The recent Stan Grant controversy threw up a host of important issues, among them the way in which the ABC supports its staff, diversity in the newsroom and racism. But it also raised the tricky issue of where the ABC draws the line between analysis and opinion, and whether ABC journalists are being given too much freedom to share their views. ABC Alumni Board member and former Editorial Director Alan Sunderland explores this important issue…


By Alan Sunderland / 12 June 2023

“I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them.”
― George H.W. Bush

Once again, we need to talk about the ABC and opinions.

In recent weeks, the controversy over Stan Grant has generated an important discussion about race and discrimination in the media, and rightly so. Helen Grasswill’s recent piece for the Alumni perfectly captured the passion and significance of that discussion for us all. There is an ongoing and urgent need for the ABC – and for all media – to do a better job of reflecting the community it serves and finding a proper place for diverse voices including Indigenous, people of colour and the gender diverse.

But beyond that, there is another important discussion to be had. Regardless of how well the ABC reflects the diversity of the nation among its ranks of journalists, how much should they be permitted to speak their truth? To reflect their background and their culture and their beliefs in their reporting? When they report on or analyse the news, how far can they go before they stray into the dangerous waters of opinion?

Of course, this is not just an issue for the ABC. For any responsible news organisation, whether a public broadcaster like the ABC or a commercial news provider like News Corp or Nine, it has long been an important principle that there is a line between news reporting and opinion and the two should be kept separate. The difference for public broadcasters like the ABC is that their strict commitment to impartiality means that there should be NO opinions at all expressed by their journalists.

The simple (I am tempted to say simplistic) black and white view on this was most recently expressed by two former ABC luminaries writing in a major newspaper. For them, the solution was clear – never let an ABC journalist express an opinion on any significant topic. Their view harks back to an old hallmark of impartial journalism: if no one knows what your views are, you can never be guilty of breaching impartiality guidelines.

Silence is not always golden

As a former ABC Editorial Director with a life-long commitment to the value of impartiality (I have defended it strongly in a recent book) all I can say is that I wish life were that simple. But there are two major problems with this kind of ‘performative’ impartiality, where journalists seek to prove they have no biases by never saying anything about them.

The first is that hiding your opinions doesn’t mean they won’t still emerge in your reporting. The assumptions, personal baggage and prejudices that many of us carry around on important issues like education, politics, gender and race can strongly influence the way we report on issues, and pretending that it is not an issue because we have never publicly stated those assumptions and prejudices doesn’t make them go away.

The second is that the notion you can easily hide your opinions or your perspectives only really works well when we are talking about the very narrow world of political reporting. If no one knows who you vote for or support, and you never stray into expressing a political opinion, your secrets are safe. But what about the many other issues that divide us?

As newsrooms quite rightly become more diverse, how should an Indigenous Australian pretend they have no view on Indigenous issues? Or a Muslim reporter on issues that affect their community? What happens when a gay or transgender reporter covers gender diversity issues? Should they hide their real identities, or be prevented from covering an issue because they are too close to it?

It is at this point we see the fundamental challenge facing modern journalism, a problem that has been richly explored by writers like Wesley Lowery in the United States. There has long been a suspicion that the news media considers an ‘objective’ view to be a white, male middle-class view, and everything else is somehow a potentially biased or opinionated view.

Who gets to be ‘objective’?

There is a dangerous and foolish quality to the idea, for example, that a black journalist reporting on race issues will be potentially biased and opinionated, while a white reporter will not. We all have a stake in these issues, and our backgrounds, education and upbringing mean we all have a perspective. There is a point where it becomes absurd to tell a reporter that they must cover an issue in a way that doesn’t allow any suggestion of their own personal perspective to become apparent.

I hope and expect that newsrooms, including the ABC’s, will continue to become more diverse and filled with a wide range of reporters who clearly come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. To pretend that isn’t the case, and that none of them have any personal views, becomes pointless and disingenuous. And yet, the need to ensure personal perspectives and opinions don’t unduly influence their impartial reporting of issues remains as important as it ever was. How do we achieve this?

Well, we don’t do this by falling back on old-fashioned ideas that pretend we are all the same, and assert that if we never reveal our perspectives no one could possibly guess them.

