Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat has long displayed a jaundiced attitude towards Fiji but several recent reports fail to meet basic standards of journalistic practice, let alone the ABC’s stringent editorial policies. These state that the ABC “has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”. One person’s bias, of course, can be another person’s objective truth. Yet sometimes the examples are so egregious that they go beyond the realms of the usual toing and froing about one man’s meat being another man’s gristle. When it appears to be all or mostly gristle, then its time to take a closer look at both individual stories and the prevailing culture in which they are generated.
It long ago reached Grubsheet’s ears that Deborah Steele – the news chief of Radio Australia – expresses a dim view among her senior ABC colleagues about what she regards as our own bias in favour of the Bainimarama regime. She’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but there’s a difference. We’re not on the public purse with a statutory requirement to be impartial. She is. And the same goes for the entire Radio Australia news and current affairs team. They’re bound by the contents of a formal ABC document that outlines their editorial obligations and the Australian public is entitled by law to complain when it perceives that those obligations have been breached.
The ABC executives who deal with such complaints are – naturally enough – urbane, seasoned practitioners in the art of batting incoming missives out of the field of play. Take, for instance, what happened when Grubsheet last complained about bias on Radio Australia in a casually phrased email to an old acquaintance – the ABC’s Pacific correspondent, Sean Dorney. We’d taken exception to a piece labelled a “documentary” on the so-called Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement in Australia by an RA reporter, Campbell Cooney. As a documentary, it was less than comprehensive or balanced. Cooney had chosen to portray the FDM in uncritical, almost heroic terms as champions of democracy. There was certainly no mention about the presence in its ranks of indigenous supremacists and individuals like the 2000 coup maker, Simione Kaitani, who had publicly admitted to committing treason.
Without consulting Grubsheet beforehand, Dorney – who is banned from Fiji for his perceived bias against the regime – referred the email to the ABC section that handles official complaints. He did tell us he was doing so after the event and we had no objection. But we thought at least we might be asked for more details than the bare outline that we’d provided in the personal missive to Sean. No such luck. The next thing we knew was that – after the usual “due consideration” – the ABC had formally rejected our informal complaint. No further information had been sought about the precise details of our objection and we’d been given no opportunity to furnish a formal complaint ourselves. It was the ABC equivalent of Solomon – in his wisdom – simply deciding to carve up the baby without the parents being in the room.
Even more astonishingly, the “determination” was sent to us from an ABC email address that only operated in one direction – out. When we tried to respond, our missive bounced back. It’s clearly the cyber equivalent of “no further correspondence shall be entered into”. Yet it speaks volumes about how the ABC regards the irritant of audience complaints. Well, we’re going to have another go but this time in a way that at least provides us with a fighting chance that the shrift we get isn’t quite so short. We’re going to take a closer look at Pacific Beat’s coverage of Fiji over the past few days, honing in on its treatment of certain individual stories. We think there’s ample evidence that the program content far too often reflects the prejudices of its journalists rather than the facts. And in certain cases, there appear to be clear breaches of the ABC’s own Code of Practice.
What, you might ask, gives us the qualification to make such a pronouncement? Well, during a long media career spanning almost 40 years, Grubsheet spent three of those years at Radio Australia in both the newsroom and what used to be called “Public Affairs”. We also spent three years in the BBC World Service newsroom in London. So we think we have a pretty fair idea about prevailing standards of journalistic practice when it comes to international broadcasters. We were also part of a national panel that reviewed and updated the Australian Journalists’ Code of Ethics in the mid 1990s. So we think we also have a pretty fair idea of what constitutes proper behaviour when it comes to news coverage.
The first thing to realise is that journalists are human, to err is human and that journalists do have personal prejudices. The Radio Australia reporter, Bruce Hill, for instance, comes from a New Zealand family with a long history of participation in the country’s military. Hill told Grubsheet at the recent PINA conference that his background dictates that he simply can’t accept the notion of military participation in government under any circumstances anywhere in the world. Governing is for civilians, not for the likes of Frank Bainimarama, he said. No one is saying Bruce Hill doesn’t have a right to his opinion. But does it cloud his attitude towards Fiji and influence his coverage of events there?
Let’s examine, in detail, three stories that have appeared on Pacific Beat in the past few days alone that we believe raise questions about the prevailing editorial standards at Radio Australia. Or in the case of Bruce Hill, one story that notably hasn’t appeared that should have. Last week Hill ran not one but two stories expressing “confusion” over whether the former governing party in Fiji, the SDL, had lodged a submission with the Constitutional Commission calling for the country to be declared a Christian state.
