Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Climate balance urged at ABC"

That headline on the story in the The Australian overstates things.

None of the direct quotes in the story back it up.

But if the ABC Chairman was calling for "balance", well... would take things back to the 1970's when, as I mentioned earlier Keith Fraser was the Controller of News.

Historian Ken Inglis had access to the ABC's internal files and writes in This is the ABC (at page 285):

Fraser was determined that the habit of editorializing was not to creep into News. 'There are two sides of this apartheid business’, he wrote to all his staff on the eve of a tour by the Springboks Rugby team in 1971, 'and it is our duty as ABC journalists to present both of them... We have no charter at all to express editorial opinions so let us stick to our job and report the facts with balance and good taste.'
Inglis went on to observe that
If good taste were the criterion the facts about the war in Vietnam might not have been reported at all.


Text of the speech by ABC chairman Maurice Newman to ABC journalists, program-makers and managers

As you all know, I love my job at the ABC. I enjoyed the experience when appointed to the Board on the first occasion, and love is better the second time around. It is a privilege and it is my ambition to leave the ABC with its reputation as a trusted broadcaster further enhanced.

While not blind to our imperfections, I have developed a deep respect and affection for many of you as individuals and have an educated appreciation of the Corporation’s DNA. The ABC is a collection of highly talented, dedicated people who are expertly led by Mark Scott and his management team.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and is reflected in our audiences’ approval of our services and the positive knock-on effect this has had for our recent funding success. Let us never lose sight of this reality. Our future is inexorably intertwined with how diligent we are in faithfully discharging our obligations under our Act and Charter.

Some of our fellow public broadcasters have decided to go head-to-head with their commercial rivals with ratings driven programmes.

In my opinion, this exposes them to real risks, where role and distinctiveness become more difficult to define and defend. It also invites commercial proprietors to complain about unfair competition.

While the ABC has resisted many of the temptations pursued by our international peers, we will be caught up in the developing debate and the political lobbying around the need for public broadcasters. Our local rivals have wasted no time in escalating the issue, which means we should leave no stone unturned to ensure our relationship with the Australian people is continually strengthened through quality programmes in which they can put their full trust.

The opening salvos fired by James and Rupert Murdoch, which at the time were comprehensively returned by Mark Scott and the BBC’s Mark Thompson, are just the beginning. While it is News Corporation which has decided to take the fight to public broadcasting, it would be a mistake to think this is solely a Murdoch push. It is not. What we are witnessing is the discovery by the world’s commercial networks that their business model may be flawed. The environment which encouraged the development of media empires has fundamentally shifted. What had seemed the logical extension of the print business into radio and television, may no longer be a sufficient condition for survival. The high and growing cost of technology and the changing tastes of consumers whose awareness of digital alternatives is growing, have sent shock-waves through the boardrooms and share markets of media companies.

Adding to these worries has been the inevitable response of advertisers who have observed the decline in newspaper circulation and the changing habits of listeners and viewers. Advertisers have moved with audiences, causing a slide in media revenues and profits. The global financial crisis has compounded this predicament
and generated a momentum away from traditional patterns of advertising which seems likely to prove permanent.

Understandably, media companies are alarmed by these developments and will respond in every way they can. Public broadcasters will be in the direct line of fire in the battle for hearts, minds and hip pockets. Sometimes, this results in curious re-evaluations of how the ABC is supposed to use its public funds. For many years,
the Corporation had been haunted by an image of being bloated, inefficient, and overstaffed. It was, I stress, a bipartisan sentiment. Paul Keating, for instance once said of an ABC budget bid “They won't get an extra zack out of us. It's the most pampered, self-indulgent and self-interested outfit in the country”. As we know, reticence was always his long suit.

This situation, and the public perception about the ABC, have both changed, and changed utterly. The Harvard Business Review recently emailed an offer under the heading “Get More Results from Fewer Resources”. I think the ABC could be a casebook for such a study by Harvard.

