “fairness” of a radio interview)?

Did they examine other relevant outputs by Faine or his colleagues that may have given broader context to the interviews themselves?

We simply do not know yet.

If this seems pedantic I suggest you think again. An often “annoying” but serious and apparently principled interviewer has been severely rapped over the knuckles publicly. Strong doubt has been cast upon his journalistic integrity, his most precious professional attribute. All by his own employers, with no detailed explanations for him (I understand) or for his many colleagues looking to their own interviewing practices.

Or for us.

What is actually going on at the ABC? It is a sharply legitimate question to our national broadcaster. Is it only bureaucratic inertia, incompetence or maladroitness that has shaped their communication behaviours to this point? Or, as many are quick to speculate about and assert, there is a deeper malaise creeping through the one key journalistic organisation we should be able to rely upon for courage, authenticity and accuracy, especially during this highly partisan and propaganda flooded election year.

The story continues.

Margo Kingston declaration: I know two people involved in the Jon Faine story. Mark Scott was an editorial executive for some years before I left Fairfax. I am unaware of exactly who decided to withdraw Fairfax’s support for Webdiary, but I do not believe Scott was a major driver. My impression was that he liked the Webdiary experiment. We had harsh words during more than one industrial dispute between journos and management, or rather I had harsh words and he was polite. I was Mick Millett’s colleague in the Sydney Morning Herald Canberra bureau for some years and he was my Bureau Chief for a time. As my Canberra boss Mick strongly supported my work when Sydney tried to censor it. He was a great journalist and the SMH was stupid not to make him editor. Sadly for them, happily for him he responded by joining the ABC.

Comments


  1. Your letters and correspondence to the ABC are masterpieces of eloquent questioning and restraint and your article a beautiful piece of writing.
    I would hope it is as simple as they’ve made a mistake in disciplining Jon Faine.
    My gut feeling is that the ABC have been politicised, continues to be so even under scrutiny and is rotten .. from the top down.

  2. sulphurcrested says:

    The silence from the ABC is telling.
    Your contact who “has opined that the ABC executives responsible for this process know they have “erred” and are looking for a way out of the situation” would appear to be correct for how else is the deafening silence and ignoring of requests in phone calls and writing to interpreted?
    A publicly funded institution, veering into political partisanship and refusing to answer requests in this way is Orwellian.
    How dare these pricks hijack our ABC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  3. Dictators are not answerable to anyone

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