Can the ABC improve its complaints handling system? And what are the main challenges facing the new Ombudsman, Fiona Cameron, as she settles into her new job at the public broadcaster? ABC Alumni director Alan Sunderland – who has more experience than most in this area – gives his insights into what lies ahead.
Can we do better?
By Alan Sunderland
16 October 2022
It’s now been almost a month since the ABC’s first ever Ombudsman, Fiona Cameron, started in the new role, so it’s time we looked more closely at what that might mean for the public broadcaster.
In her first all-staff email, Ms Cameron said the ABC ‘can always do better’ when it comes to complaints handling. Can we? Will we?
The short answer, in my view, is that we can and we might.
The first thing to make clear is that the ABC has always had one of the best and most thorough complaints handling mechanisms in the country. They devote more staff, time and resources to it than any other media organisation. That was clear back in 2018 when a report from the Australian National Audit Office said that the ABC’s complaints process was ‘accessible to the public, easy to navigate and responsive to complainants’.
It was clear again this year when the Independent Review into the complaints system found that the complaints team ‘deals efficiently and professionally with a large volume of complaints. Nothing arising in this review has caused us to doubt the professionalism and dedication of ACA staff.’ Importantly, the review addressed the frequent criticism that the current system involves the ABC ‘marking its own homework’ and said ‘we do not believe that to be the reality’, although the perception was something that needed to be tackled.
But in both of those reviews as well as in other public discussions, there were specific recommendations about how the complaints process can and should be improved. Some of the major recommendations were that there should be better tracking and management of the large number of complaints that are handled directly by content teams, that the ABC should be less defensive to outside criticism and more willing to apologise when it gets things wrong. Finally, there should be an independent, internally appointed Ombudsman to review complaints on behalf of the public.
As someone who spent several years managing both editorial policies and complaints handling at the ABC, I fully endorse both the praise of the current system and the recommendations for improvement. I am very familiar with the way ombudsmen work in other news organisations both here and around the world, and they are an excellent initiative to build trust with the community and a culture of responsiveness in the news industry. So broadly speaking, the signs are encouraging. But there are alarm bells as well.
Here are four key challenges that face the ABC as it develops and rolls out its new complaints processes:
- The skill gap – Fiona Cameron is a skilled and experienced senior professional with a strong background in media regulation, public policy and broadcast. But she is not a journalist. To add to the particular challenge that this represents, the ABC lost its two most experienced and respected complaints handlers, Kirstin McLeish and Denise Musto, who both resigned in the wake of the review. To lose the two leaders of such a small team leaves a very large skills and experience gap just when the ABC will be under close scrutiny in this area. On top of that, and for totally unrelated reasons, the ABC has just lost its Editorial Director, Craig McMurtrie, the senior member of the leadership team with overall responsibility for editorial standards and journalism training. Under normal circumstances, it is the Editorial Director who would be the main liaison and communication point between the ABC’s journalists and the new Ombudsman role. These are temporary challenges that can and should be overcome in due course, as well as providing an opportunity to refresh and renew. But it would be wrong to underestimate the impact this can have in coming months until the new team is bedded in. It is particularly vital that the ABC retains the Editorial Director role and fills it well.
- Internal relationships – For an Ombudsman role to work well, it must be respected both externally and internally. ABC program teams and journalists need to respect and work with the new office on a daily basis, providing information, responding to requests and both accepting and implementing the findings and recommendations delivered. That process kicked off on the wrong foot right at the start, when the ABC Board rejected one of the recommendations of the complaints review and decided that the Ombudsman would report directly to the Board alone, rather than to the Board and the Managing Director. To be clear, I don’t consider that arrangement to be inappropriate or unusual: the Board has statutory responsibilities to oversee editorial standards and complaints processes, and the Board also includes among its ranks both the Managing Director and a staff-elected Director. But the initial impact of that decision and the way it was announced was to worry many people both inside and outside the ABC. To solve that perception problem, the Ombudsman will need to very quickly develop a strong working relationship with staff and management. My own observations are that Ms Cameron has moved quickly to do just that. She has been meeting with and consulting a wide range of people inside and outside the organisation, and is already showing a strong commitment to establishing those relationships. Formal reporting lines may be to the Board, but the day-to-day interactions that will make the ombudsman role effective will be with those who create, manage and edit the content.
- Doing less, doing it better – One of the key claims of the ABC’s critics (although it was rejected by the recent review) was that the ABC ‘marks its own homework’ and, by implication, doesn’t properly and independently investigate complaints. If the idea is that the new Ombudsman role may change that and therefore satisfy those critics, there is likely to be disappointment all round. All the indications are that, under the new system, ABC program areas may become more involved rather than less involved in initially responding to complaints about their content. That’s because the Ombudsman and her complaints handling team are likely to take on more of a review role, stepping in to review complaints where complainants are unhappy with their initial response from the relevant content area.This is entirely consistent with the way many news ombudsmen work overseas in other public broadcasters, but it means that those critics who hate it when, for example, the initial response to a complaint about Four Corners comes from the Four Corners Executive Producer, are likely to hate the new system as much or even more. On top of that, the pressure on already stretched program teams to spend more time on complaints is likely to grow. This will need to be managed carefully to avoid stressed out, under-resourced programs and journalists and increasingly vocal and dissatisfied critics.
- Bringing the public into the process – This final challenge is the most important one of all, and it represents an enormous opportunity for the ABC. Some people think of the ombudsman as being the eyes and ears of the board, overseeing the editorial processes to ensure they are done properly. Alternatively, it is seen by entrenched critics of the ABC as a mechanism whereby they can be heard and seek some kind of vindication for their persistent view of the ABC as a systemically-biased staff run collective. It is neither. An effective ombudsman at a public broadcaster is the eyes and ears of the public. It is a champion for the millions of Australians who read, watch and listen to the ABC every day. It has the potential to both identify things the broadcaster does wrong and highlight or explain the things it does right. To perform that role properly, the ombudsman needs to develop an active and direct relationship with the Australian public. I would like to see not only a regular column on the ABC website but also regular public appearances and opportunities for public input, engagement and feedback. It is worth noting that in Canada, which has had an ombudsman role as part of its public broadcaster for many years, nominations from the general public are actually appointed to the selection panel that chooses the ombudsman in the first place. What a wonderful innovation that would be for the next ABC Ombudsman.
My purpose in raising these challenges is not to criticise the changes that have been made to the ABC complaints process or the decision to create an ombudsman. I think they were the right decisions and Fiona Cameron shows all the signs of being an excellent choice. But a careful path will need to be followed in the months ahead to ensure the new system delivers on its promise. And a final word of warning – if any part of the process is designed to satisfy the ideological critics of the ABC or the more thin-skinned members of the government of the day (ANY government of the day), then it will be doomed to fail. The only measure of success will be a responsive and accountable ABC that continues to maintain and build on its existing reputation as the most trusted news source in Australia.
Alan Sunderland was the Editorial Director of the ABC from 2013-2019 and is an ABC Alumni Board Member. He is also the Executive Director of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors. These are his personal views