Happy to face #Faine ‘Star Chamber’: @Colvinius

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By Peter Clarke
February 27th, 2013

EXCLUSIVE

Last night, I was watching 730 on ABC Television. As we can now, I also had my iPad fired up to follow the #abc730 hashtag as the program went to air.

With the cryptic words of the recent Jon Faine negative finding from the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit still buzzing on my frontal lobes, I was rather amazed to see an interviewer, Leigh Sales, whom I generally admire for the brevity and forensic character of her interview questions, appear to become somebody else.

Bob Brown was the interviewee on a link. Clashes between Japanese whaling and re-fuelling vessels and Sea Shepherd boats in the Southern Ocean was the central topic.

As I remember, Sales in an interview last year with now Greens leader, Christine Milne, exhibited a similar “Mr Hyde” transformation: not listening, hectoring, seeming to have a single line she wished to pursue at all odds. Not forensic, revealing nor at all clever. Except if she was “under instructions” to “do” Brown.

It was not a pretty sight from a frontline journalistic interviewer.

Of course Brown’s claims and assertions needed plenty of testing. He, as a contrarian, in the scheme of things, usually has to bat off quite egregious questions to bring the audience back to some logic and his line of argument.

That is what he did last night. He was able to sidestep Sales’ technique with ease.

The key words from the Faine finding flew through my mind:

“argumentative”? – check

“over-simplification”? – check

Sales’ cringe-worthy use of a simplistic analogy to equate breaking windows on illegally parked cars in her neighborhood with the Sea Shepherd’s activities in the whale sanctuary and serious questions of international law were clearly “over-simplification”.

“strongly-stated personal opinion”? – check

“due impartiality”? – well this is the clincher, catch-all phrase replete with ambiguity and deeply dependent on subjective responses on the part of citizen consumers and potential complainants.

I tweeted a brief critique of the interview. Others on the #abc730 hashtag were more pungent and clearly did not perceive “due impartiality” in Sales from their perspective.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe the Sales-Brown interview last night warrants a complaint for “bias” or lack of “impartiality” on Sales’ part. A critique of her approach and professional technique? Yes. By any measure, the outcome of that interview for us citizens was a very thin gruel.

That after all is the only real reason for major broadcast, “set piece”, accountability interviews. To reveal “factual” information, test claims and create coherence as optimally as possible in the (always) brief time allocated.

Showing off, digging in journalistic spurs for the sake of it are superfluous to the task. And almost inevitably counter-productive as last night again demonstrated.

The key and central point here is about the consistent application of the ABC’s Editorial Guidelines. And the validity and consistency (or lack of it) of the Faine negative finding in that wider context.

More broadly, we are questioning the actual application of the Editorial Guidelines across the news journalistic output of the ABC in the light of the Faine finding, his strenuous objections to the finding and the subsequent stonewalling by the ABC in relation to the ACTUAL reasoning IN CONTEXT behind that specific finding against Faine.

Is the process, as we have seen it unfold in the Faine case, appropriate, effective, helpful?

Or is it fundamentally flawed, overly secretive, and disconnected from the daily challenge of frontline accountability interviewing?

This is important not only for the journalistic practitioners who operate under the ABC Editorial Guidelines but for us as citizen consumers of the ABC’s journalistic news services.

Leigh Sales received a Walkley for her now famous interview with Federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott last year. It was one of Abbott’s very rare appearances in front of a more forensic and well prepared journalistic interviewer. His minders must have been in some agony as they watched their boss struggle on national television.

Sales took it right up to him. That is surely her job. Not to act as a supine conduit for partisan propaganda. We are already immersed in that on a daily basis. Our lead journalists have a professional duty to cut through that avalanche of spin and media minding and training for our sakes. Sales was “argumentative” if that is the description the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit complaints committee wants to use. Others may say “assertive”, “meeting the challenge” of an accountability, “contest” style interview.

Jon Faine himself on live radio during his Morning program on 774 ABC Melbourne used very assertive interview techniques while interviewing Tony Abbott. It is cited by Barrie Cassidy in an op-ed piece in the ABC’s The Drum about how easy he believes the news media had been on the Opposition Leader.

Here is the relevant extract from The Drum article:

“Abbott, discussing the asylum seekers issue, asserted:

Frankly, we’ve had 22,000 illegal arrivals, almost 400 illegal boats …

Faine responded:

They’re not illegal. Tony Abbott, do I need to remind you that the use of words in this is critical? They are not illegal arrivals. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum when you are a refugee.

