It’s been a busy start to the year for Australia’s largest public service broadcaster.

The ABC has faced a number of challenges and announced a series of changes that will impact its future strategy, all of which contribute to the wider debate surrounding the values of public media – from impartiality to adapting to an increasingly digital media landscape.

The following Focus On PSM summarises some of the key issues faced by the ABC since the start of 2018.

In Detail

› New laws could leave journalists at risk of jail time and undermine freedom of the press → In January, a number of Australia’s largest media organisations, including the ABC, told the Federal Government that they cannot back its proposed foreign interference bill. According to the ABC the bill would expand the definition of espionage to include the receiving and possession of classified or protected documents rather than simply communicating them. This, according to a joint submission, would limit the ability of journalists to scrutinise the government and hold it to account, stating: “The result is that fair scrutiny and public interest reporting is increasingly difficult and there is a real risk that journalists could go to jail for doing their jobs,”. The laws were proposed based on growing government fears regarding “the influence of foreign agents and political donations.” Breaking the law could result in 15 years jail time.

The proposed laws have also been heavily criticised by press freedom advocates. Damning the bill as “oppressive” Reporters without Borders (RSF) said that the bill would criminalise all stages of a journalists work. RSF also criticised the law’s broad, vague and catch-all definition of “classified information” as that which could “cause harm to Australia’s interests”.

Some welcomed changes to the ruling coalition’s bill came in early March, with Attorney General Christian Porter announcing a reduction in jail time to 3-10 years for journalists. The changes will also allow journalists to use the defence of using protected information where they firmly believe it is in the public interest.

However, Paul Murphy, the CEO of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, told The Guardian Australia that the changes had removed some “ridiculous” restrictions but there is still very real concerns about the bill’s vagueness and  the way it will be interpreted when applied as well as the need for journalists “to mount a defence for legitimate reporting”.

As it stands media organisations are continuing to request general media exemption from the law. Decisions on final amendments to the bill will be considered later this month.

Find out more:

New bill would make Australia worst in the free world for criminalising journalism

Stories like The Cabinet Files could land Australian journalists in jail if espionage laws are changed

› Editorial standards and government pressure → Removal and edits of controversial articles by the ABC’s chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici in February, have led to accusations of political interference and censorship at the ABC. They’ve also raised concerns about editorial processes and independence, according to ABC’s MediaWatch and The Conversation.

Both articles attacked the government’s proposal to lower the corporate tax rate. The first was a news article claiming that 1 in 5 of Australia’s largest companies hadn’t paid tax in the past three years. The other, an analysis piece, challenged claims that the cuts would benefit the average worker.

The articles led to a barrage of complaints from the Australian Prime Minister and Treasurer, with numerous companies claiming the articles to be misleading. These accusations led the ABC to remove and repost Alberici’s news article with edits but completely remove her analysis, citing it as being in breach of the broadcaster’s editorial policies – which address the fine line between analysis and opinion.

The removal and edits of the article have raised a number of important questions, as raised by ABC’s MediaWatch and The Conversation’s Johan Lidberg. If there were issues with the articles, how did they not get picked up by the ABC’s editorial team? Are these policies too restrictive on journalists? Could the articles have been simply and transparently edited without being removed? And if the reports were fact-checked, did the ABC take action due to political pressure?

In response to claims of bias , the ABC’s Editorial Director Alan Sunderland released a short video to all ABC staff defending the broadcaster’s independence and editorial policies. In the video he agrees that the ABC must be called to account for the work that they do and that they must “listen carefully to any and all criticism, acknowledge mistakes where we have made them, but also defend our responsibility to deliver impartial, accurate and often challenging coverage on important issues.”

The ABC also released a statement, reading: “Any suggestion the ABC is responding to outside pressure over these stories is incorrect. They have been subject to the normal ABC editorial processes. The internal review of the stories was begun before any complaints were received by ABC News. “

Read also Alan Sunderland’s editorial about impartiality and the ABC within the context of Australia Day.

› Restructure and savings for taxpayers → In early February, the ABC held its first public meetings at the broadcaster’s Sydney headquarters as well as in Tasmania and Queensland. The events were aimed at improving the ABC’s transparency and public accountability as well as revealing its future strategy.

Attended by more than 400 people, the 90 minute meetings allowed the ABC’s editorial board to address questions and criticisms from the public on topics such as cross-programme advertising, cuts to current affairs programming (such as Lateline), staff cutbacks and accusations of bias.

ABC also used the meetings to announce that it now costs the public half of what it cost in 1987, at “just a few cents per day”, according to the broadcaster’s chief financial officer, Louise Higgins. “By the end of 2018 our savings over the last the five years will have increased to $324m; of which we have handed back 78% to government and put the balance back into content for you, our audiences,” Higgins told the audience.

The ABC reiterated its priority of digital investment and unveiled its ABC 2.0 investment strategy in digital technology – in the face of declining audiences via traditional formats. Chairman Justin Milne was quick to point out that the new strategy was not a substitute for broadcast but rather an “additive”, taking a multiplatform approach to content production and transmission.

Managing Director Michelle Guthrie backed the need to expand and diversify the broadcaster’s digital offerings while remaining true to the values of public broadcasting: “Our challenge is to meet the changes in audience behaviour to remain as relevant as we have always been now and into the future.” The news of a restructure follows an announcement in November that the ABC intended to ditch its separate TV and radio divisions in favour of content based units in preparation for a more digitally focussed future.

Some in the audience raised bias and threats to independence as being of particular concern, with one suggesting that the ABC was perceived as having a “anti-liberal-national” lean. Responding to this editorial director, Alan Sunderland, said: “We have a very detailed and a very clear set of editorial standards which we make available to the public. When people contact us and say, ‘You’re biased’ we will say to them, ‘Please give us an example of that’…The challenge for us is to understand when that criticism is unjustified and to hold our ground. We owe that to you.”

More information and key performance indicators:

Inaugural annual public meeting of the ABC 

Content and technology

› New and extended Radio Australia morning show for Pacific and PNG listeners → Listeners in Papua New Guinea and the wider Pacific region are now able to tune into a new morning talk, news and entertainment show. The announcement comes following the closure of ABC’s shortwave radio services to the Pacific and PNG in February last year in an attempt to focus efforts on its FM and digital offerings. The closure was heavily criticised as removing a key and reliable source of information for remote listeners.

› ABC iView planning to go global → ABC’s streaming service could become a global product sometime this year. Unlike the BBC, which closed its global iPlayer service in 2015, iView could be internationalised and will compete with similar products such as Netflix.

› ABC Kids Listen → The ABC has launched a digital radio station and app dedicated to pre-schoolers and their family. The station offers “a safe space to access trusted, educational and entertaining audio programs that feature music and stories from their favourite ABC KIDS characters.”

The links above are to original stories, which are not produced by PMA. ‘Focus on PSM’ brings together stories from regions experiencing periods of heightened debate about the role of public media, media independence and media freedom. PMA does not necessarily endorse these stories nor do they necessarily reflect the view of PMA.


Header image: ABC South Brisbane. Credits: Ash Kyd/Creative Commons