The impartial yet opinionated ABC editorial guidelines

I wandered into The Sydney Institute’s function on Monday night, where the speaker was Mark Scott, the new MD and Editor-in-Chief at the ABC. Mark is from Fairfax (and government and education). The ABC was announcing it’s new editorial guidelines. (script here)

Both the tone and the content were strong statements. Mark clearly was laying down the law – bearding poor ol Aunties critics in the lion’s den.

And I very deliberately wanted to speak about this issue here, at The Sydney Institute.

It isn’t just in the hope that by being my gracious hosts tonight, Gerard and Anne Henderson might be hospitable to me and sheathe their rapier-like criticism of the ABC for an evening. They are known for calling it at they see it and I appreciate that. So I am ready for an evening of rigorous, intense and well-mannered discussion.

Critics should force the ABC to ask hard questions of itself. I welcome the openness in criticism and debate. After all, it’s your ABC, and you are all entitled to have a view.

I can tell you now, that the lions were ancient toothless ones, out of touch and no match for the obvious drive and committed focus of the new Editor-in-Chief. He made it clear that the ABC would be run how he thought it should be run, and the “usual suspects” can ply their standard well-worn wares but for every voice there was an equal and opposite one, so butt out thank you very much.

Here are the three main points as stated in the media release.

1. ABC Editorial Policies now require the ABC to be able to demonstrate impartiality at the platform level (i.e. the individual television or radio network, or on ABC Online) for opinion, topical and factual content. This means the ABC must provide its audiences a range of different perspectives on the subject under consideration.

2. A new content category called Opinion is being recognised within ABC content for the first time. This is content presented from a particular point of view about a matter of public contention. This content will be signposted and the requirement for impartiality will mean a range of views must be presented over time.

3. A new position, Director of ABC Editorial Polices will be created to report to the Managing Director in his role as Editor-in-Chief to provide independent assessment of editorial performance.

Now what’s been spinning around in my mind the last few days is – why did Auntie pick impartiality versus opinion as their main focus? (point 3 is just the sweetener to say they are feeling their way with this balance and will audit on a regular basis to adjust).

We have taken another look at fairness and what it means to be impartial. Impartiality is a long held expectation of our news coverage. Our news stories and news analysis are to be presented without favour, even though, without ‘fear or favour’ might sometimes upset some people in the community. Being a responsible public broadcaster is not synonymous with universal public popularity.

I wish I had gone through that another look at fairness and what it means to be impartial with ’em. Because what I suspect that the conclusion they came to is that the up-and-coming generation don’t give a fig for impartiality. They don’t even understand why anyone would consider such an outmoded concept important.

To win the hearts and minds of Gen Y (or neos if you prefer), the presenter MUST take a side. Be passionate, not cool. Otherwise, why bother talking? These are the swarms who have an opinion on everything and don’t hesitate to express it. Who else cares to sit through a below average Pot of Gold show and listen to wannabe Bernard Kings just so they can vote with their mobiles for some half assed talentless dick? Not me, but then again I’m getting too old. Thank God. Now I sound like my mother… oops.

The future watchers/readers/listeners of the ABC are on the net, spending hours ranking and rating Flickr fotos, YouTube videos, friends’ bloglets, and googling the full gamut of opinions on any subject that takes their fancy. They then try out those extreme views on anyone that is unlucky enough to stumble on their MySpace blogs, community forums and IRC chat rooms. This is THE generation of dialogue, conversation, opinion and diatribe. And Mark Scott has it absolutely right – forget the old fogeys screaming for something that never existed (moderate, impartial human beings) and prepare for the change from read-only media to read/write.

And, to guide the youth once they mature out of inane immature user generated crap, oops, content into areas they are already showing an interest in – social responsibility (’causes’ if you will) – it has to be a mix of ethical responsible many-voiced journalism (this is the generation most cynical about chequebook pieces buying crying family members) WITH passionate, committed opinions. The disinterested, dispassionate faux non partisan articles of yesterday (a la Gerard Henderson – NOT!) are out, and a platform for open, fervid discourse where ALL Australians can participate with their mobile phone or PC, are in. As long as they are varied and present a range of views, over time, of course!

This is just my opinion. Cheers.

Laurel Papworth

Named by Forbes™ Magazine in the Top 50 Social Media Influencers globally, named Head of Industry, Social Media (Marketing Magazine™) and in the Power150 Media bloggers (AdAge™). CERT IV Training and Assessment certified trainer (Diplomas and Certificates etc) Adult Education. Laurel has manager Facebook Pages for Junior Masterchef, Idol, Big Brother etc. and have consulted on private online communities for banks Westpac, not for profits UNHCR & governments in SE Asia. Lecturer, social media, University of Sydney for 10 years and Laurel has 11,000 online students. Laurel Papworth personally connects to 6 million followers online and has taught around 100,000 people in the last 10 years how to be social media managers.

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