ABC Managing Director defends broadcaster’s Israel-Gaza war coverage

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ABC Managing Director David Anderson addressed the ABC Friends Victoria annual dinner in Melbourne.

The ABC, a constant in troubled times

Once again, we live in troubled times.

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The news cycle is dominated by conflict overseas.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent war in that country continues with innocent people fighting for survival while mourning the loss of family and friends. The situation there remains desperate for so many Ukrainians.

In the Middle East the shocking atrocities of October 7 committed by Hamas,  the ongoing plight of Israeli hostages and the devastating impact of the conflict on Palestinian civilians in Gaza are heartbreaking to take in, day after day.

Our journalists have been on the ground and in the conflict zone, bringing the news as it happens back home so we can all try to make sense of the world around us.

In the same way, our reporters and presenters here at home have covered the ramifications of these conflicts for our own communities and the debates, that are frequently emotional and difficult, that affect us.

Such conflicts and the resulting loss of innocent lives should remind us of the relative good fortune we enjoy here in Australia.

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Yes, the cost of living is very hard for many Australians.

Others feel the Australian community is more divided following the recent referendum for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Some Australians, particularly our young people, are concerned that we are not moving fast enough in response to climate change.

But, as we know, all Australians benefit from living in a stable and relatively wealthy, well-resourced country with a strong democratic foundation. And a core part of our democratic infrastructure is the ABC.

As the national public broadcaster, the ABC belongs to all Australians. This means we must meet the unique expectation of being everything to everyone.

Australians expect us to understand their needs, their communities, the problems they face, and to provide them with the information, context, entertainment and services to help them make sense of the world around them.

In our ninety-first year, we are faced with rapid technological change and the necessity to adapt and move with our audiences and their changing preferences for viewing, reading and listening.

We must continue to offer our valued services to all Australians, while also investing in the future needs of younger generations.

A Constant Valued Presence

Through all the significant global events and the difficult domestic trends, through a period of dramatic technology change, the ABC remains a constant for Australians.

We are a constant and reliable source of news and information, a constant and reliable source of entertainment, and a constant and reliable source of engagement and conversation in communities around the country.

Don’t believe the critics who say otherwise. The ABC’s score card is good on many fronts, though you won’t read or hear about it in commercial media.

Some examples from the most recent financial year:

81% of the Australian population rate the value of the ABC and its services to the Australian community as good over the past quarter. This is a significant improvement on the 78% recorded in the previous financial year.

Nearly two in three Australian adults (65%) have watched, read, or listened to ABC content in the past week.

79% of Australians trust the information provided by the ABC, an improvement on the 77% recorded in FY2021-22. Over the same period we have seen significant declines in trust for Commercial TV and Facebook/Meta.

The ABC Network was the number one ranked broadcaster in 2022-23, with a reach of 6.8 million people across the five‑city metro population.

ABC radio networks reach five million Australians each week (+14% on 2012).

The ABC listen app achieved 4.1 million weekly streams in 2022‑23.

ABC iview was the number one ranked broadcaster video-on-demand (BVOD) service in 2022‑23 with a 32% share across the year.

And we are consistently in first or second position for Australian news websites according to Ipsos rankings.

I note that in the most recent rankings the New York Times outperformed some Australian mastheads. More Australians chose to get their digital news from the New York Times in September than they did some major Australian dailies. It can’t all be explained by the popularity of Wordle.

We have dominated awards categories for journalism in the Walkleys and state based events. And our programs and talent have been recognised at the Logies and other entertainment events. There are too many to list here tonight.

I could go on, but you get the picture. We are a constant in Australian life and we do it well, as the numbers clearly demonstrate.

A trusted democratic institution

Any modern democracy requires a free press to flourish, but the fact is that fewer than 30% of the world’s countries even have a free press – and the number is getting smaller. Our free press in Australia is something to cherish, something to fight for, something to protect.

Without a strong and independent media sector, civil debate and valuable discussion, public policy gets drowned in opinion, rumour, lies, false assumptions, misinformation and conspiracy.

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times , wrote about the essential value of journalism, and the challenges it faces, earlier this year. His Columbia Journalism Review essay has been shared around newsrooms everywhere.

Sulzberger said journalism and the free press now face their biggest threat in more than a century.

