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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Quentin Dempster, former chairman of the Walkley Foundation, is a contributing editor at The New Daily.

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