Home » Editorial director Craig McMurtrie signs off after 30 years at the ABC, defends impartiality and importance of national broadcaster

Editorial director Craig McMurtrie signs off after 30 years at the ABC, defends impartiality and importance of national broadcaster

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Editorial director Craig McMurtrie signs off after 30 years at the ABC, defends impartiality and importance of national broadcaster

The ABC has always received its share of brickbats, much of it directed at its unflinching and often award-winning current affairs programs. Of course, the national public broadcaster is more than that — it’s also Bananas, Costa, Bluey, the Hottest 100, quizzing hard, cricket in summer, singing songs to lyrics from car manuals, teens and elders jumbled together, original Australian sitcoms and drama, local radio, emergency broadcasting and more.

In my more than three decades of journalism at the ABC there have been moments that have demanded a single-minded focus — reporting rampant bushfires at home, uprisings and disasters abroad, and at Ground Zero in New York on 9/11.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Former North America correspondent Craig McMurtrie reports on the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001

A carousel of images forever turns in my mind — it includes a front loader scooping up bodies after the horrific Haiti earthquake; the faraway eyes of a little boy who lost a leg in that disaster; the visceral menace of a charging mob in PNG; Apollo 11’s irrepressible Buzz Aldrin in a radiant red blazer at a shuttle launch; the lethal efficiency of a master Inupiat hunter fighting for his way of life in the Alaskan wilderness; and the hissing alien mass of Manhattan’s fallen twin towers.

Being an ABC foreign correspondent can be sleep depriving and occasionally dangerous, but it’s also exhilarating and a privilege — never knowing where or when the next big story might break, providing firsthand reporting for audiences back home.

Head shot of a ginger-haired man with a grey flecked beard, wearing glasses and smiling.
Over three decades at the ABC, Craig McMurtrie has been a foreign correspondent, political journalist, News executive and editorial director.(ABC News)

My ABC time has included less glamorous stints in senior News management and in Editorial Polices — a tiny team dedicated to upholding the ABC’s editorial standards, once dubbed a “motley clique of dour bureaucrats” by a former NewsCorp editor.

Whether in the field, newsroom or office, I have invariably found myself working alongside dedicated colleagues from all parts of Australia and overseas, in all genres, and from all walks of life.

Which is why at the end of my time as editorial director, I find myself addressing (again) the mantra of the public broadcaster’s harshest critics — that it’s hopelessly biased and captured by green-left elites.

Here are some facts:

Graphic showing various bar charts in orange, blue and red.
* Editorial performance from 2018 to November 2022

The blue in the chart above represents impartiality breaches over the past five years determined by editorial complaint investigators at the ABC, who work outside the content divisions and now report to a new ABC ombudsman. More on the ombudsman later.

The red is where the regulator – the Australian Communications and Media Authority — found an impartiality problem with ABC content.

The chart shows impartiality breaches represent a fraction of total upheld complaints (in orange), and across multiple national television channels and radio networks, dozens of local radio stations and a plethora of digital platforms, they are an infinitesimally small proportion of overall published output.

Any breach is regrettable and all are taken seriously. Complaint summaries are published, corrections and editor’s notes added, those responsible are counselled and further training provided. Repeated errors damage reputations and can limit careers.

Roadside sign on a trailer saying TUNE TO ABC.
One of the ABC’s key responsibilities is providing emergency broadcasting during natural disasters, as this sign advised during the 2019 fires in Gippsland.(ABC News: Peter Somerville)

Critics suggest that the ABC pursues a biased editorial agenda in ways not measured by complaint statistics — in the topics and interviews it chooses to highlight.

This claim should be seen in the context of dozens of live microphones spread across the country at any one time, fiercely competitive commissioning editors leading newsrooms and program teams where disagreements over stories aren’t uncommon, and where teams react to breaking local, national and international news every hour of every day.

It includes an accusation that the ABC pursues divisive identity politics. In 2018, a published editorial review examining story selection and unconscious cultural bias found ABC bulletins focused more on national and international issues than commercial media.

