Compelling evidence has emerged that Radio Australia – the overseas service of Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC – has suppressed public comments in which the country’s alternative foreign minister outlined a radical change of Australian policy towards Fiji. Grubsheet can reveal that when Julie Bishop, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, made a speech on Monday evening in Brisbane which was supportive of Fiji and signaled a change in Australian policy, it was recorded by the ABC’s Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney and sent to Radio Australia. But the recording, indeed the entire account of what Julia Bishop said, never made it to air, either on Radio Australia News or the broadcaster’s influential public affairs program, Pacific Beat. Dorney says that he filed a piece for Australia Network, the ABC’s external television arm, which was broadcast. Yet there was nothing on the external radio service at all, in spite of the fact that it casts itself as one of the most respected and trusted sources of information in the Asia Pacific.
Here was the first significant change in official Australian attitudes towards Fiji in the six and a half years since Voreqe Bainimarama’s takeover. In her Brisbane speech, Julia Bishop was extraordinarily warm towards Fiji (see previous posting). She said that if the Coalition won the election, it would fully re-engage with Fiji, including re-establishing full diplomatic ties, and would “take guidance” from Fiji about how Australia could best assist the Bainimarama Government introduce the first genuine democracy in the country’s history next year. By conventional news standards the world over, it signaled a dramatic change in Australian official attitude and deserved to receive the widest coverage. But Radio Australia chose to ignore it.
Instead, it ran two items highly critical of the Fijian Government, both by the same reporter, Bruce Hill. As is clear from the emails published below, Bruce Hill was fully aware of the Shadow Foreign Minister’s speech and presumably the import of what she had said. What the regional viewing audience and the Australian taxpayer is now entitled to know is by whose authority Hill, and the rest of the Radio Australia editorial team, chose to overlook a major shift in Australian attitude that, in Julie Bishop’s own words, will result in a radical change in public policy after the election.
The incident raises grave questions about the editorial independence of Radio Australia. It is especially egregious in that it involves the overt censorship of an important speech by the senior opposition politician who may well determine Australia’s foreign policy after the election due in the coming weeks.
Grubsheet has long alleged a campaign of wilful and sustained bias against Fiji by Radio Australia, which also broadcasts on the FM band in Fiji courtesy of the Fijian Government. Indeed we have lodged complaints, in a personal capacity, about that bias through the ABC’s formal complaints procedure and been rebuffed. Yet previous instances pale into insignificance beside evidence that Radio Australia is willing to subvert the political process in Australia and deny a voice to the alternative government. It has deprived the prospective Foreign Minister of the opportunity – on the public airwaves – to enunciate what could well be an imminent and crucially important change of policy in relation to one of Australia’s most intractable foreign affairs challenges.
It is more than a grave editorial lapse. It is also contrary to law. On the available evidence, it’s a case of the publicly funded broadcaster taking a partisan position in a manner that contravenes every aspect of the ABC’s Charter. This legally requires it – under an act of Parliament – to report without fear or favour in the interests of every Australian. Yet not for the first time, as we’ll see, the evidence is that Radio Australia is a puppet of its political paymasters. And it cannot be long before the full force of the Opposition ( and perhaps the next government), the rest of the Australian Parliament, the country’s media regulators and the ABC itself come crashing down on those who indulged in such a blatant attempt to manipulate the news agenda and deprive the Asia Pacific audience of information that it deserves and needs to know.
Before Grubsheet lays out the evidence, we need to make a declaration of personal and professional interest. Grubsheet (Graham Davis) is a Fijian citizen, as well as being Australian, and was born in Fiji. We have long supported the Bainimarama Government, convinced that its multiracial agenda, anti-corruption drive and service delivery for ordinary people is infinitely preferable to the racist, self-interested and corrupt administration that it removed. Having long advocated that Australia engage with Fiji rather than punish it for Bainimarama’s takeover, we were approached in September 2012 by the Washington-based American company, Qorvis Communications, to advise it on its Fiji account – one of a number of sovereign clients it represents around the world. We unashamedly accepted the offer, keen to assist Fiji and convinced that the country is on course for a genuine democracy next year that will finally take it forward after a quarter of a century of false promise. So, yes, we are on the Qorvis payroll and, yes, our work for Qorvis involves promoting the Bainimarama Government. Yet it is neither here nor there when it comes to our underlying complaint about Radio Australia manipulating the news. This is a case of basic journalistic integrity and practice. And from where we sit – a journalist of 40 years standing – this has been grievously compromised.
Indeed, we are as much aghast about the negative impact on the regional audience’s right to know as we are about the silencing of Julie Bishop and the negative impact on Fiji of Radio Australia’s extraordinary behaviour. Yet our own experience tells us that Australia’s international broadcaster has form when it comes to manipulating the news agenda in favour of its paymasters in Canberra.
