ABC Australia…. Some strange policies.

ABC self-regulatory policies permit unfair complaint rulings from A&CA (Audience & Consumer Affairs)

 Many readers will recall the aftermath of a Science Show radio interview with Mr Bob Ward, (a well-known PR man), for catastrophic global warming.  He attacked the work of Professor Bob Carter(1), whom has elaborated important scientific facts that demonstrate that global warming fears are exaggerated.  There was a huge reaction around the world, in the first week of October 2010, provoking labels like; “was that the worst interview ever”.  This led me to complain(16) to A&CA, along with others(2), including an indication that this should be a source of embarrassment to the ABC, what with the very high traffic and strength of worldwide ridicule.  However, A&CA were apparently untroubled by it and rejected the complaint.  Below is a summary of some policy issues with those A&CA rulings:

 [1] Opinion versus scientific fact:

 Here is part of their Email(3), with my underlining:

 “…I can only consider the content of Bob Ward’s interview in the context of the accuracy requirements for topical and factual content, these can be found at 7.4.2 of the Editorial Policies and are quoted above. I should explain that opinions and viewpoints of interviewees such as Bob Ward are considered to be just that and as such they are not viewed or assessed as factual content, so that the accuracy standard does not apply…”

That seems a questionable assessment but anyway, there is an arguable expectation that most Science Show listeners, are interested in; you know; science.  Furthermore, if opinions and abuse are expressed, then the presenter, should follow the impartiality rules discussed in [2] below.  However he, (Robyn Williams), conducted a “Dorothy Dix” style interview(4), and was evidently happy with Ward’s acrimonious opinions.

 In a second complaint(5) on the replay of a “speech” by Senator Kim Carr at the Eureka Awards(6) on 21/Aug/2010, this clearly consisted entirely of political opinion.  Also, that although it was within his portfolio, he has zero scientific qualifications, in contrast to many of those that he targeted with his judgments on their science.  He upbraided those who spoke of the abundant uncertainties etc in climate science as “Deniers” and “Flat Earthers”.  The presenter, Robyn Williams, whom is famous for his own extreme views on climate change, made no comment on the speech, thus suggesting that he was satisfied with it.  However, this second complaint was also rejected by A&CA.

 The Science Show is nominally an hour long(7), and is commonly divided into a number of totally unrelated segments, or as they term them; stories.  The Ward story was mostly unscientific opinion, alongside five other stories which were predominantly scientific.  The Carr story was totally opinion, alongside four other stories that were predominantly scientific.  So, we have two entirely separate stories that are opinion rather than science, but read on as to how this was ruled:

Section 6 of the Editorial Policies concerning “opinion programmes” would nominally appear to place at least the Carr speech, very firmly in that category.  However, there is an escape clause (my underlining):

 6.4 Content which does not fall within this category includes opinions expressed…   …by guests participating in news and current affairs content or topical and factual content…

 This seems to have enabled the following A&CA response:

 “…The editorial provisions you highlight … from section 6 of the Policies only apply to opinion content. The Science Show is not classified by the ABC as opinion content and I cannot assess the discussion against this standard…”

So, a separate story that is entirely opinion, is not classified as such, and need not be accurate or impartial?  Oh, and BTW, the following clause gives:

6.5 Staff working on opinion content are required to observe the principles listed below, while keeping in mind the ABC’s key values: honesty, fairness ,independence and respect 

Furthermore, Editorial Policies Section 3, (ABC functions and duties), also seems to be relevant:

 3.5.6 (b) ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.

However, here is the response on section 3 that I received from A&CA:

Regarding section 3.5.6 (b), the recognised standards in relation to the Science Show are set out in section 7 of the editorial policies and relate to topical and factual content. As we have previously stated, we are of the view that the Science Show discussion with Bob Ward satisfied these standards. 

[2] Impartiality and diversity of perspectives:

This is a précis, elaborated with footnotes. The main Editorial Policy clause that was used to reject my first two complaints was, (my underlining):

 7.4.1 The ABC is committed to impartiality: where topical and factual content deals with a matter of contention or public debate, a diversity of principal relevant perspectives should be demonstrated across a network or platform in an appropriate timeframe.