ABC television news reported more political stories and more social policy issues (euthanasia debate, policies for children with disabilities, pensions, poverty, girls and STEM, mental health) than the commercial networks, which reported more crime stories.

On radio (aside from levels of crime reporting), the review found little difference between ABC radio news and commercial bulletins. It also found no discernible difference in the reporting of the same-sex-marriage debate running at the time.

More recently, another published external analysis, this time during the last federal election campaign, showed the economy was overwhelmingly the dominant issue across ABC news and current affairs output, followed by health, foreign affairs, housing and leadership.

Some critics still refer to a 2013 survey of Australian journalists to underpin a bogus claim that ABC employees are five times more likely to be Greens voters.

As RMIT ABC Fact Check found, only 34 ABC journalists answered the survey question dealing with voting intentions. Fourteen said they would vote for the Greens. Fourteen. Less than half of 1 per cent of the 4,000-strong ABC workforce.

Of course, if ABC staff voted in line with the rest of Australia at the last federal election, hundreds could have chosen Greens candidates. No-one knows and no-one should. A citizen’s vote, whether they work at the ABC or not, is an entirely personal and private choice.

Often accusations of bias misunderstand what the ABC’s editorial standards for impartiality actually require.

Interior of TV studio with a woman wearing a headset looking at a bank of dozens of TV monitors.
With a staff of 4,000 across the country, the ABC produces programs and content on a range of television, radio and digital platforms.(ABC News: Geoff Kemp)

They don’t require ABC journalists and presenters to somehow expunge their personal opinions and beliefs. What’s expected is that journalists are objective in the method they apply to their work, which means testing information through disciplined, evidence-based, open-minded and fair reporting.

This is more than “bothsideism” and doesn’t mean that every perspective receives equal treatment and equal time. What is required is a balance that follows the weight of evidence. By way of example, that means coverage of climate change should reflect the overwhelming consensus within the international science community that climate change is occurring, or reporting of the pandemic should reflect scientific data which shows approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe.

ABC journalists must be duly impartial, which recognises that content and programs are all different.

Due impartiality is what is adequate and appropriate, whether it’s short-form news, long-form current affairs, a panel discussion, an extended interview, or a weekly satirical show or entertainment program.

You can read more about the guidance on impartiality provided to ABC staff here.

Next is the claim that the ABC is full of inner-city elites.

ABS data demonstrates most Australians live in the major cities. Like the rest of the country, most ABC workers live there too, but ABC staff also live and report in 58 regional communities across the continent, coverage recently strengthened by the recruitment of dozens more regionally based reporters.

Man holding a microphone standing in front of a camera interviewing a man with flooded road in background.
The ABC has an extensive regional network and the team from ABC Central Victoria led coverage of the recent floods in Victoria.(ABC News)

If there has been a gap, it’s serving the fastest-growing suburbs of the country’s biggest cities, which explains in part why the ABC is relocating hundreds of staff from Ultimo in downtown Sydney to Parramatta, by 2024 — a decision managing director David Anderson says is about being “even more connected and representative of communities in metropolitan and outer metropolitan locations”.

What about the perennial claim that the ABC is a conservative-free zone?

Even a cursory check of program websites quickly reveals past and present Coalition politicians and other conservative voices featuring on panel shows and discussion programs. For some critics it’s more about whether the ABC has any conservative presenters hosting its major current affairs shows — notwithstanding the ABC’s statutory obligation under the ABC Act to gather and present news and information that is “accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”.

The journalists presenting national ABC shows like 7.30, Insiders, Q&A, RN Breakfast and others have broad media experience and are among the finest in the country. Sarah Ferguson has worked for UK newspapers, SBS and Nine; David Speers — commercial radio and Sky News; Stan Grant — Seven, NITV, Sky News and CNN; Laura Tingle – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and the Australian Financial Review; Patricia Karvelas – SBS, The Australian and Sky News; Sabra Lane – Ten and Seven; to name a few.

The weekly Insiders program is also sometimes slapped down as “anti-conservative”. For the record, the panel show is dominated by non-ABC journalists. Last year, there were 42 appearances by Nine Media journalists, 28 by News Corporation, 19 by Guardian Australia, 13 from other media and 30 from the ABC.