As he wrote,

“News organizations are shrinking and dying under sustained financial duress. Attacks on journalists are surging. Press freedoms are under intensifying pressure. And with the broader information ecosystem overrun by misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and clickbait, public trust in journalism has fallen to historical lows.”

He went on:

“There is no clear path through this gauntlet. But there will be no worthwhile future for journalism if our profession abandons the core value that makes our work essential to democratic society, the value that answers the question of why we’re deserving of the public trust and the special protections afforded the free press. That value is journalistic independence.”

Identifying the role of social media platforms in shaping an environment that threatens the place of independent journalism, Sulzberger wrote:

“The profound shifts in how people find and engage with information, shifts that have exacerbated groupthink, fostered antipathy, and fractured people’s understanding of reality. These platforms and others have largely treated facts as indistinguishable from opinions, allowed reality to mix with conspiracy, and given propaganda equal footing with journalism.”

Australia is not immune from these phenomena, far from it.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that Australia too is on a path to silos and polarisation, “driven by a series of macro forces that are weakening the country’s social fabric and creating increasing division in society.”

The survey found almost half of Australians (45%) say the nation is more divided today than in the past.

The main causes for this division? The rich and powerful were identified as a major dividing force (72%). Followed by hostile foreign governments (69%), journalists (51%) and government leaders (49%).

So half of those surveyed think journalists are responsible for this high level of division. That’s worth thinking about.

Further, Australia continues to struggle in the World Press Freedom index, tracked by Reporters Without Borders.  It is confronting to see that Australia is ranked 27th for press freedom, a fall from 21 the year before.

For a modern and free society, it is alarming to see how poorly this country performs – but sadly this reflects the operating environment in which Australian journalists work.

Rigorous, impartial and independent journalism

So let me respond on behalf of the ABC.

In a divided world, the simple fact is that Australians continue to trust the ABC.

Trust is central to the special bond we have with Australians. For more than 90 years it has been the reason why people turn and return to the ABC.

This may annoy our critics, but it is a statistical fact.

We have earned that trust through everything we do. And notably, through our independent journalism. Journalism that is accurate, objective, and impartial.  Australia can be enormously proud of this.

There has been some debate recently about journalistic impartiality and what it means in general and at the ABC. Some say journalistic impartiality is impossible to achieve and that all judgements are subjective. Others argue that the concept leads to a ‘false balance’ that gives undue weight to lesser arguments and obscures the truth.

For the ABC, impartiality is a critical component of public broadcasting. And to those who would accuse the ABC of failing in its duty to be impartial: I disagree.

In fact, it is the ABC’s commitment to protect its independence from commercial or political influences, the dedication of our journalists to pursue the public interest, without fear or favour, and the quality standards we uphold across all of our content, that underpin Australia’s trust in the ABC.

This commitment is embedded in the ABC’s editorial policies. Section 8 of the ABC Act requires the Board to ensure that the news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism. Without it, the legitimacy of our journalism would be fatally undermined.

A commitment to impartiality is a tough discipline.  It means that the ABC can be in the position of putting views to the public that some, or many, may not want to hear. I’ve noticed this in our coverage of both the Israel-Hamas war and the Voice to Parliament referendum.

The ABC does not ban people based on their political beliefs, and our guidelines require that the ABC is not seen to be condoning or encouraging prejudice or discrimination.

Our guidelines also require that programs give viewers and listeners adequate context and background on interviewees.

Impartiality does not require that every perspective receives equal time, nor that every facet of every argument is presented. We do not simply give interviewees an open platform and carte blanche to say whatever they want. Interviewers will challenge and question statements when appropriate.

Often when people say our editorial policies are in decline, they usually mean we aren’t taking a side. In fact this means our editorial polices are working exactly as they should.

A core role of our journalism is to prevent people from sinking into partisan bubbles with their own set of untested facts.

Unpopular or even distasteful ideas and views will not go away just because they are ignored. On the contrary, they can grow in the dark.  But at the ABC we will ensure they are exposed in the light.

At the last Senate Estimates, I was questioned about Sarah Ferguson’s interview with the Hamas Head of International Relations, Basem Naim. The interview on 7.30 was broadcast ten days after the October 7 attacks.

