In the aftermath of the Voice referendum much will be said about why it was rejected. Some post-referendum polls have already been published.
As ABC Friends, our particular interest is in the role the ABC played. The ABC is scrutinised more closely than any other media outlet because it is our public broadcaster. It receives public monies and is accountable to taxpayers for those funds. And, because it has a long history of quality reporting, we expect a lot from it.
Throughout the campaign, I saw complaints that the ABC was giving too much attention to the yes or the no campaign, that its coverage wasn’t fair or that its journalists were biased. Many complaints focused on individual stories, but it’s important to look at the big picture to understand how the ABC approached the campaign.
Did the ABC give balanced coverage to both sides of the debate? Did it properly fact check false claims? Did it present the differing perspectives of Indigenous Australians? Did it help inform and educate us about the issues?
The ABC’s reporting was framed by its editorial guidelines, which were updated especially for the referendum. In addition to addressing such issues as independence, integrity and accuracy, the updated guidelines emphasised the need to highlight “Indigenous experience, and voices that are informed by reasoned analysis, not prejudice or misinformation”.
ABC staff were advised not to express personal opinions in the content they produced for the ABC. Experienced and high-profile Indigenous staff were able to contribute to the public debate about the Voice on both ABC and non-ABC platforms. Nevertheless, they were advised not to advocate for particular outcomes, to always be respectful and to avoid rancorous or personal attacks. However, it was acknowledged that “many Indigenous staff have personal experience that is directly relevant to issues that will be raised.”
It was tricky terrain to negotiate.
Covering the campaign
The ABC engaged in an ambitious program to inform the public during the referendum. Its Voice website was a rich source of information and its fact checker was a valuable tool.
The ABC’s most significant decision was the creation of a new stand-alone Indigenous Reporting Team to expand and amplify coverage of Indigenous Affairs across the ABC’s news teams, with Suzanne Dredge in the new role of Head, Indigenous News. We saw the benefits of that decision throughout the campaign with exemplary reporting from Bridget Brennan, Isabella Higgins and Dan Bourchier. The decision leaves a legacy that will benefit reporting on Indigenous affairs into the future.
Did the ABC achieve a fair balance?
Each election the ABC tracks interview requests, interviews and press conferences, and it did the same during the referendum. The ABC says that “this is to keep track of teams’ output and interview requests” and that it “assists them to ensure a diversity of perspectives is presented. Its role is not to direct coverage and there is no requirement for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ views to be exactly equal.”
We can be pretty sure that when the dust settles the ABC will be found to have given roughly equal time to both the yes and no cases. But is that enough to achieve balance?
Laura Tingle described “the dilemmas and frustrations of providing balanced coverage in a campaign when one side of the debate was not available, and where many wild claims have been made." She described this as an issue that is “exceptionally difficult for the media generally, not just the ABC.”
Journalism was turned on its head by Donald Trump. The Washington Post recorded 30,573 untruths he told during his 4 year presidency. The Trump effect hasn’t gone away, so we must ask if the established ways of covering politics still work. Journalists must present the news impartially but they must also tell the truth – and these two objectives don’t always match up.
When politicians like Donald Trump lie with impunity, the lies come so thick and fast it’s impossible to keep track of them, let alone call them out. One mistruth is quickly replaced by another.
Dennis Muller has written that responsible media publish rebuttals or condemnations of falsehoods. But, he says, “these responses appear days after the initial misrepresentations. In that time, the damage is done, the social media beast has devoured and regurgitated them in almost unrecognisable form, and public attention has long ago been diverted to some newer excitement.”
There was more than a hint of Trump tactics in this campaign and all media outlets need to find ways of countering them effectively.
Where to from here?
I have no doubt the ABC was sincere in its desire to present fair and balanced coverage from diverse perspectives. The difficulty it and other media face is in giving balanced coverage that gives full weight to evidence and truth, especially if politicians avoid the close attention that comes with interviews.
As Muller says, it requires close scrutiny of potential content and rigorous editorial decision-making, not “that discredited and outdated approach called “he said/she said” journalism … where the public is left to figure out the truth for itself.”
“Lies and misrepresentations are not just another set of truths ... They corrode trust. No one knows where to turn for reliable information, and the ground is prepared for yet more conspiracy theories to take root.”
A strong public media broadcaster – a place that Australians can trust – is essential to a functioning democracy. As this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report found, the ABC is still Australia’s most trusted media organisation – but some of that trust has frayed in the age of social media and fake news.
The ABC needs to be properly resourced to retain Australians’ trust as a reliable presenter of the news – it needs funding to employ the producers, researchers and fact checkers to rapidly counter disinformation.
If Australia had truth in political advertising legislation, that may have put a brake on some of the most misleading political advertising in the referendum. Legislation drafted by independent MPs Zali Steggall and Kate Chaney is an important start in protecting our electoral system – it won’t address all the lies that flourish on social media, but will help.
Right now we must acknowledge and support the many First Nations Australians who are grieving. For them the referendum wasn’t simply a political issue. It struck to the heart of who they are.
“No matter how they voted, do not underestimate the sorrow and the burning hot rage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people right now … they are tired and shell-shocked.”
ABC Indigenous Affairs Editor Bridget Brennan
As ABC Alumni Board director and former ABC Editorial Director ALAN SUNDERLAND points out in this article, Voice Tracker is a tool, and ‘balance’ is a concept, that can be misused, misunderstood, or simply abused.