QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Has the ABC buckled to PM Malcolm Turnbull by removing   critical ‘analysis’ of the claimed benefits of corporate tax cuts?

The ABC’s chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici stands by her ‘analysis’.  Significantly the ABC, through Ms Alberici’s editorial superiors Gaven Morris, the director of ABC News, and Alan Sunderland, director of editorial policies, do not.In a promoted article posted on February 14 after the broadcast of an ABC News item reporting that many Australian companies did not pay any tax, Ms Alberici intro-ed her analysis with this sentence: “There is no compelling evidence that giving the country’s biggest companies a tax cut sees that money passed on to workers in the form of higher wages.”  

The article included info-graphics and links to research used to substantiate what appeared to be an analytical conclusion.

And it seemed to be an unexceptional conclusion already reached by many other economics commentators here and in the United States where President Trump’s recent congress-legislated corporate tax cuts are now in similar contention.

But for precise reasons that have yet to be made clear, the Alberici article was removed from the ABC website, initially without explanation, on Friday February 16.

In Parliament last week the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, bagged the article as “one of the most confused and poorly researched articles I’ve seen on this topic on the ABC’s website”.

Also complaining was the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, and the man in charge of the ABC, Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield.

Over the weekend social media lit up following brand-damaging coverage about the removal of the Alberici article by Guardian Australia. The ABC then posted this explanatory statement in which the corporation denied that the article’s removal was provoked by any political pressure from Mr Turnbull or his government:

On 14 February 2018, ABC NEWS Online published two stories on corporate tax rates – a news story examining why some Australian companies do not pay corporate tax and an analysis of proposed changes to company tax rates.

The analysis piece did not accord with our editorial standards for analysis content, and has been removed for further review.

The news report has been updated to add further information and context.

Complaints about the stories have been referred to the independent complaints handling unit Audience & Consumer Affairs, which will examine the editorial issues that have been raised.

Any suggestion the ABC is responding to outside pressure over these stories is incorrect. They have been subject to the normal ABC editorial processes. The internal review of the stories was begun before any complaints were received by ABC NEWS.

For more information

Sally Jackson

Media Manager, ABC News 

ABC staff informants contacted over the weekend dispute the ABC’s flat denial about outside pressure in this statement. They point to the choice of words “before any complaints were received” as bureaucratise covering emailed complaints only. What about any telephone calls to ABC executives objecting to the posted article?   They claim the article was pulled precisely because of political pressure.   They said the article had been vetted by up to eight editorial executives and the ABC’s in house lawyers as it was one of the first major contributions by Ms Alberici in her new role as chief economics correspondent, a specialist position created after she lost her co-hosting role on Lateline axed by ABC TV last year after a 28 year run. Ms Alberici, a former ABC Europe correspondent, has long standing as a business, finance and economics reporter on commercial TV and at the ABC and is the author of a book on small business.

Obviously concerned that she had been thrown under a bus by her ABC superiors she pointed out via Twitter: “In 2001 I was a @Walkleys finalist for a story on tax minimisation”. She has made no further public comment as her work is being reviewed by the ABC’s internal complaints handling adjudicators. Her authority and reputation as the ABC’s chief economics correspondent is now at stake.

Ms Alberici has since been subjected to criticism of her work by Judith Sloan in The Australian and a pointed personal attack from gossip columnist Joe Aston in the Australian Financial Review. 

Other economics writers in media have rallied to her defence saying her work contained no factual errors.

Greg Jericho in Guardian Australia wrote:

“Frankly, the article is not all that different in focus from analyses by Ian Verrender published by the ABC last year, The Age’s Peter Martin and various others, including myself”.

Mr Jericho highlighted and then countered Treasury advice to the Turnbull government said to justify its corporate tax cut proposal as a flow-on methodology for higher wages:

“The Treasury says a tax cut will lead to increased investment, which ‘drives up the productivity of labour. This raises the demand for labour and results in higher before-tax real wages.’ Wages are labour costs. Increasing them because your post-tax profit is higher is a bit like you getting an income-tax cut and telling your landlord you’re able to pay more rent”.