Clearly, the fact Hamas had attacked Israel killing innocent civilians means their motives and position should be questioned and tested if they are to be understood.

By interviewing one of its leaders, we were able to test some of the propaganda (and outright lies) that Hamas spread following the attack.

For example, Hamas was claiming it was Israeli propaganda that civilians had been targeted. Claiming that Hamas fighters did not attack civilians, did not kill children or elderly people. That 7.30 interview saw Basem Naim concede that Hamas did kill civilians, and he stopped making that false claim.

It is possible for the ABC to accurately describe the shocking attacks in Israel while also providing coverage of the shocking conditions being experienced by civilians in Gaza, as well as appropriate historical context.

More broadly, without the careful interrogations provided by the ABC, the partisan bubbles on either side would float free, intact, and undisturbed. The end result is that ideas don’t intersect; perspectives don’t get enlarged or amended; debates are diminished or eradicated. And people become less informed about the issues that matter to their own future.

The ABC is in the privileged position of being free of commercial pressures, and our mission is to follow the evidence wherever it takes us. Our commitment to impartiality ensures that we equip the audience with the essential information to make up their own minds.

Contrast this with commercial media internationally and increasingly in Australia, where entire business models are built on reinforcing the ideological preferences of their audiences. Some in the media seek to exploit and strengthen division. They fuel outrage and rancour to serve their own interests.

We saw this in the case of Fox News in relation to the 2020 US election. There was a perceived commercial need to tell supporters of former President Trump what they wanted to hear.  This got in the way of their ability to tell audiences the truth: that Trump had lost a fair election.

Media organisations have a privileged position in society.  Essentially, they have a social licence to operate and a responsibility to report news fairly and with impartiality.  They should not sow the seeds of division or undermine social cohesion in our community.

We present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented. We do not misrepresent any perspective or unduly favour one perspective over another. We do not state or imply that any perspective is the editorial opinion of the ABC.

Our journalists

For our journalists this has implications.  It means they do vital work but operate within clear constraints at the public broadcaster.

Make no mistake, we encourage our staff to bring their whole selves to work. We celebrate our broad diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and culture, which mirrors and represents the public we serve.

However, when it comes to reporting at the ABC, whatever the perspective an individual may bring with them, it does not influence our journalism.

When you work for the ABC, there is an obligation that comes with the privilege of working for the most important cultural institution in the country and the most trusted and reliable source of news and information.

Leigh Sales made this point very strongly during her Andrew Olle Lecture a few weeks ago.

Certainly having more diverse perspectives helps us identify the untold stories, and bring more understanding to our roles through knowledge and lived experience.

But our journalism must and will always be impartial and free of personal influence. I credit our staff through the coverage of current events as an example of doing just that.

This is not a soulless endeavour; it ensures that we are trusted by all Australians to present information that they can rely upon, journalism free of  personal influence or bias. Just as we are free from commercial influence, this standard of objectivity and impartiality must and will be maintained.

And when we provide analysis, it is based on the facts and the weight of evidence from credible sources, and we present all this transparently to the Australian people so that they can make up their own minds.

A.G. Sulzberger concluded his essay with this point:

“It is more important than ever that citizens develop relationships with news organizations that inform and challenge them, commit to finding a daily place in their lives for independent journalism, and use it to expand, not merely reinforce, their worldview.”

In our free democratic society, the ABC’s contribution to an expanded, enhanced, deepened worldview is how we contribute to a stronger, better informed, and ultimately more united Australia.

Looking ahead

The ABC belongs to all Australians and our services are for all Australians. We started in 1932 with 12 radio stations, when the population was about four million. We have always adapted to meet Australians where and how they live.

The contemporary national broadcaster we are today is due to generations of hard working Australians at the ABC. Thousands of people, no doubt some of you here today, to whom I am grateful, as is the nation, for all that the ABC has  done and continues to do.

To keep meeting our audiences we need to acknowledge that the ABC exists in a rapidly changing, complicated and media saturated environment.

More people use streaming services today than watch broadcast TV.  In fact, four in five Australians use a streaming service each week and three in five use one every day. Most of you will be switching between broadcast and digital services, to different degrees.