Abbott:

Well, I’m making my point Jon …

Faine:

Well, so am I making mine! And I think it’s been made to you before.

Tony Abbott did not further dispute the point. Like an errant school kid, he seemed to accept the admonishment. Yet within 24 hours, he was again referring to asylum seekers as illegals. Nobody in the media pulled him up. He knew they wouldn’t. They rarely do”.

I leave imagining the vocal tone of both Faine and Abbott to you. A transcript is a mere indication of the whole effect.

After 730 last night I became aware that publisher, Margo Kingston, had asked a direct question, via Twitter, of Head of News Policy at the ABC, Alan Sunderland.

One of the evolving joys of social media for journalists (“citizen” or otherwise), is the possibility to directly ask, in public, key questions of accountable figures.

Mark Scott, the ABC Managing Director, uses his Twitter account to largely “broadcast” and engage in anodyne Twitter exchanges.

I have asked questions of Scott about the Faine finding via Twitter and email. He has not responded. Not even with a polite brush-off. Or a bon mot.

Alan Sunderland

Alan Sunderland

Alan Sunderland was more forthcoming (slightly) on Twitter last night.

I then entered the Twitter questioning of Sunderland

In a later tweet Sunderland made clear his support for the “process” – the one we are questioning:

Later I pressed Sunderland on how he advises his journalists in relation to “argumentative” and “personal opinion” in the Faine finding.

This morning I approached Sunderland again via Twitter to ask him to clarify his comments around “argumentative” and his “advice” or guidance to journalistic interviewers wondering what implications the finding and its thrust may have for them.

His earlier reply left me with the impression that the complaints PROCESS is one thing, daily practice is another. Do the twain ever meet in Alan Sunderland’s world?

Sunderland replied via Twitter today that it was not “appropriate” for him to comment further and to seek information from “proper” ABC sources. Of course, we have already tried that to be met with stoney silence or spirited stonewalling and corporate spin.

Sunderland himself added to that today underscoring the problem of secrecy and the absence of detailed reasons for the Faine finding:

There’s more.

During the various Twitter exchanges between Alan Sunderland, Margo Kingston, me and others (you can check our storify collection to see the full conversations) something surprising happened.

Mark Colvin is one of the ABC’s most prominent and revered journalists, presenter of PM, the daily ABC Radio current affairs program and a frontline interviewer of considerable sophistication and effectiveness born of many years in the field and on-air.

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Mark Colvin

Mark also delivered the most recent Andrew Olle lecture, a most erudite and engaging address ranging over the old and the new in journalism as the digital revolution rolls on.

Unlike many older style journos, Colvin has taken to social media, Twitter in particular, like a duck to water adding to his reach and influence significantly.

He must have spied our exchanges with Sunderland in real time because he tweeted this unambiguous opinion in relation to “argumentative” in the negative Faine finding:

By “happy to discuss at work”, I assume Mark meant with Sunderland, his superior.

Colvin stands by his tweet of course and has added this statement:

“I intend to be as tough in interviews as I’ve always been. If that means being dragged in front of some ‘star chamber’, so be it.”

Apart from that, Colvin won’t speak further on the record preferring, I suspect, to ventilate his views on the Faine finding and other “aspects” of the ABC’s Editorial Guidelines with his peers and managers.

Let’s remind ourselves of those other leading ABC journalists who have gone public on their “disagreement” with the finding against Faine.

Most immediate after the release of the finding was Chris Uhlmann, political editor for 730 and daily in the hottest part of the kitchen. He was, in an earlier life, Senior Producer for Faine at 774 ABC Melbourne.

Forthright I think is a fair description of his views about the Faine finding:

  1. The ABC’s finding that Jon Faine is guilty of a “lapse in standards” in 2 interviews on the AWU slush fund is absurd. tinyurl.com/a8xkt26
  2. Jon challenged two journalists to defend claims that the Prime Minister acted improperly in her former career as a lawyer. MTC
  3. Jon believes that, based on the publicly available evidence, the Prime Minister did no wrong. To date, the facts support that view.
  4. The interviews, which so shamed the ABC’s correctness commissars, were robust exchanges between a broadcaster and two journalists. MTC
  5. Jon pressed them to lay out the key allegations and provide evidence to support their claims of wrongdoing. In short, he did his job. Well.
  6. Jon is one of the jewels of local radio’s crown and I am proud that I was once his producer. I await a robust defence of him from management

Uhlmann might, more optimistically, wait for Godot.

