ABC complaints review falls far from the mark

May 17, 2022 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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National broadcaster ABC has announced it is appointing an ombudsman following a review of how the corporation deals with complaints.

Chair Ita Buttrose said the ombudsman would report directly to the board and would be ideally appointed from outside of ABC even though the complaints would be dealt with within the broadcaster. But the report recommends an ombudsman from within the ABC.

The co-CEO of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Peter Wertheim issued statement saying:

“Although it is heartening to note the Reviewers’ recommendation that the current ABC complaints system should be scrapped and replaced with a more impartial and transparent system headed by an Ombudsman, this does not go far enough.

The proposed Ombudsman and all of the members of the complaints unit will be employees of the ABC, as is the case under the present system.  The complaints unit will therefore not remain apart from the ABC’s organisational culture and ‘group think’, which have been a perennial source of complaints over many years.  The ECAJ has long maintained that to be truly independent and at arm’s length, the complaints process must be external to the organisation, as is the case in other sectors of public and corporate life in Australia.

Most importantly, it is far from clear whether the Ombudsman and the complaints unit will have any real teeth, or will simply be more window dressing.   Apart from reporting to the Board, will the findings of the Ombudsman about a complaint be made public?   What powers, if any, will the Ombudsman or the complaint’s unit have to order redress and, if needed, a change of approach by the organisation?

It is also disappointing that even though the report was completed in April, it has only been released now, while public attention is focused on the Federal election four days away.”

ZFA President Jeremy Leibler said, “The ABC inquiry’s recommendations are largely cosmetic. The complaints unit will now have a name change, but the way complaints are considered remains the same. It still won’t be independent; ABC staff are still being asked to pass judgement on their colleagues. The ABC complaints handling system wasn’t fit for purpose before this inquiry, and likely won’t be after these recommendations are implemented.”

In a submission to the review, the ZFA also called for independence between the complaints unit and the relevant content division. Currently, after a complaint is received, it is sent to the relevant content division for their input, which informs the response to the complaint. The ZFA suggested that the complaints unit should form a preliminary decision, based on the published material, before being sending it to the relevant content division for their response. However, the ABC inquiry report indicates no change in this method.

More importantly, on format, the ZFA submission noted that the ABC complaints unit currently only determines whether the main perspectives of an issue is covered, but doesn’t examine how each perspective is portrayed. The ZFA submission pointed to numerous examples where viewers were likely led to positions critical of Israel because of significant differences in background footage, background music, narration, commentators chosen, and time spent on each perspective. The ABC inquiry report does not address this at all.

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) Executive Director Dr. Colin Rubenstein said it was unfortunate that the inquiry failed to propose a “fully external complaints body” that “can address the need for genuine independent oversight of our public broadcaster.”

Dr. Colin Rubenstein said, “We thank the ABC Board for making the appropriate decision to release this independent report commissioned by the ABC into its complaints process before the federal election, and for its promise to implement the report’s recommendations. AIJAC is fully committed to the essential role that a properly funded ABC has to play in providing balanced and impartial news and current affairs in Australia. A properly functioning complaints process is an essential part of that role. Hopefully, our political parties will have enough time to respond to the report before voters cast their ballots over coming days.”

He added: “This appears to be a warts and all report and is an important step forward in kickstarting an honest national conversation on how to best fix a complaints system that has been broken for a very long time. The inquiry clearly received a mountain of written submissions and oral testimonies from a diverse group of individuals and organisations that cannot and have not been ignored.”

Dr. Rubenstein said the report effectively acknowledged that “prospective complainants engaging with the process in good faith are not accorded an acceptable level of procedural fairness.”

Of the key recommendation of the inquiry, an internal ombudsman who would be appointed by and report to the ABC Board, he said, “This and the other recommendations from the inquiry would be a definite improvement over the current highly problematic situation whereby an internal department essentially allows content providers complained about to dominate the decision over whether to uphold or reject a complaint. We are grateful that the ABC Board and the two commissioners have taken the need for significant reforms in complaints handling seriously.”

Dr. Rubenstein noted that the report also addressed other concerns AIJAC has long flagged, such as “the challenge of using the ABC’s antiquated and highly limiting webpage to lodge complaints; the failure of the ABC to consult with complainants once they have lodged a complaint; the ABC’s tendency as an organisation to exhibit a culture of defensiveness which often resists admitting errors and refuses to accept the verdict even when the regulatory umpire, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) finds against it; the inability of ACMA as currently constituted to provide consistent and effective external oversight of ABC content; and the failure of the ABC to publicise successful complaints in an adequately transparent manner.

Despite the numerous positive aspects of the inquiry’s finding, AIJAC continues to believe that only a fully external complaints body can truly address the need for genuine independent oversight of our public broadcasters, and provide assured procedural fairness to complainants.”


2 Responses to “ABC complaints review falls far from the mark”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    How disappointing, and frustrating. The same old methods, and likely to be the same old responses.

    It’s only two days ago the ABC perverted its reportage of the death of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank by focussing with intent on the ‘Israeli police charging with batons upheld into the mourners* carrying the casket’, while neglecting to mention anything about the fact that those same police had an agreement with the family of the deceased that the casket should be placed in the hearse before travelling from the hospital. In contrast, SBS did include those details in reportage. By not reporting this in full, the ABC itself could be accused of incitement.
    *the ‘mourners’ referred to here are very likely to be Palestinians excited to a pitch, and out to cause disturbance. Totally disrespectful of the journalist’s family, totally disrespectful of the occasion. Nobody bothers to even think of that.

  2. Adrian Jackson says:

    Everyone who dislikes the ABC should buzz off and just get a life. If some people don’t like the ABC then don’t watch it.

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