The ABC’s internal complaints unit is an “efficient” system which could nevertheless benefit from the addition of an ABC ombudsman to review the findings, an independent review has found.
The new ABC ombudsman would head an expanded editorial complaints unit, have the power to review a complaint finding and would report to the board.
The ABC commissioned the former commonwealth and New South Wales ombudsman John McMillan and the former SBS and Ten news chief Jim Carroll to conduct an independent review last year, after high-profile complaints about television programs Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, Ms Represented, Inside the Canberra Bubble on Four Corners and Q+A’s Trauma and Truth Telling.
Shortly after the review was announced, the ABC’s five-person complaints unit was targeted by the Liberal senator Andrew Bragg who attempted to establish a government-led inquiry. That move was branded “political interference” by the ABC chair, Ita Buttrose, and was voted down by Labor and the Greens in the Senate.
“The ABC gets to mark its own homework and as an organisation paid for by the taxpayer, I believe there should be extra scrutiny,” Bragg told Sky News last year.
Buttrose said the complaints system supports the independence of ABC journalists, which is vital to the ABC’s purpose.
Buttrose told RN Breakfast on Tuesday that the relationship between the government and the board is a “work in progress” and she believes a five-year funding cycle for the corporation would be preferable to the current triennial cycle. The Labor party has pledged to maintain ABC funding and to introduce a five-year cycle if elected on Saturday.
“Once the ombudsman has been appointed, we’re going to do further work to upgrade our procedures and of course, complainers who don’t accept the findings can still take their complaint to Acma, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, for further consideration if they’re not happy,” she said.
McMillan and Carroll found the ABC has a “well-established framework” for editorial complaints handling, that is for the most part “performed efficiently and in accordance with best-practice complaint standards”.
However, there were problems with communication between the unit and complainants and there should be an appeals procedure, the report published on Tuesday found.
Buttrose last year accused the Morrison government of political interference and attempting to intimidate the public broadcaster after the Senate established the inquiry.
In a blistering statement, she called on the upper house to act to “defend the independence of the ABC”.
The review found the existing internal complaints handling unit, Audience and Consumer Affairs, dealt “efficiently and professionally with a large number of complaints [and] nothing arising in this review has caused us to doubt the professionalism and dedication of ACA staff”.
The review also found personal social media accounts of ABC staff should not be used in a way that “facilitates even a perception of ABC bias” and that the broadcaster needed a new way of dealing with complaints about tweets and posts.
The ABC should adopt a suitable procedure for receiving and dealing with complaints from members of the public alleging that an ABC staff member’s social media commentary is “incompatible with their employment obligations to the ABC”, the review found.
“We also heard commentary that the ABC complaint process has deep flaws that impair its capacity to earn public trust in giving equal weight and respect to the interests of both ABC audiences and the ABC itself,” the review found.
“A frequent criticism is that ABC internal complaint handling is an exercise in ‘marking its own homework’. We do not believe that to be the reality, but there is doubtless a significant perception problem that will not be easy to overcome without major change to the complaint process.”
The ombudsman would be in addition to the existing two-tier model of in-house complaints handling and external review by the media watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma).
“This approach supports editorial independence and is consistent with other public media organisations, including the BBC, CBC and SBS,” the review found.