We start by remembering the most important principle of impartiality, which is that it is what you do, not who you are.

We all have our own opinions and perspectives and inevitably, they will sometimes be apparent. A woman may have a different perspective on sexual politics to a man (even though all women are different, and all men are different). A reporter from a non-English speaking background may have a different perspective on some issues to a reporter who doesn’t have that background. Those different backgrounds are not a liability – in most cases they result in richer, more insightful reporting. The key is not to hide or silence those perspectives, but to ensure that they do not prevent a reporter from doing their job fairly and impartially.

Contrary to what many might think, the ABC has in fact been wrestling with this challenge for years, in a careful and nuanced way.

It’s been a long discussion

Back in 2018, I conducted a review (number 16 in this list) that examined how ABC reporters were able to successfully draw the line between analysis and opinion. In particular, several of the stories I examined were cases where reporters had mentioned their own personal views or perspectives in the story, but still managed to ensure they did not turn their story into an opinion piece.

Since it is topical right now, it is worth pointing out that one of the stories I examined back then was a Stan Grant story about tearing down statues. This was a perfect example of a reporter who made their own views and background clear. Stan spoke about his ancestry and his own personal feelings when he looked at the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park. This kind of sharing of personal perspectives and feelings would be anathema to a supporter of good old-fashioned objective reporting where the views of the reporter were never revealed. And yet, how could any Indigenous reporter cover this issue without their identity being a potential issue? Very easy in the days when newsrooms had no Indigenous reporters, but thankfully that is less and less the case.

In this particular example, the reporter made no attempt to hide their personal stake in the issue. Instead, they demonstrated through their writing that they were exploring all perspectives while acknowledging their own, and questioning all perspectives including their own.

On a lighter note, I recall an ABC radio segment a few years ago about electric hire bicycles. The presenter began by declaring how much he disliked them littering the footpaths and causing a hazard to others, but then followed up by saying that he may well be unfair and wrong in his view. He interviewed a young producer on this own program who had the opposite view, and then spoke to a range of guests and callers who took a wide range of different views. He had, in my view, expressed his own opinion and yet there was no breach of the ABC’s impartiality guidelines as he had challenged his own assumptions as much as everyone else’s views and delivered a piece that was fair, balanced and impartial.

There is a template somewhere in all of that that makes much more sense for a modern, impartial news organisation than the old tradition of pretending no one has an opinion, an identity or a perspective. It doesn’t open the floodgates to opinionated content that replaces facts with feels, and it doesn’t relieve reporters of the responsibility of focussing on the facts and the evidence, and giving all sides a fair hearing. In the vast majority of stories, there will be no need for perspectives and opinions to factor at all. But on those limited occasions where detailed analysis is involved, a sensible approach is required.

I have no doubt that, in recent times, some ABC reporters have strayed too far and let their opinions influence or even drive their analysis. No one is perfect all the time. But the principles that the ABC has relied on for some years now to guide them through these challenging times remain relevant and instructive.

The way ahead

Apart from the obvious rules around never suggesting that any particular view is the official view of the ABC and ensuring all views get a fair hearing and any conclusions are based on facts and evidence, the ABC’s advice also says:

  • Ensure your story is assisting an understanding of the issue, not taking a side in a debate
  • Try to indicate an awareness of complexity rather than instructing with an air of certainty
  • Be descriptive and explanatory rather than judgemental
  • Ensure any conclusions are based only on demonstrable facts and evidence.

I have one final personal rule, which is all about the new challenge of reporters who also have personal social media accounts.

To suggest they never express any views whatsoever on platforms like Twitter is absurd, but for a working journalist there are real dangers when they stray into commenting on significant public issues. On social media, there is often little room for nuance, context and impartial explorations. Strong views on controversial issues are more akin to public campaigning than a private dinner party chat. And no journalist should be campaigning on an issue they are also reporting on.

For the ABC and for many other serious news organisations, these issues are not going away and there will be much to discuss. But suggesting there are simple, black and white solutions to these challenges does no one any favours.