 In an ‘exclusive’ drop to The Australian over the weekend it emerged that the Prime Minister’s office had sent a 1000 word complaint to the ABC claiming the Alberici article was based on out dated figures, had lifted a “giveaway” phrase from ALP talking points, confused income with profit, provoked a corrective statement from the ATO, and that Alberici had retweeted a Bill Shorten tweet about her story.

Communications Minister Fifield is quoted as saying: “I understand that the Prime Minister’s office has discussed these concerns with the ABC’s news director Gaven Morris.”

Mr Morris is quoted in the article saying that the ABC’s actions  were both  entirely internal and spontaneous.   ABC News “had already made the decision to withdraw the analysis report and amend the news report” before complaints were received from the offices of the Prime Minster, the Treasurer, the Communications minister, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.

As the claimed benefits of Turnbull government proposals for corporate tax cuts is now shaping up as a major election issue, the ABC’s handling of the work of its specialist economics correspondent has now also been politicised.

ABC MD Michelle Guthrie, as editor-in-chief, is expected to be grilled on the corporation’s conduct and its denial of outside interference when she fronts senate estimates later this month. For example: Did she take any calls from Minister Fifield or anyone from government?

Concerned about the attacks on the ABC, over the weekend I had a twitter exchange with Alan Sunderland, the director of ABC editorial policies. “When will this tax analysis by @albericie be reposted with ABC seal of editorial fact-checked approval? Its total removal from the website seems censorious, leading to speculation ABC has been got at.”

In response he tweeted a link to an ABC editorial guidance note headed: “Differentiating between factual reporting, analysis and opinion”.   “It is … essential in order to protect our integrity and maintain faith with our audiences, that we are always able to differentiate between modes of information”.

Mr Sunderland tweeted: “ It explains how we navigate these nuanced issues without fear or favour”.

The exchange revealed that the ABC probably will argue the Alberici article, originally labelled as analysis, should have been labelled as “opinion”. Perhaps it should have been. If so why not repost it immediately with a strap line: “Opinion”? Mr Sunderland did not indicate if or when the article, revised and compliant, would be reposted.

My ABC informants advise that Ms Alberici completed a revision of her article last Friday to accommodate Mr Sunderland’s ruling and address factual accuracy and updated figures in compliance with ABC editorial standards.

The ABC has been dealing with opinion/analysis differentiation since it went into text publishing online ten years ago. Opinion pieces have been solicited from staff with specialist expertise ever since. The ABC makes it clear it holds no editorial stance itself but is funded by taxpayers to facilitate ‘the clash of ideas’ on issues and policy.

The ABC Board under former chairman James Spigelman tried to value add to the policy debate in Australia when it established an in-house fact checking unit. Such a unit would have routinely examined the government’s claims about the economic benefits of corporate tax cuts, including wage rise flow-ons. But the unit was axed by incoming MD Guthrie in 2014 after the first budget delivered by Treasurer Joe Hockey.   It remains to be seen if the replacement fact checking facility with co-host RMIT comes to a concluded view of the government’s claims.

By pulling the Alberici article off the website the ABC has drawn attention to what staff decades ago called “the preemptive buckle”, a tendency by ABC management to bow to perceived pressure from the government of the day.

One example: In the early 1990s during Gulf War I then MD David Hill wanted to sack presenter Geraldine Doogue to appease an enraged Prime Minister Bob Hawke over 7.30 Report coverage of the war.   Ms Doogue was protected by the then head of news and current affairs, Peter Manning.

Now the ABC confronts an enraged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a policy upon which he is relying to win the next election. Who will protect Emma Alberici, whatever her analytical or opinionated faults, if any?

The ABC still has time to make it clear to its taxpaying audiences that its editorial policies are designed with only one objective: factual reportage, analysis and/or opinion delivered … without fear or favour.

