As I write this, Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the ABC, is speaking to the Sydney Institute, to announce a new set of Editorial Guidelines, negotiated between the Board and the organisation since he took over in May.
We can wonder at the use of the conservative Sydney Institute, at which Scott expects some “civilised” discussion, according to his speech. He is clearly saying that the new guidelines are a reaction to the ferocious criticism the ABC endures from the Right. Whether he is defying them or surrendering we will eventually deduce from changes in the schedule. Either way, the guidelines are not being announced in the presence of journalists.
Paul Keating has already denounced the thing, with his usual passion:
Yet the only apologia for this brazen interference by the Howard Government is the new whispered word balance, which decoded means - let’s hear more from us.
By the time you’ve read my account, you may agree that he has a point.
The current guidelines are still available here. In News and Current Affairs, the ABC’s mantra is accuracy, impartiality and objectivity.
7.2.1 The ABC is committed to providing programs of relevance and diversity which reflect a wide range of audience interests, beliefs and perspectives, presented in a wide variety of program styles.
7.2.2 In order to provide such a range of views the ABC may decide to broadcast programs which explore, or are presented from, particular points of view, such as documentaries and programs containing opinion and comment.
7.2.3 All programs containing factual content are required, in the same way as news and current affairs, drama, comedy and entertainment programs, to comply with all relevant editorial policies.
Sounds good to me. But independent filmmakers realise there is an anomaly. While Australian documentarians financed by a license fee are clearly and contractually bound by the editorial guidelines, acquisitions are not. What about Michael Moore? Or Outfoxed? Or Bruce Petty’s new film, Global Haywire? Or Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth? Do they have to be honest etc … or balanced?
What is to stop the ABC buying documentaries by ratbags? Recently, it broadcast an approving film about The Da Vinci Code. Ten minutes on cable will show you a host of programs that are simply superstitious. There is a policy hole here.
This is not too difficult. It is common sense that all documentaries on the ABC should adhere to high standards of factual integrity. It is easy to badge up individual programs so we can see they are being transmitted as contributions to a debate.
The ABC already uses global rules of diversity - “a wide range of audience interests, beliefs and perspectives” - so it is easy to think of external programs as part of a mix.
The ABC has now extended the editorial guidelines to cover all forms of production, which includes drama and comedy. As Scott said:
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