There has been no defence of Faine from ABC management so far nor is there likely to be.

We emailed Uhlmann with a series of questions seeking clarification of his tweets. As with Mark Scott and Corporate Affairs Director, Michael Millett, in response to our follow-up questions, he has so far remained silent.

ABC management’s silence in relation to Faine stands in stark contrast to a clear ABC defence of Adelaide ABC Local Radio interviewers, Matthew Abraham and David Bevan who were found guilty of “bias” in an interview in April 2011 with then State Treasurer, Kevin Foley, over an incident of alleged assault in a city venue. That judgment was delivered by The Australian Communications and Media Authority in response to Foley’s complaint: an external process but in reference to the ABC’s Editorial Guidelines.

The ABC at the time “rejected the finding” and extolled the interviewers as “not frightened to ask the tough questions”.

They explicitly said publicly:

“Our interpretation of the ABC’s code of practice in this instance differs from that of ACMA, and we continue to disagree.”

In the wording of its judgment (much more complete and detailed than the ABC’s own internal judgment on Faine) ACMA said:

“If this is how argumentative you are in an interview, is it little wonder you get into strife in a pub after everyone has had a few drinks?”

I invite you to listen to both the Abraham/Bevan interview with Foley and the Faine interview with Smith and Baker and make your own judgments about “consistent and proportionate” application of the ABC Editorial Guidelines.

The ABC defended the former and effectively condemns the latter.

“Consistency”?

A) Matthew Abraham and David Bevan interview with Kevin Foley

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B) Jon Faine interview with Mike Smith and with Mark Baker

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Rafael Epstein

Rafael Epstein

ABC broadcast journalist Rafael Epstein also tweeted an early defence of Faine after the negative finding:

Epstein anchors the Drive program on 774 ABC Melbourne. He sits in the next open plan work area to Faine’s and his team. They have similar on-air duties.

While Faine can be quite abrasive as part of his interviewing style (clearly not always admired by all his colleagues especially those from the News and Current Affairs realms which Faine is not) Epstein uses a more sociable style and approach. But he is as persistent and forensic as Faine in his own way and has been a journalist for many years including stints overseas and in print.

Epstein did agree to go on the record.

I asked him what prompted his strong public support of Faine on Twitter.

“Because it raises lots of questions that we find very hard to resolve. Do I need to re-think the way I do things? … If that is so, what can I and can’t I say? It’s a real clash between regulators and program-makers.”

Epstein suggests that regulators need to make “arbitrary decisions and create boundaries where there aren’t really any boundaries” in their process of interpreting “the rules”.

Despite a bout of head-scratching amongst his colleagues, Epstein doesn’t believe it will “shut anyone up”.

However, he also believes that if Mark Scott or his fellow executives go on the record about the key words “argumentative, personal opinion” etc. that “clarity” would hamper the capacity to adjudicate in the future.

He seems to take a very pragmatic view of that separation of the complaints process from frontline interviewing.

But Epstein also asks, “This is Jon Faine. How different is this to everything else that he does? How is he going to make engaging interesting radio if he is not like this?”

It is worth mentioning here that in the Melbourne radio market, Faine is in a long time ratings tussle with Neil Mitchell on 3AW, a gruff, opinionated, at times quite aggressive and very effective interviewer – for his audience. Personal opinions, arguments, “lack of impartiality” in spades. So Epstein here is pointing to another layer of complexity around Faine’s required role at 774 ABC Melbourne and this cryptic finding against him.

As to “argumentative” in the Faine finding, Rafael Epstein fires up:

“What do we want? Do we really just want to give people four minutes every time we ask a question … you’re interviewing a talkback radio shockjock. If there’s anyone you can interrupt and say ‘ now hold on, you’ve got to give me something good here’, it’s a talkback radio shockjock who’s been dismissed from his job for promoting this very story, at a time when no one in the Canberra Press Gallery, not really anyone of substance, thinks the story has any merit … so given all that context, it’s not clear to me where that adjudication comes from … it’s just a bureaucratic process gone mad”.

So we clearly now have several leading ABC journalists including Mark Colvin, expressing their opposition to the Faine finding. Most on Twitter. Epstein on Twitter and on the record in detail. And, from our soundings, there are many more ABC broadcast journos who aim to keep their head down and shrug off the obvious ambiguities and disconnects.

Those jobs are hard to get and hard to keep after all.

That alone is a deeply unhealthy situation at the national broadcaster.