The 24/7 News Channel offers us the chance to deliver the greatest return in the ABC’s history. This innovation is an illustration of the intelligent use of our physical and intellectual capital and we shouldn’t be deterred just because others are struggling to provide these services in a profitable manner. Yet so intent on damning the ABC are our rivals that you won’t find any mention of the Corporation’s efficiency, or the way it continues to derive the maximum benefit from public funding – just as the Act demands. The headline they would prefer instead seems to be “Public Broadcasting in Disgrace: ABC is too efficient”.

Yet there are other great and continuing challenges to public broadcasting. With no strong global economic recovery in prospect, financially straightened governments will be looking to increase revenues and decrease spending. Arguments seeking justification for public broadcasting will intensify and gain traction. We should never underestimate the political influence of media barons, as the $250 million license fee rebate illustrates.

But perhaps it is not public broadcasting which stands between profit and loss for media companies. If public broadcasting did not exist, the threshold question of the viability of the commercial media business model may remain, especially for those with substantial investment in print. And, while newspaper services can go on-line
for profit, it is uncertain what the public will be prepared to pay for, even if “content kleptomaniacs” are constrained.

A more basic question for media companies is whether their target audience has lost confidence in what they may see as a predictably banal product? If the answer is ‘yes’, it doesn’t matter how it is delivered.

While this conundrum continues to dog the private media, there’s been a rush of innovative activity at the ABC - a year of leadership, not playing catch-up - and all of it further confirms the ABC as a centrepiece of Australian cultural and democratic life. I think Mark Scott and all of you should be proud of our achievements.

But it also means that the stakes have never been higher. The ABC has never been more popular, never stronger. Never has more attention been paid to the ABC by both the public and our competitors.

I think that now, when the Corporation is at its strongest, is an ideal time to take a look at ourselves. Not when our critics choose to. To question ourselves about how well we are meeting the ABC’s high standards. Just as we ask hard questions of others, we need to ask ourselves: how we might better fulfil and honour the contract we have with the Australian people?

I believe it is through a spirit of greater curiosity and open-mindedness.

Long, long ago, as a young security analyst, I developed a relationship with journalists, some of whom remain friends to this day. Journalists were important people to me in my developing career. A respectable newspaper or radio station citing my research was good for business and good for job promotion too. It was a new experience for me and gave me an insight into a whole new world – the media. However, what I thought were good stories were not always seen that way by journalists. My take on events was sometimes rejected and another position adopted. That was their right. Sometimes when what was obvious to me became obvious to them, I would puzzle why the Bonds, Skases, Rivkins, Judges, et al could ever have been seen for other than what they were. I concluded that these adulatory waves of uncritical group-think came easily for journalists who were spoon fed exclusive stories, lavishly entertained and given other incentives by these corporate wizards. It encouraged laziness and a lack of critical enquiry. Group-think so limits curiosity that instead of fresh thinking,
it encourages the same stale orthodoxies and superficial stereotypes. People and issues are seen as either worthy or unworthy.

Take the tech boom of the late nineties as an example. We were overwhelmed by a wave of news and opinion which talked of new paradigms and never ending growth. We became giddy at the prospect of living off our stock market gains; the so-called wealth effect promoted by then Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan. Then came the tech wreck. Just like the ‘80s in Australia, names like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, QWest and Global Crossing, inevitably collapsed leaving a sordid mess of spin, lies and malfeasance, practiced on an unprecedented scale. Not only did the media cheerleading add hot air to the market bubble, but its influence on public and private expectations led to serious resource misallocations and economic consequences.

It is clear that the common denominator which links Enron and other financial scandals, is the performance of gatekeepers: directors, auditors, regulators and all those the public has trusted, including journalists, to filter, assess and verify complicated information.

Sadly, we once believed gatekeepers and watch dogs would not compromise their principles and reputation, but experience has shown that if the stakes are high enough and leadership is weak, integrity can be bought for money, political patronage or other indulgences.

The global financial crisis is another case where the evidence of irresponsible pro-cyclical policies of governments and their monetary authorities was largely ignored. There were a handful of sceptics who challenged and warned of the dangerous consequences these policies presented, but the media, the consensus of experts, and the vested interests prevailed. Even the media’s GFC post mortem seemed simplistic. Greedy bankers (unworthy) were blamed, while politicians, bureaucrats and regulators (those of original sin but more worthy) got off relatively lightly.