Quentin Dempster, a former ABC journalist, is contributing editor of The New Daily

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13 Responses to QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Has the ABC buckled to PM Malcolm Turnbull by removing   critical ‘analysis’ of the claimed benefits of corporate tax cuts?

  1. Greg Hamilton says:

    Quentin asks: Who will protect Emma Alberici, whatever her analytical or opinionated faults, if any?
    __________________________________________________

    The answer is simple: nobody. Murdoch and Turnbull have seen to that, in their contempt for the public they serve. I think the best thing is to bring on the fight. Either the public wants to hear the truth or it doesn’t. That fact needs to be established before anything else. Then the solution will be self-evident–one way or the other. If the people don’t care, nothing’s going to make them care. Well, almost nothing. The row generated may well rouse them from their torpor. Something has to or God help us all.

  2. Adrian Harris says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

  3. Geoff Davies says:

    It has been obvious for years that it’s no longer “Our” ABC. It’s the Liberal Party’s ABC. John Howard flagrantly stacked the board with half-wit ideologues. Lib operatives have been put in senior positions, now Murdoch spivs.

    This episode just makes it that much more obvious.

    The wonder is that neither Rudd nor Gillard bothered to undo Howard’s stacking (across many other semi-government positions as well). They evidently hate the ABC too, but an ABC run by the Libs? Pure self-preservation. Grand ineptitude.

  4. John Laurie says:

    If the Primate Minister asserts there are factual errors, let’s see a list of the claimed errors and have them fact-checked.

    Treasurer’s assertion that tax cuts lead to wage rises also needs to be tested with real-world evidence. There have been substantial tax cuts for small to medium business with welcome job number growth but wage increases below inflation.

    Remember the US phrase ‘Where is the beef’?

    Fake news. Flake news. Not in my ABC please!

  5. Ben Morris says:

    The ABC has received the typical response from certain quarters when anyone makes a claim that the tax playing field in Australia is uneven. Emma Alberici’s analysis of the tax playing field in Australia is consistent with my exposure to the Australian Tax system when studying at the Australian School of Taxation and then later tutoring in taxation administration at the same establishment.

    The only way the real situation of the incidence of taxation in this country will be established is for the government to place the tax returns of public companies on the public record. The past manoeuvring of certain groups would be exposed if ATO officers both present and past could speak without fear of the secrecy provisions of the Income Tax Act being used to silence them.

    There seems to be some confusion what taxable income and what income is assessable. The definitions of taxable and assessable income have been copied from the ATO website as it seems that some in this debate do not have correct definitions in their utterances on this subject. There are many private rulings in the ATO system on these two subjects and a number are wrong. Once issued they are hard to change. It should be noted that the definitions of both types of income are not absolute, the ATO only gives examples.

    Taxable income
    It is the term used for the amount left after you have deducted all the expenses you are allowed to claim from your assessable income.
    Assessable income − allowable deductions = taxable income.

    The important thing to remember about deductions is that you apply them to reduce the amount of income you pay tax on, you do not deduct them directly from your tax amount.

    Assessable income

    Assessable income is income that can be taxed, provided you earn enough to exceed your tax-free threshold. Examples of assessable income are:
    ” salary and wages
    ” tips, gratuities and other payments for your services
    ” allowances for things like car, travel, clothing and laundry
    ” interest from bank accounts
    ” dividends and other income from investments
    ” bonuses and overtime an employee receives
    ” commission a salesperson receives
    ” pensions
    ” rent.
    Note: If you are being paid cash including cash cheques, you must declare the cash as income when you lodge your tax return.
    Exempt income
    Exempt income is income that cannot be taxed. Examples of exempt income include:
    ” some government pensions and payments, including the invalidity pension
    ” some education payments.

    It is wise to ask the question has the ABC buckled to PM Malcolm Turnbull by removing critical ‘analysis’ of the claimed benefits of corporate tax cuts? The additional question is to ask if this is normal activity when the tax status of certain groups is called into question?