Grubsheet spent almost three years on the Radio Australia news desk from 1975 to 1978. The first few months of this period was during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which we now know was sanctioned by the Australian Government in a most unconscionable manner. This included turning a blind eye to the murder of five Australian journalists by the invading forces. Grubsheet was present on at least one occasion on the Radio Australia news desk in Melbourne when Australia’s then ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, rang to request that a particular story on the progress of the invasion be doctored. That request or demand, depending on your point of view, was adhered to. To Grubsheet’s youthful eyes (we were 22 when the invasion took place), it was a lifelong lesson about the extent to which the Australian establishment is occasionally prepared to interfere with a broadcaster that it finances yet pretends is independent. As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Which is why – for appearances sake, at least – the domestic ABC in Australia and Radio Australia is funded by a direct allocation from the Australian Parliament, whereas Australia Network – the external TV arm – is financed directly by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In this case, the DFAT funded arm did its job. The rest of the ABC, including Radio Australia, did not.
Julie Bishop gave her speech to a roomful of people at the Australia Fiji Business Forum on Monday night. But, incredibly, news of its content didn’t reach Suva until Wednesday afternoon, via Fiji’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Why? Because it simply didn’t appear on any of the news alerts which are routinely monitored on an hourly basis. Grubsheet then had the following email exchange with Sean Dorney, the aforementioned ABC Pacific Correspondent, who’d sent us an email on Monday describing as “a ripper”, a hard-hitting speech to the Business Forum that morning by Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, complaining about Australia’s continuing hard line.
From: Graham Davis:
Sent: Wednesday, 31 July 2013 1:44 PM
To: Sean Dorney;
Subject: Julie Bishop’s speech to the Australia Fiji Business Forum
Sorry for the delay is responding. Thanks for your coverage of Ratu Inoke’s speech. Did you see the speech by Julie Bishop to the same gathering on Monday night? Haven’t seen any coverage of this but it’s obviously hugely newsworthy from Fiji’s viewpoint. Hope all is well.
From: Sean Dorney:
Subject: RE: Julie Bishop’s speech to the Australia Fiji Business Forum
Date: 31 July 2013 1:49:33 PM AEST
To: Graham Davis
We ran Julie Bishop on Australia Network News last night saying she would make it a priority to normalise relations with Fiji if the Coalitions wins. I sent the audio to Radio Australia on Monday night.
But if the ABC’s Pacific Correspondent sent the audio to Radio Australia on Monday night, what happened to it? This is the investigation that is now required into why the public broadcaster is still to report the biggest change in Australian official attitude towards Fiji in the nearly seven years since Voreqe Bainimarama’s takeover. Because there is now evidence that the Bishop audio didn’t simply fall between the cracks. Radio Australia knew about the speech all along but didn’t report it. That evidence is contained in the following email exchange between Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith Johns, and senior Radio Australia reporter Bruce Hill.
From: Sharon J Sent: Wednesday, 31 July 2013 2:17 PM To: Bruce Hill Subject: Julie Bishop speech
I’m looking for your coverage on the speech Julie Bishop gave at the Fiji/Aust business council dinner. I can’t find the link, would you be kind enough to send it to me pls.
Sharon Smith Johns
Ministry of Information, National Archives & Library Services of Fiji
From: Bruce Hill :
Date: Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 4:25 PM
Subject: RE: Julie Bishop speech
To: Sharon J
I believe Australia Network used it, try their web page.
So Australia Network – the ABC’s external television arm – used it but not Radio Australia. Why? It’s clear from this exchange that Bruce Hill knows about the story – that Julie Bishop announced a far reaching reform of Australia’s policy towards Fiji in the event of a Coalition win. Yet neither he nor any other Radio Australia reporter or subeditor considered it worthy enough to broadcast.
What’s more remarkable is that in the two days following Julie Bishop’s speech, Bruce Hill chose to run two stories on the Pacific Beat current affairs program highly critical of Fiji. One was an interview with the Australian trade union leader, Sharan Burrow, calling for a tougher international response against the Bainimarama Government over its refusal to grant sugar workers in Fiji a pay rise beyond that already offered by the Fiji Sugar Corporation. The other was an interview with the former Fijian Opposition leader, Mick Beddoes, lashing Ratu Inoke Kubuabola for his Brisbane speech.
So on the evidence, Bruce Hill and his masters at Radio Australia will give ample airtime to a former Fijian Opposition leader but none to the current Australian deputy Opposition leader and the person who will govern Australian policy if the Coalition wins the election. By any standard, it is an extraordinary lapse which demands an inquiry and an explanation. Because on the evidence, the public broadcaster has gagged the Australian opposition. Was it on behalf of – or at the behest of – the Labor Goverment? Or have Radio Australia’s journalists become so biased against the Coalition and/or Fiji that they allowed their prejudice to get in the way of their duty to the ABC’s Charter and its strict editorial guidelines? Radio Australia’s regional audience, not to mention Julie Bishop and the Australian and Fijian peoples, clearly have a right to know.