Not that bankers were blameless, but a guardian who gives a child a box of matches unsupervised for long enough, cannot be surprised if the house burns down. But that is not the orthodoxy. That lesson is yet to be learned.

Climate change is a further example of group-think where contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked. In his ABC Online blog last October Chris Uhlmann wrote a piece called In praise of the sceptics. ‘“Climate science we are endlessly told is “settled”’ he wrote. “But to make the, perfectly reasonable, point that science is never settled risks being branded a “sceptic” or worse a “denier”…one of those words, like “racist”, which is deliberately designed to gag debate…You can be branded a denier if you accept the problem and question the solutions.”

This collective censorious approach succeeded in suppressing contrary views in the mainstream media, despite the fact that a growing number of distinguished scientists were challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer reviewed research.

Then came the sensational revelations of unprofessional conduct by some of the world’s most influential climatologists exposed by the hacked or leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Institute. This was followed by more evidence of dubious research and politicised advocacy contained in scientifically unsupported claims and errors in the IPCC 4th Assessment, including in the carefully vetted Synthesis Report. Questionable methods of analysis resulting in spurious temperature data have added further doubts on the underlying credibility of the science.

The lack of moral and scientific integrity shown by the IPCC serves only to reduce clarity and increase confusion, disappoint believers and give fuel to doubters. It has frustrated policy makers, and as polling now shows, it has clearly weakened public belief in climate change and devalued respect for science in general.

In defending the indefensible, Mr Gore, university vice-chancellors and those in the media, do a disservice to the scientific method and miss the point that no matter how noble your work, your first responsibility must always be to the truth.

As you would expect, as Chairman of a public broadcaster, I followed with interest the announcement by the BBC Trust that it would carry out a review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of science. It came after a year in which online science bloggers continued to raise concerns about mainstream media coverage.
A contributing factor for the review was the revelation that the CRU emails were known to Paul Hudson, the BBC climate correspondent one month before the story broke – but not reported at the time. While disturbing, it is heartening to know that the BBC takes quality control seriously.

The Guardian noted “The moment climatology is sheltered from dispute its force begins to wane.” Which raises an important question for a media organisation: who, if anyone, decides what to shelter from dispute? And when? Should there be a view that the ABC was sheltering particular beliefs from scrutiny, or failing to question a consensus, I would consider it to be a dangerous perception that could lead to the public’s trust in us being undermined.

Whether tech boom and bust or the prelude to the global financial crisis – we can see that history has at times proven not to be on the side of conventional wisdom, or the consensus view, but on the side of those who dissented from them. More significantly, we see too how media have failed us by not being rigorous and questioning enough, resulting in many misrepresentations taking too long to be discovered. We have seen so often that the time of greatest certainty is, in fact, the time to be most sceptical. If we spent more time on biopsies in journalism, as Adrianna Huffington has suggested, there would be far fewer autopsies.

At the ABC, I believe we must reenergise the spirit of enquiry. Be dynamic and challenging – to look for contrary points of view, to ensure that the maverick voice will not be silenced. There should be no public perception that there is such a thing as an “ABC view” – we must be neither believers nor atheists but agnostics who acknowledge people have a right to make up their own minds.

We must ensure that our town square is not a monologue. That people turn to ABC journalism knowing it will be challenging, surprising, and counter-intuitive. That there will be no selective scepticism – a tendency to listen to dissenters and doubters, so long as their doubts agree with our own.

The theme of this conference is innovation. I would like you to think about how we might encourage, in our internal debates, more open minds and diverse opinions. How might we ensure that in our newsrooms we celebrate those who interrogate every truth – both inconvenient and convenient. Create an atmosphere in which one can hold a view that runs contrary to prevailing wisdom without fear of ridicule from those with whom we work.