In the first story, Hill quoted an unnamed SDL official denying that any such submission had been made. He also carried an interview with the Canberra based Indo-Fijian historian, Brij Lal, expressing strong doubt that such a submission could have possibly been made on the basis that he believed that the SDL no longer subscribed to such extremist views.
In the second story, Hill quizzed the reporter who had originally broken the story – Vijay Narayan, the news director of Legend FM and the Fiji Village website – asking him how the story could be true if the SDL were denying it to him so strongly. By now, Hill had the actual submission in front of him, clearly marked in several places “The SDL proposes”. The SDL chairman, Solomone Naivalu, had even been present when the submission was presented. Yet Hill continued – to Narayan’s obvious irritation – to question whether the document was, in fact, an SDL submission based on the denial he’d been given by one unnamed official.
A day later – with Narayan sticking to his story along with Grubsheet and the New Zealand academic blogger Crosbie Walsh – The Fiji Sun newspaper finally revealed precisely what had happened. Yes – said Solomone Naivalu – the main SDL submission to the Commission would not be made until next month. But Naivalu confirmed that as a prelude to that submission, individual party constituency committees were each presenting summaries of it to the Commission, including the call for a Christian state. To date, Bruce Hill and Radio Australia have chosen not to report this important development. For their listeners, the story remains in the realms of “confusion” when the reality is that there is now no confusion at all. No-one from the SDL has denied that a Christian state is on the agenda, formal submission or not.
Why report two stories casting doubt on what might have happened and not one when the facts have been clarified and established? Behind the scenes in Suva, Bruce Hill has been fulminating that he was “lied to” by the SDL. Yet none of this has resulted in a story confirming what Radio Australia now knows and that its audience clearly has a right to know. That the SDL – the deposed government that plans to contest the 2014 election – is advocating a Christian state in a country in which 40 per cent of the population are non-Christians. Why the journalistic cold shoulder? Perhaps Bruce Hill has decided that in the hall of mirrors of the SDL, it’s all too hard. Perhaps he’s decided to wait until the main SDL submission is actually lodged next month. But having sown “confusion” on such a vital issue, doesn’t he have an obligation – when the facts are clarified – to shed light? Based on the evidence of two separate reports, Hill has displayed far more resolve chasing stories that cast doubt than in confirming something that has caused a furor in Fiji and is so patently in the public interest. And especially now that Radio Australia has been allowed to re-open its domestic transmitters in Fiji and is again effectively part of the local media.
The second story that raises doubt about Radio Australia’s impartiality came on Monday when reporter Helene Hofman interviewed a representative of Amnesty International, Kate Schuetze. Several days before, Schuetze had issued an extraordinary statement calling for the immediate release of the deposed Fijian prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, who has been jailed for corruption. She expressed concern that his imprisonment was politically motivated but in the vaguest of terms and with no attempt whatsoever to furnish any evidence. Qarase had been unanimously convicted on nine charges – six of them abuse of office -by three assessors, endorsed by a Sri Lankan judge, after a month-long trial at which the prosecution was led by a former deputy crown solicitor of Hong Kong and senior member of the HK bar. The facts of the case were clearly established – that Qarase used his position as the director of a public company in Fiji in the 1990s to benefit his own family and other people from his home province at the expense of other Fijians. His lawyer has yet to announce an appeal but Amnesty International has unilaterally taken it upon itself to call for Qarase’s immediate release.
Let’s dissect precisely what Kate Schuetz said in her interview with Radio Australia: “ If it is the case that he has been imprisoned solely for those issues, we’re calling for his immediate and unconditional release”. If? What on earth does this mean? You mean you’re not sure? That the case for Qarase’s release hasn’t been properly established but must happen anyway because Amnesty International says so? It was an extraordinary statement for a supposedly reputable human rights group to make but equally extraordinary that Radio Australia allowed that statement to go unchallenged.
The charges on which Qarase was convicted and jailed related to the period before he became prime minister but he now faces a further trial on charges relating to his time in office. That case is currently before the courts. Yet Amnesty International thinks nothing of trying to prevent the law from taking its course. What is the precise evidence that these charges are politically motivated? Where is the precise evidence that the judicial system in Fiji is tainted and that the courts are being used to target the Government’s opponents? Amnesty International doesn’t see the need to provide it and Radio Australia doesn’t see the need to ask. It’s evidently a case of “ oh, it simply must be true because, after all, it’s not a democracy, is it?” On the evidence, it’s clearly Amnesty International, not the Fiji Government, that is “politically motivated”. To many eyes in Suva, it is an outrageous contempt of the justice system in Fiji and Radio Australia has been a party to that contempt.
