Q&A review not so painful after all

By Stephen Easton

Friday July 3, 2015

Malcolm Turnbull sent his departmental officers into the ABC to review the June 22 episode of Q&A and as heavy-handed attacks on free speech go, it was a bit of a fizzer.

Compared to the immediate apology that upset diehard fans of the public broadcaster, the conservative backlash to CEO Mark Scott’s passionate defence of the station’s independence or the ABC board’s censure of executive producer Peter McEvoy and endorsement of that apology, it seems the Department of Communications review wasn’t so painful after all.

A summary released this afternoon points out the department was not asked for opinions or recommendations and gave Turnbull none:

“The role of the department has been to establish the relevant facts and provide these to the minister.”

The summary goes on to say departmental staff asked the ABC questions verbally and in writing, there was co-operation, and the department took the answers at face value:

“While the department has no reason to doubt the veracity of the information provided by the ABC, the department has not audited that information.”

So, not very invasive after all. The ABC was also given a look at the first draft of the review and “relevant comments and clarifications” were included as a result.

The security concerns of having Zaky Mallah in the audience have been addressed but will not be published as they are classified “security in confidence” but the ABC board’s Wednesday statement on the issue says it found an Australian Federal Police briefing helpful:

“The ABC Board was updated today on the most recent security briefing from the AFP, which it found to be very valuable. The ABC treats security of staff and studio audiences as a top priority and will continue to consult with the appropriate agencies.

“Any future advice will be considered by management’s risk committee and the Board’s Audit and Risk Committee.

“To the extent that any changes to security procedures are recommended, they will be implemented immediately.”

On the matter of the ABC’s decision to rebroadcast the episode, which added fuel to the prime minister’s condemnation of the decision, the summary lists three options the show could have taken:

  • Not rebroadcasting;
  • Editing the program prior to the rebroadcast; and/or
  • Providing enhanced viewer advice or an updated viewer advice shown before the program commences

The ABC took the third option, adding a message acknowledging its “error of judgement” before the second broadcast and in the online version, with directions to a detailed apology on the website.

The broadcaster had received 962 complaints about the episode as of Monday and is considering them. Any that are not responded to within 60 days, or where the complainant is unsatisfied with the response, could be elevated to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

After the report was released, an ABC spokesman said the ABC had also received over 900 letters and calls of support since the episode aired.

Shaun Brown
Shaun Brown

Prior to last Monday’s controversial episode, the ABC had already decided to conduct a broader in-house review of the show. The board announced on Wednesday it would be undertaken by former SBS managing director Shaun Brown and the television journalist Ray Martin and will report later this year.

New regional division

Also on Wednesday, the board announced the commencement of the ABC’s new regional division.

ABC Regional director Fiona Reynolds said the new division was developed with extensive input from staff and communities over the past four months.

“The Radio, News and Television divisions will still play a major role in creating content that reflects regional Australia and is relevant to those communities,” she added.

“ABC Regional will ensure the needs of regional audiences are championed in ABC decision-making while sharing their stories, celebrating their diversity and helping them voice their views at a local, state and national level.”

Mark Scott said the move to combine “regional radio and newsgathering capacity to provide a more cohesive service for audiences” was made more urgent by the decline of commercial media services in regional areas.

ABC Regional covers 400 content makers in 48 locations as well as city-based ABC Rural team members and the Landline, Australia All Over and Saturday Night Country teams.

The new division has also started filming a new eight-part television show called Back Roads in some of the smallest regional communities.

New streaming services for 14 regional stations should make it to the ABC Radio app in August.

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