This is the part of the journalistic culture we simply must get right, if we are to continue to be trusted by all Australians. Our greatest potential vulnerability long-term lies in people losing the trust they place in the ABC – yet, we can ensure that rather than being a vulnerability, it can instead become our greatest distinguishing strength.

In his book Can You Trust the Media, Professor Adrian Monck, Head of Journalism at City University London - Britain’s only graduate school of Journalism - asserts that the job of journalists is to gain audience share from competitors and keep it. If it means pretending to tell the truth, so be it. Monck maintains the public shouldn't trust the media and never could.

I don't agree with that. Indeed, I contend that media organisations that show this cynical disregard for their audience are providing positive encouragement for them to go somewhere else. In other words they are marginalising their value proposition.

To take it out of a media setting, consider the damage done to Toyota’s trusted brand through skimping on a minor accelerator component. Toyota has now lost its exalted reputation for quality, its primary value proposition, and is now back with the pack.

I am supported in this view by the results of the Pew Research Centre's survey on media trust. Released last September, it showed that confidence in the media in the US has reached a new low, with a record number of Americans saying that reporting is inaccurate, biased, and shaped by special interests. On the crucial
measure of credibility, faith in the news media has fallen materially, with just 29 percent of respondents saying the news organisations generally gets the facts straight. 74% believed they favoured one side or another in reporting on political or social issues and the same percentage said the media was often influenced by powerful interests. The public perception of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in two decades of polling.

A broader survey of ten thousand people covering ten countries, both developed and developing, was commissioned by the BBC, Reuters, and Media Centre. It found that the Internet is winning audiences as a result of loss of trust in traditional sources. Globescan, which conducted the poll, said that, "Trustworthy news matters very much to people: if they feel they aren't getting it, a significant minority switch sources: and young urban men are voting with their click”.

As Abraham Lincoln said, before the Internet, “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their trust and esteem”.

The Internet is, of course, a difficult target for all media organisations because it is simply a facilitator of endless opportunities governed by giant corporations who act as gatekeepers to this cornucopia of content. As it is essentially stateless, it is not subject to the same jurisdictional regulations regarding copyright and other restrictions that everyone else is.

Its broad appeal to the world’s public lies in its diversity and ready accessibility. Its ability to connect people to content is universal and that can be user generated or from authoritative sources. While the internet is a technology to be exploited it poses a direct threat to media groups in a multitude of ways.

For an independent public broadcaster like the ABC which, within tolerable limits, is indifferent to ratings and unconcerned with advertising, the Internet is less of a danger. Nonetheless, while our technical people have been smart in the way they have harnessed the Internet to bring choice and flexibility to the public, it is still a threat
to us. It is a direct threat in that it can facilitate the defection of our audiences to our competitors and other providers. If that takes audience levels below tolerable limits, the ABC will lose relevance and risks becoming marginalised and so unfunded. The indirect damage can come from the pressure it puts on our competitors and their reaction to us.

The best and safest course for the ABC, is to stay faithful to our Act and our Charter, to remain distinctive and to ensure that audience trust and respect is mutual. For our audiences to respect us, we must equally respect them.

On this point I was struck by Rupert Murdoch’s reference in his 2008 Boyer Lecture to an American study which reported that many editors and reporters simply do not trust their readers to make decisions, Mr Murdoch says, “This is a polite way of saying that these editors and reporters think their readers are too stupid to think for themselves”. These organisations are run for the benefit and personal indulgence of the editors and journalists. It is a recipe for disaster.

So my contention is that while technological innovation is important because of the ways it is changing the shape of the industry, it cannot solve the industry’s credibility problems. To be clear, the media’s destiny lies within – in the culture and ethical constructs of each organisation - not in the latest technological innovation.

Which is why I have concluded that if the ABC can deliver to Australians of all points of view, quality programmes of integrity which are challenging, unpredictable and, at times, surprising, the world will beat a path to our door.

Nothing else I can think of will so underwrite our future.

Related Posts

. "There are two sides of this climate change business"

. Why so much economic and financial 'news' is crap

. Rupert to the rescue - his little-known role in the creation of ABC 24/7