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ABA unwilling to confront imbalance

Richard Alston has been vilified in some sections of the Media and by the ABC for having made a dossier of 67 complaints about ABC Iraq war coverage. The complaints were dealt with by the ABC's Complaints Review Executive (CRE), and then by the Independent Complaints Review Panel (ICRaP), and finally 43 of those complaints have ended up with Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). I downloaded a leaked copy of the 132 page ABA report.

This preliminary report demonstrates an unwillingness by the reviewing bodies (the CRE, ICRaP, and particularly the ABA) to engage with the "context" in which a word is used within a broadcast.

Examples of this abound within the findings:

"Catastrophe", "crisis", "impending", "disaster", "haunted","grudgingly" - all these words are emotionally charged terms, used by presenters throughout the ABC's coverage of the war. Alston variously claimed they breached the ABC Code of Practice's requirement for balance (4.2). You don't have to be an expert in media studies to understand the effect of these words.

Yet in each of these cases the ABA chose to rely solely on a dictionary definition to overrule the complainant. Since all of the above words have Macquarie dictionary meanings which fitted their actual use by the ABC they were all judged to be OK. Context was not examined.

At this point I confess I am not a completely disinterested party. Some years ago I took a complaint to the ABC about an emotionally charged use of the word "massacre". At that time the ABC, eventually supported by the ABA defended its use of the term "massacre" in exactly the same way. The ABA is surprisingly consistent.

Another surprising finding by the ABA is that

"... the Code does not require that a report contain information that supports all statements made in the introduction to the report, in order for the content to be accurate".

What does this bureaucratese mean? 'Introductions are exempt from the accuracy requirements'. So all of Alston's complaints about inaccurate introductions were overruled, as long as the piece itself was accurate. This has major implications for the Internet, where it will no doubt be interpreted to mean that misleading headlines are no grounds for complaint.

Surprising again are the comments by the ABA on the use of the word "grudgingly". The ABC described the Turkish Parliament as having "grudgingly" passed legislation granting permission for the US to use Turkish airspace. Because the parliamentary vote in Ankara was close, the ABC were allowed to use the word "grudgingly". Now we can see why the Australian electorate "grudgingly" returned the Howard government to office.

The ABA however did uphold Alston's complaints wherever there was an attempt made by a presenter to contradict or discredit the observation of a reporter in the field. It seems that to the ABA this constitutes a much worse breach of "balance" than using emotive terms. As a long time ABC Radio listener I note that they seem to have implemented this finding - ABC presenters are no longer coaxing and goading reporters. We have to be thankful for small mercies.

Analysis of “Allegedly”

A recent case has arisen in the use of the word "allegedly". This case has not yet gone to the ABA. On November 15 2004 ABC Current Affairs used the word "allegedly" to qualify Marwan Barghouti's masterminding of terrorist attacks. He has of course been convicted of those charges under Israeli law.

Applying the principles enunciated above, you can imagine how the ABA might handle the complaint:

I do not have the illustrious Macquarie Dictionary, but the Shorter Oxford says (as the last entry under "alleged"):
'Asserted but not proved'
which would serve a complainant very well.

However, the second last entry says
'Asserted as provable'.

Now we know which way the complaints process will go; they will take the second last entry. They might claim that it is IS provable that Barghouti masterminded terror attacks, and their use of the word "allegedly" is consistent with that dictionary definition.

But all this misses the point. What the dictionary does not tell us is that the word "allegedly" is used routinely by journalists reporting PRIOR to a hearing. AFTER a due process has taken place journalists routinely use the word "convicted of" if the defendant has been found guilty.

It is obvious that the public takes its cue, not from the Macquarie dictionary, or any other dictionary, but from the way the word is used in the real world in 2004. The overwhelming employ of this word is in the legal profession, followed closely I conjecture, by its use in journalism.

Thus the dictionary definition technique is fundamentally flawed as a procedure to determine questions of balance.

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