March 2021

ABC’s own should be impartial on social media too

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, 29 March 2021.

When I was a diplomat working for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I was very careful about what I put on social media.

I was a public official, my salary paid by the taxpayer, whose role it was to represent the views and interests of the government of the day, but in an apolitical and non-partisan fashion.

Appointed as Ambassador to Israel by a Labor Government, I served both Labor and Coalition governments during my time there, and hosted Australian politicians from across the political spectrum during visits.

Maintaining a reputation for impartiality and independence was critical to maintaining trust, and so I kept my political opinions to myself.

Our publicly-funded broadcaster, the ABC, is a little different to the federal public service. It is established by statute and enjoys a high degree of independence of government.

As a news organisation, part of its role is to scrutinise the actions of government. But in the exercise of its function, the ABC (according to the Act establishing it) must be "impartial" in its presentation of news and maintain its "independence and integrity".

This is what we should all expect from a news organisation that is intended to serve all Australians, and is funded by taxpayers to the rough tune of $1 billion per year. Which is why the ABC does itself, and those like me who support it, such a huge disservice when it allows its journalists and commentators to run rampant on social media, expressing their unfiltered political opinions and biases for the whole of Australia to see.

An ABC employee takes to Twitter to describe the federal government as "fascist" and Prime Minister Morrison an "awful human being".

The ABC Queensland state political reporter accuses the opposition LNP leader of "dog whistling at its worst" during an election campaign.

One of the ABC's most seasoned journalists accuses the federal government of "ideological bastardry" and hopes the Prime Minister is "feeling smug".

These ABC staff are each entitled to their own political opinions. But by taking to social media so freely to share them with the rest of us, and exploiting the ABC brand in doing so, they ignore the ABC's stated values and policies and cannot but call into question the integrity and independence of the organisation for which they work.

It doesn't matter if these tweets are then deleted. The damage to the ABC and its reputation are already done.

Fairfax/Nine and News both have social media policies in place that cover their own journalists. Fairfax's policy simply instructs "posts that may cause readers to question the independence, impartiality or maturity of our journalism are not acceptable".

Despite the fact that these are commercial organisations, and so are not subject to the same standards of impartiality as a publicly-funded news organisation, their journalists seem to be able to abide by this code. Why then is this so hard for the ABC?

In October last year the BBC Director General, Tim Davie, introduced new social media guidance for its own staff.

BBC employees are now instructed that if their work requires them to maintain their impartiality, then "don't express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics or controversial subjects". They are also instructed to avoid the appearance of bias through likes, retweets and other forms of sharing. Sanctions and disciplinary action will be imposed for violations of these policies.

The ABC's managing director, David Anderson, should follow the BBC's lead, and take concrete steps to reaffirm the ABC's commitment to impartiality.

And those who care about the future of the ABC, as I do, should demand no less.