Editorial Guidelines are essential politically and practically. But they need to work and mesh constructively with the everyday practices of ABC journalists. They are not a kind of fig-leaf to be used when complaints fly.

It is pure speculation but the term “sacrificial lamb” has been bandied about in many of our conversations with ABC insiders about Faine’s predicament.

We all know a Coalition Government is imminent. The ABC has independence under its own legislation but depends entirely on governments of both stripes for their budgets. And both sides of politics have, in power, put strong pressures on the independence of the ABC. Two names of former Communications ministers will suffice to remind us of that duality – Gareth Evans and Richard Alston.

This Faine case has patently shown the ABC’s Editorial Guidelines and the procedures under them as inadequate: no clear right of appeal and far too secret.

Even a cursory survey of ABC programs, news, current affairs and general broadcast journalism shows up a plethora of apparent “transgressions” of the ABC Editorial Guidelines. Yet, an executive such as Alan Sunderland claims “consistency”.

I don’t think so.

This story continues and the next chapter may begin with some of the results from a Freedom of Information Application we have submitted seeking all the relevant documents from the Faine investigation and ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs complaints committee.

Cliche alert: Watch this space!

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AFHP Investigative

More stories on the ABC Jon Faine Affair.

Comments

  1. Anne C. Tan says:

    I also watched Leigh Sales’ interviewing Bob Brown. Despite her hectoring tone, Brown lucidly and calmly argued his case. I felt on balance that she was no match for Brown and his arguments were compelling.


  2. Excellent, gee, besides the likes of IA, I can’t remember reading such a well researched and thorough piece of work, engrossing! Thank you!


  3. Go for it, great work.
    the treatment of Jon Faine has been an episode of ABC management we should not take lightly or dismiss. Must checkout Bob on iview. I’m sure he stuck to his guns, he’s so media savvy and not one I’ve lever seen ruffled.

  4. Robert Bettinzoli says:

    I also watched Leigh sales,disrespect intended small “s”,last night and will not view her again.She is a journalist off the lowest form,I regard her as an ANKLE,on a woman you know what the ankle is three feet lower than.Her disrespect for Mr Brown was only superseded with the arrogant contempt and rudeness she showed with her vicious attack on Nicola Roxon MP on the 4thFeb,,no journalism or interview quality whatsoever.An obvious Liberal heckler.In Mr Browns’ case last night she literally accused him of aiding and abeting a criminal enterprise,Sea Shepherd,of hindering a legitimate enterprise,Japanese whalers, of going about their rightful business,admittedly in a dangerous manner.
    I’m not saying I’ll never watch the ABC,but rest assured I will avoid as best I can viewing l sales and the other oxygen thief c ulhmann.


  5. Disappointed in Leigh Sales, I wonder why she has turned nasty. How would she go interviewing Bernie Banton if he was still with us.


  6. There is no confusion about the reasoning behind recent rulings of the ABC. The unwritten rule is that criticism, argument, aggressiveness even insult of Labor party members and allies is okay, but the same approach to Liberal party members and allies is not okay. If you produced a simple graph (Labor/Liberal/Upheld/Dismissed) the consistency would be obvious. The Sales/Abbott interview was a stand-out exception because Mr Abbott left himself so stupidly exposed that no defence of him was possible.

    The destruction of the federal Labor government, control of the ABC and the overseas broadcast arm it manages and the emasculation and/or sale of the NBN are all part of the Conservative agenda to re-shape Australia.

    The IPA, The Drum’s favourite panellists, has been associated with the Liberal party since the party’s inception in the 1940s. It is funded by corporate donations and feeds its ideas to the Liberal party. This 75-pt plan of the IPA so-called “think tank” shows you what the re-shaping of Australia will look like: http://bit.ly/PXUdV7

    It’s well known that former Liberal PM John Howard stacked the ABC board before his departure. He gave us the Liberal party apparatchik Mark Scott, now MD, and (no longer there) IPA “Fellow” Rob Bruton, among others. Even without Mr Howard’s actions, the levels of complaints handling within the ABC (some can be casually dismissed), the plethora of documentation and “guidelines” on behaviour and conduct, the limitations on the ACMA regulatory body, the fact that website and Twitter content comes under the Director of Radio, lack of transparency — all combine to create a situation that is easily exploited by a biased management. The time for a thorough review and overall has all but run out. There’s more in the ABC menu on my website http://bit.ly/Z1XUC0


  7. Very good points – they haven’t changed!

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