 Here is the meat of their response(8), with my underlining added:

 “…The initial point I must to consider is whether Bob Ward can be regarded as a “principal relevant perspective” …   … Given his position as Policy and Communications Director for the Grantham Institute, a group lead by Lord Nicholas Stern which is based in the London School of Economics, and his ability to strongly and coherently argue his views, I am satisfied that he constitutes a “principal relevant perspective” on this matter…   …for topical and factual content like the Science Show, the relevant impartiality standard requires that a diversity of principal relevant views be demonstrated across the network in a reasonable timeframe….   …I note that the views of so-called climate sceptics have been featured across a range of Radio National programs in an appropriate time frame. In my view, these broadcasts provide the required diversity of views to augment those expressed by Mr Ward on 2 October, and taken as a whole, this coverage satisfies the impartiality requirements…”

This Email continued with a list of interviews with “so-called climate sceptics”, on two other non-science programmes that are more appropriate for different audiences.  None of these views “augmented those expressed by Ward” as implied by A&CA.  Of those cited, only one post-dated the Ward story. (on a different topic).   The other five spanned more than two years from 17/March/2008 through 27/Sep/2010.  (= not in a “reasonable timeframe” and for a different audience and topic)

This offends quote; “the ABC’s key values: honesty, fairness, independence and respect “, and offends; “information is [to be] accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism“, and offends; an address to ABC staff by the Chairman of the Board on 10/March/2010(9); and more.

In contrast to the ABC prescribing that editorial balance is adequate if spread eclectically across different audiences with different topics, the BBC policies specify a clear linkage and common audience etc:

 4.4.9   In addition, we must take particular care and achieve due impartiality when a ‘controversial subject’ may be considered to be a major matter. ‘Major matters’ are usually matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy that are of national or international importance, or of a similar significance within a smaller coverage area. When dealing with ‘major matters’, or when the issues involved are highly controversial and/or a decisive moment in the controversy is expected, it will normally be necessary to ensure that an appropriately wide range of significant views are reflected in a clearly linked ‘series of programmes‘, a single programme or sometimes even a single item. 

 Clearly, the BBC policies would not permit the rulings that A&CA interpreted from section 7, and I’ve made recommendations as in [3] below:

[3] Editorial Policies, Codes, and appeals:

The ABC is self-regulated with its Editorial Policies, (169 pages)(11) for internal use, AND a much condensed Code of Practice (20 pages)(12) against which any external appeal is judged. (i.e. to  ACMA(13)).

A&CA were always courteous to me, advised appeal processes, and also cited an internal report(14) on proposed changes to the then complex 3-way system of appeal.  However, statistics therein revealed that out of a total of 87 appeals processed in a year, only 4 were upheld, so I concluded that it was a waste of resources and time to go further.

 In several Email exchanges(15) with the Director of Editorial Policies, here is part of his most recent:

 From: Paul Chadwick (Ed Pols)   Sent: Friday, January 28, 2011…

 “…When those processes have been completed, you are welcome to let me know, by reference to the outcome of this complaint or any other matters you regard as relevant, how you believe ABC policy ought to be revised or interpreted.   The cycle of revision and interpretation of editorial policies, which is continuous, benefits from such feedback.

Yours sincerely,  Paul Chadwick, Director Editorial Policies”

 I responded on 31/Jan/2011 that “those processes have been completed”, and continue to look forward to his review of my earlier Emails, and this DRAFT post by way of follow-up. (25/Feb)

 [4]  See also:  ABC radio (Australia); “The Science Show” tricks of the trade 2”:   (DRAFT)

I’ve had personal communication from Bob Carter, including copies of Emails between him and the Science Show producer.  It is the subject of a fourth complaint to A&CA which has also been rejected.

(The third complaint which clearly involved 5 scientific misrepresentations, has well exceeded the 60 day statutory limit without any ruling, and over a month ago I asked for an apology on air…..  zero response so far….  Re policy 4.3.1.)


FOOTNOTES and links: (unfinished)

1)    Biography and impressive scientific publication record etc: Robert (Bob) M. Carter  Please click the buttons at the base of the page for additional information!

2)    Jennifer Marohasy: ABC refuses to apologize to Bob Carter

3)    See full Emails here

4)    Transcript and audio on Bob Ward interview here  Note that the introduction by Williams starts with:  “Bob Ward says those who seek to reinterpret the science of climate change often have minimal publication records…”  I wonder if Williams and Ward are aware that Bob Carter is an active scientist and has been an author in some 100 research papers and much more.   {See 1) above}.  However, these scant commentators have the gall to assert that the learned professor is incompetent!

5)    Transcript and audio on Carr speech here

6)    Email on my initial complaint on Carr speech

7)    More on The Science Show….Home 

8)    See full Emails here

9)    The Chairman’s address is here

10)  BBC clause 4.4.9 is here  but also check 4.4.25

11)   Editorial policies are here

12)   Code of Practice is here

13)   ACMA details here.

14)   The lengthy pdf policy change report is here

15)   See full Paul Chadwick Emails here

16)   Email on my initial complaint on Bob Ward

About Bob Fernley-Jones

I'm a retired mechanical engineer, and I guess that because in my science, any bad assumptions can get people killed, I have an abhorrence of many things that are perpetrated by academics in some areas of science. In the case of so-called climate science, the culture and bias in some media is also repugnant to me. I'm hoping that the ABC will improve its self regulating policies and culture to eliminate bias, and this website is under development towards that end. (if necessary).

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