And consider what they want to watch: 85% of the Australian population over 16 has watched a short video in the past week. In fact, short video content is now the highest reaching media form in Australia, with massive engagement, accessed from thousands of websites at home and abroad.

As people continue to use digital services more over time, our information shows that this will be larger than broadcast audiences within the next five years.

The number of people listening to broadcast radio is in real decline, although total audio listening time remains strong.  On-demand radio or audio, in the form of podcast audio or a live stream through a device, is on the rise.

In 10 years’ time, millennials (the original “digital natives”) and generations younger than them (the “social natives”) will make up two-thirds of the Australian population. They will not turn to broadcast radio and TV as they grow older, but they will still expect the same high quality and editorial standards of the ABC.

Every major public media service is on this same path. Global commercial media are also reassessing the value of broadcasting.

If we were to stand still, the ABC would eventually lose cultural relevance.  We know who would be delighted if this happened: those people who, for ideological and commercial reasons, do not support public broadcasting and do not value an independently informed citizenry.

Of course, digital first for the ABC does not mean digital only. As we continue to change, we will accommodate the pre-digital generations that still want or need traditional broadcast TV and radio. As many as 10% of Australians still don’t have access to the fast internet that underpins the digital world.

So the ABC will remain in broadcast TV and radio for many years to come. I can assure you we expect and plan to be broadcasting in 10 years’ time.

Being digital-first is about better serving ABC audiences on all platforms — including TV and radio —with a closer alignment of our content to specific audience needs, interests, and preferences. It is about delivering the right content on the right platform for every Australian, always maintaining our high standards.

Being a digital-first organisation also means we will be using digital tools, workflows and automation throughout our operations.

Digital-first for radio will mean that local radio will continue into the future, with more people listening live on a digital stream as fewer listen on broadcast.

Digital-first will mean that not only will Four Corners be available on ABC iview after it is broadcast, there will be an accompanying in-depth digital story.

Digital first will mean that you can read all the news you need, during the day with video and audio, ahead of the 7pm bulletin in the evening.

One recent example. Four Corners journalist Angus Grigg recently delivered a powerful investigation into the current lack of progress and $12 billion budget blowout on the Snowy 2.0 project.

His accompanying video or “explainer” on Tik Tok and Instagram has recorded almost half a million views. This is exactly how such platforms can be used to support our journalism and engage with audiences outside of traditional platforms.

This is critical when you consider how many Australians use social media as their primary source of news. The ABC must be active in this space.

It is not a matter of dumbing down, as some have claimed.  It is about reaching out to our audiences… where, when and how they live… which is what the ABC has always done.

We will embrace AI technologies where appropriate and useful, but the necessity of maintaining high standards will always require humans “in the loop”.

We have just announced our content slate for next year and in a moment I will play our show reel for you so you can see the mix of new programs and returning favourites in 2024.

I also have a sneak peek of one of our most anticipated political docuseries.

Conclusion

Let me conclude. As I have said before, the ABC has faced challenges in each and every decade of its existence, and overcome them, prospering in the national interest.

Our programs bring Australians together. From our coverage of New Years’ Eve celebrations, Australian of the Year, the triple j Hottest 100, ANZAC Day services and programs for all ages. That includes a very popular show you might have heard of… Bluey . They tell me it’s for kids but a few episodes a week is good for everyone’s mental health.

So we look to the future with confidence.

An ABC that is the most trusted media source in the country, an institution that promotes good citizenship, fortifies our democracy and contributes to our national identity.

An  ABC that aids social cohesion, connecting Australia across geographic, cultural and age divisions.

An ABC that is the indispensable resource for Australians everywhere, telling Australian stories that everyone knows and loves.

An ABC that is adaptable, optimistic and brave, keeping pace with our audiences and succeeding in a fast-changing media landscape.

An ABC that reflects our nation back to itself, fostering our national creativity and cultural power.

Most of all, an ABC that Australians value and trust.

Thank you.

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Rachel Harris
Rachel Harris
Hello! I'm Rachel, a passionate website designer by day, and a dedicated TV enthusiast by night. My TV tastes are as diverse, ranging from heartwarming Disney movies with my children to the heart-pounding suspense of psychological thrillers. Let's not forget my love for cooking shows, where I find inspiration in culinary adventures. Join me as I share insights and excitement about the world of Australian television on this platform.
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