    • Adrian Harris says:

      It is becoming clearer to anybody who thinks critically, and looks at the larger context of this matter, that it is big business who effectively run this country, and to a greater extent the US.
      To say that because the public directly funds the ABC through taxes, misses the point that the garbage press are also indirectly funded by (and have a moral obligation to) the public but there is no watchdog in place to point to the outright lies and unfounded vitriolic attacks on those who don’t toe their line.
      I have never heard anyone in a position (and this includes smell the wind alp)of power criticise Rip off Rupert and his henchmen and their likes throughout the trash tabloid press. And for channel 7 giving oxygen to a self admitted Nazi attracted little interest from from the pm or morrison the magnificent, begs the question of their fairness and fair dinkumness in this matter. (n.b remember the response to “the terrorist” on Q & A as a note of hypocrisy). But rupert/2gb can do what they want unmolested.

  6. Robin Wingrove says:

    “The ABC still has time to make it clear to its taxpaying audiences that its editorial policies are designed with only one objective: factual reportage, analysis and/or opinion delivered … without fear or favour.”

    I won’t hold my breath.

  7. Philip Bond says:

    The ABC’s hierarchy as lost its backbone?

  8. Jenny Kennedy says:

    It seems to me that Managing Directors, especially the current MD, fall over themselves to be reflective of the government of the day’s attitudes. However, I think a new low has been reached where Ms Guthrie has been appointed specifically to render the ABC ineffective and biased towards the Government. The aim seems to be to dumb down content so it more aligns with the commercial stations. Neither she nor the government realise that if we wanted to hear biased stores, documentaries and shows we would tune into those commercial stations. We don’t (at least all the people I know who watch the ABC don’t).
    Emma Alberici is a fantastic journalist who is fearless in her reporting and who has shown little fear or favour. It is bad enough that Lateline has been axed, but to go for Ms Alberici in this manner shows that she has hit a nerve in the current government’s spin.

  9. Raymond Rains says:

    The Turnbull government has long displayed Fascist tendencies in several policy areas. Controlling the media, one way or another, is yet another. Even if the Alberici article had errors, or opinion, wouldn’t a democratic government simply respond to it, not intervene to have it removed? After all, there has been a tidal wave of erroneous claims by politicians over the years, repeated by the media and never censored. The current management of the ABC should be vigorously upholding and protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press; they are not there to mute the ABC in the Turnbull government’s interests. We should be thankful that our independent judiciary has overturned several Turnbull government decisions on immigration and deportations.

  10. Malcolm Crout says:

    Yeah, pull the other one Sally. Sadly this woman has a carry over mindset from her days with the Murdoch rags and who would have thought – duh!

    The ABC does themselves no favours with the readers and listeners of the ABC who are a step up from on the evolutionary chain from the readers of her old employer’s poor excuse for journalism. The writing is plain to see. After pulling Emma’s TV show which rated higher than the poor excuse Tony puts forward each week and now publicly denouncing her professional journalism, her demise we can all see it happening in slow motion. We expect nothing more from Turnbull as he just practiced the bully tactics he used when working with the vampire squid, but Australians expect more from their supposed independent ABC. And politicians wonder why GetUp is so successful when the ABC dance to the PM’s tune.

    History will judge these parasites harshly. We must remember these acts of bastardry at the polling booth and cast our meagre democratic voices accordingly.

  11. Another angle on all of this: how does a tax system which leads to results like ours square with our famous Australian egalitarian ethos? http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/stephens-david-how-does-the-tax-paying-record-of-large-australian-companies-square-with-our-much-vaunted-australian-egalitarian-ethos/

  12. Laurie Patton says:

    PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES AFR! The following quote from today’s AFR story relating to Emma’s article is guilty of the crime of which it accuses others. It makes an assertion as fact, which will only be proven or otherwise in the future… “Not only has the US cut corporate taxes, it has also allowed an immediate tax deduction for investment in new equipment. That combination will boost the productivity of the US – and hence the prosperity of Americans too.” http://www.afr.com/opinion/columnists/deloitte-access-economics-debunks-the-abcs-company-tax-denialism-20180218-h0w9eu

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