The ABC is a core national institution that has served Australia well. The ABC Act (1984) sets out the ABC charter, which demands an “independent national broadcasting service”.
This is supported by the editorial standards, which begin with “maintaining the independence and integrity of the ABC”. I am strongly in favour of retaining the ABC’s independence as set out in the law and the standards.
That is not in question. What is in question is the way Australia’s public broadcasters deal with complaints from the public. It is the focus of a new Senate inquiry.
This is not an unreasonable question for the ABC, which receives $1bn in taxpayer funds. Unlike SBS, the ABC is funded almost entirely by taxpayers.
One of the Senate’s important roles is to examine and scrutinise taxpayer-funded bodies.
The reaction to the Senate’s inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling has been overblown. This is a very specific inquiry. It has nothing to do with independence. It is looking into one facet of the ABC – complaints handling.
I have encountered serious complaints across the community. Multicultural groups, veterans and many individuals are unhappy. For instance, veterans feel they have been branded as war criminals, multicultural groups are unhappy with foreign coverage, and individuals have a range of concerns.
It is my job to help them have their say: that’s what elected officials must do – respond to community concerns.
This is not a “highly unusual” inquiry and the ABC isn’t special.
Senate legislation committees are entitled to review the performance of bodies such as the ABC. Similar inquiries are common. For example, the Senate Committee on Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee just completed a review of the Department of Parliamentary Services.
This new inquiry has simple terms of reference: “The committee will examine the adequacy of the existing arrangements to provide a framework that is accessible, responsive, efficient, accountable and fit for purpose.”
The objective of the inquiry is clear. It cannot be misconstrued as an incursion into the ABC’s independence as established by the ABC Act and the editorial standards. The SBS complaints process will also be examined.
We may learn from the SBS, which has an independent ombudsman as opposed to the ABC’s internal system.
It is true that the ABC is running its own review into complaints handling. And ultimately, there are three reasons why this Senate inquiry is necessary and complementary to the ABC’s internal process.
First, the ABC’s inquiry is not independent. The ABC’s investigators will report to the ABC. The Senate inquiry will be completely independent as it reports to the Senate.
Second, the capacity for direct participation will be improved. The Senate will invite the public – the people who fund the ABC – to make submissions, and it will hold public hearings. Australians will be allowed to have their say at public hearings and be questioned by all the senators, who represent different political parties.
Third, the submissions to the Senate carry legal privilege. In the past 12 months, there has been extensive usage of expensive lawyers by complainants and the ABC. The ABC has spent $26m in the past four years.
I don’t want people to face legal and financial barriers which prevent them having a say. The legal privilege attached to Senate submissions means people can say what they like without the threat of expensive and protracted legal action.
The ABC’s own internal review cannot compete with these design features. Put simply, the ABC can’t run a closed shop review on complaints handling as a public broadcaster.
While the ABC is a strong institution, it is not perfect and there is always room for improvement.
My only motive is to do my job and for the Senate to retain its key role in Australia’s system of government.
The Senate provides a unique platform for voices to be heard and ensure taxpayer-funded government bodies are performing at the highest possible standard.
Andrew Bragg is a Liberal senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Communications and the Environment.