Kate Schuetze went on to venture to Helene Hofman: “ A number of people are facing criminal charges which we feel may be politically motivated”. We “feel”? Since when do feelings constitute the basis for abandoning criminal proceedings? “May’? So you’re not certain but your “feelings” tell you that there’s a possibility that the charges are politically motivated? And that justifies everyone being freed, the charges being dropped and the accused going home to sit happily around the kava bowl? Were such an argument to be mounted in relation to the courts in Australia or New Zealand, Amnesty International would be drowned out by howls of derision and possibly dragged before a judge. But it’s open season on Fiji for Amnesty and its cheerleaders in the Australian public broadcaster.
What is the mentality in the upper echelons of news management at Radio Australia that could possibly regard such statements as acceptable for broadcast? Certainly, Grubsheet knows of no responsible editor in Australia who would allow such a flimsy and tendentious line of argument to undermine the integrity of the entire judicial system of a neighbouring country. No need for evidence. Just feelings. And a clutch of “ifs” and “maybes”. It’s an outrage.
Which brings us to the third example of bias on precisely the same day Pacific Beat broadcast the aforementioned travesty. Radio Australia’s Brian Abbott reported a story with the following headline: “Fiji political situation delays finance for futuristic underwater hotel”. The opening par went thus: “The military government and the state of the Fiji economy is making it difficult for the backers of a futuristic underwater luxury hotel in Fiji to raise the necessary finance”. Now let’s dissect this particular story on the basis of the evidence Abbott provided for his contention that the “military government is making it difficult”. He quoted a senior executive of Poseidon Resorts, Marc Deppe, in the introduction to the story as saying “the political situation and the global economic slowdown is making bankers wary of committing to the $200-million project”.
Almost the entire body of the story consists of a breathless explanation of why this project is so fantastic – the vistas to be enjoyed by guests at this underwater hotel, the environmental considerations and so forth. The whole tenor of the story smacks of a commercial endorsement and that impression is reinforced by the inclusion of the company’s web address in the intro to the story – www.poseidonresorts.com. Why Brian Abbott chose to do this and why it was approved by his superiors ought to be a matter for the ABC to investigate. Certainly, it appears to Grubsheet’s eyes to be a prima facie breach of the ABC’s Code of Practice. It’s not until the very last par of the story that Abbott asks: “ When is it ( the fabulous futuristic hotel ) going ahead” and Deppe replies:
“Well, we’re at the stage where we went through several rounds of capital acquisition where we were able to raise the capital necessary to finish all of the design and engineering and we’re now at the point where we’re working to raise the capital to build the resort and it’s proven to be quite difficult in this market, because you’ve got a). an economy and a political scenario in Fiji which has certainly raised the eyebrows of several of the bankers that we’ve worked with, and then you also have a situation where you have a recessed world economy and I would say our biggest challenge is the fact that this is the first ever project”.
Oh, it’s your first ever project! Really? Well, the banks must be falling over themselves to give you money. Also buried in there amid the difficulties of capital raising and a recessed world economy is: “ You’ve got a….political scenario in Fiji which has certainly raised the eyebrows of several of the bankers that we’ve worked with”. So, Brian, what scenario? The first period of prolonged stability for some years that has triggered several major investments by people who are already cashed up? You’ve got one lousy sentence about a “political scenario” in the last answer at the bottom of your story. Kindly inform us on what basis that one sentence prompted you to make it the lead of the entire story? How on earth does that sentence justify the headline “ Fiji political situation delays finance” when the whole world knows that raising $200-million at the present time is hardly a walk in the park. Let alone for a project that’s merely a fantasy right now in the mind of someone who has never built one before but whose company you’re falling over to promote.
You know full well, Brian, that bankers are wary of any commitment right now way beyond Fiji’s political situation. And yet that is the loaded assertion you make with the flimsiest of evidence to back it up. This too is a disgrace – a case of willful bias. It’s compounded – by the promotion of the company’s website – with the appearance of a clear breach in the ABC’s strict rules against allowing itself to be used for commercial purposes. Grubsheet has some knowledge of these matters, having won a Walkley Award for exposing chronic commercial infiltration of the ABC at the highest levels in the mid 1990s.
And all this after just a few days of casting a casual eye over Radio Australia’s output. Grubsheet won’t bother to lodge an official complaint this time. We’ve learned from experience that dealing with the ABC bureaucracy is a nightmare worthy of Kafka, a journey into a hall of mirrors in which there can be no satisfactory outcome. But that doesn’t mean Radio Australia shouldn’t be properly brought to account when it breaks the ABC’s own Code of Practice. “Objective journalism”? Only in the minds of those who purvey it.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.