The ABC has also faced a steady barrage from those ideologically opposed to public broadcasting and from NewsCorp commentators who seem to be increasingly positioning themselves in opposition not only to the ABC, but all other mainstream media.

Greater polarisation holds particular dangers for publicly funded media.

In his essay On Aunty former ABC journalist Jonathan Holmes warned about a “mutually reinforcing paradigm” where progressive talkback radio listeners inevitably gravitate to ABC metropolitan radio because commercial radio talkback is increasingly seeking to build communities of “disgruntled, right-leaning listeners”.

In the ABC’s case, the lure of attracting and retaining a loyal audience mustn’t come at the expense of providing opportunities for all principal relevant perspectives to be heard.

Then there’s the persistent criticism of the ABC’s “unworkable” or “inadequate” personal social media policy.

Some critics have taken to monitoring ABC personalities on social media, particularly Twitter, to compile lists of personal posts they find biased or offensive.

The objective is to build an off-platform case for bias, suggesting opinions on matters of contention on personal social accounts, by anyone associated with the ABC, also smears the public broadcaster.

The ABC’s editorial policies apply to official ABC social accounts — not personal ones. Personal social media activity isn’t subject to pre-publication processes and therefore the ABC does not take editorial responsibility for it.

This doesn’t mean prominent ABC employees, particularly those whose effectiveness at work relies on remaining impartial in the public eye, are free to say anything they like.

You can find the guidelines provided to all ABC staff here.

While the overwhelming majority follow the rules, often demonstrating commendable restraint despite being trolled and abused online, on rare occasions someone can go too far.

If an employee damages the ABC’s reputation, or brings the public broadcaster into disrepute, they can face disciplinary action under the Code of Conduct.

The ABC is also accused of being unaccountable and of “marking its own homework”.

The ABC is overseen by a government-selected board, it answers to the federal parliament, its managing director is grilled for hours at Senate Estimates hearings, and its activities and content can be variously examined by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australian National Audit Office, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The ABC also has Media Watch — its own fiercely independent weekly review program that belts the public broadcaster when it gets things wrong every bit as much as it goes after others; and unlike other Australian media, the ABC also regularly commissions and publishes external reviews of its editorial content.

It has a rigorous and transparent in-house editorial complaints handling system, one that a recent board-commissioned independent review found certainly didn’t amount to the ABC just marking its own homework.

The same review recommended appointing an ombudsman, which is exactly what the ABC has now done — a role that will have the power to review complaint findings.

Looking back over my tenure as editorial director, the first Wednesday in June 2019 was easily the most chilling day.

I’ve reported on broken nations and corrupt regimes abroad, but that day shook my complacency about independent public interest journalism in my own country. Federal police walked in the front door of the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters holding a warrant to access ABC computers. They were hunting the source of leaked defence documents in the Afghan Files stories by investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, a series that revealed allegations of unlawful killings by special forces soldiers.

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The Australian Federal Police entering the ABC headquarters in Ultimo (Photo – ABC News: Taryn Southcombe)

More than three years later, the debate over adequate whistleblower protections, press freedom and secretly issued search warrants targeting Australia’s media continues.

Through it all, the ABC endures.

In its 90th year, the public broadcaster reaches nearly 70 per cent of Australians each week and remains Australia’s most trusted media organisation.

On his departure years ago, former ABC chair James Spigelman urged the ABC to continue “to treat its audience as citizens, not consumers”.

It has two bedrock propositions that do this and continue to set it apart:

Editorial decisions must not be improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests.

And the ABC can take no editorial position save for its commitment to fundamental democratic principles including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity.

As current chair Ita Buttrose noted in a recent speech:

“People often underestimate the importance of public broadcasting to democracy. It’s a fact, confirmed by European Broadcasting Union research, that in countries where public service media is well funded and enjoys a high market share there is more political stability.”

The ABC has never been perfect, but in these days of polarisation, misinformation and amplified outrage it is irreplaceable.

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