Alan Sunderland began his ABC career as a cadet in the Melbourne newsroom, and spent nine years as a radio and television reporter before moving to SBS in 1988. He returned to the ABC from 2005 to 2019, undertaking a range of senior management roles at ABC News in Sydney before becoming Head of Editorial Policies and, later, Editorial Director under Mark Scott, Michelle Guthrie and, briefly, David Anderson. 

He was responsible for overseeing editorial standards, editorial training and complaints handling for all program areas. Since leaving the ABC, he has retained a strong interest in editorial standards, journalism and media ethics through a range of roles with the Walkley Foundation, the Organization of News Ombudsmen and the Australian Press Council. He has written several children’s novels and a book about journalism. 


  1. As always, a thoughtful article by Alan. Reporting news has changed, of course. The political news of the day on ABC News is no longer a factual presentation, it is now fact wrapped in a reporter’s ‘take’. Political discussion has become a discussion between journalists, or a ‘balanced’ debate where audience questions are selected seemingly on the basis of how incendiary they might be.

    Alan’s ideal ABC is now a relic. The grammar style guides are irrelevant now, as the ABC merges into the commercial channels. The shallowness of the journalist pool sees Newscorp personnel dominating ABC political programs. Those of us ‘rusted on’ ABC lovers who prefer the ABC so that we can flee from the bile of Newscorp can no longer escape them. On the very week Stan Grant is hounded out by many, but particularly Newscorp, ‘Insiders’ still feels obliged to invite a Murdoch journalist. It is Stockholm Syndrome on steroids.

    The ABC was once brave. The ABC used to have people like Alan who cared. They seemingly no longer do. The final nail is that they separate themselves from their most loyal followers. Questions aren’t answered, or they’re deflected. Complaints are met with the same bland, nonsensical rebuttals, so that complaining is futile.

    It’s no doubt too late and we can’t restore the past, but the ABC could at least try to raise their standards instead of circling the wagons.

  2. I found this piece helpful in clearing a head full of ill-defined thoughts on this issue. For years I’ve used words like objective, unbiased and impartial without giving due thought to their meaning – and indeed validity – in the context of news reporting by a responsible public broadcaster. Alan Sunderland demonstrates how the task the ABC and its journalists face is tougher than ever in our radically changed social and media environment. The examples he describes offer an admirable blueprint for countering the regular, tired accusations of ABC ‘bias’ from the usual suspects. I hope the ABC Board takes note.

  3. Alan claims that there are”obvious rules around never suggesting that any particular view is the official view of the ABC and ensuring all views get a fair hearing and any conclusions are based on facts and evidence”. But this is surely the reason why climate science has been matchd by climate lies and nonsense, and we have made inadequate progress towards carbon neutrality. Should reporting on Trump always incluide a spokesperson explaining how he won the last election?
    Please explain!

    1. And now the ABC’s Political Editor is to be replaced by two new social and digital media reporters! Having worked as a political reporter myself (pre-social medIa) I know how vital it is to get experienced monitoring from above.
      Totally crazy

    2. A good point, but it is worth making clear that ‘false balance’ has no place in good journalism. There is never any excuse for providing false equivalence between truth and lies, or for including extreme or unfounded views simply in the name of balance. On climate change, for example, the ABC has for years now argued that the overwhelming majority of evidence makes it clear that climate change is real and so our reporting reflects that, and we don’t need to include climate sceptics or climate deniers every time we cover the issue. That doesn’t mean such views won’t occasionally be included when they are an important part of public debate and are having an impact on events, but hopefully always with appropriate context and explanation around them. The same goes with anti-vax views. I sometimes say that the media has to cover the public debate we are actually having rather than the one we might wish we were having. Speaking personally, if a powerful and influential politician or lobby group is publicly pushing views that are based on inaccurate information I want to know about that, especially if those views are having an influence. But I want to know that they are based on inaccuracies too. – Alan Sunderland

  4. There are many of us who were once loyal to the ABC who have defected because of its constant publishing of gender ideology. I stopped listening to most of Radio National’s offerings after listeners were swamped with propaganda during Pride weeks. This group that no longer trusts the ABC includes many lesbians, gay men and bisexual people (LGB) who greatly object to the ABC’s links with the TQ movement through ACON. We long for the day when the ABC disentangles itself from ACON, just as the BBC disassociated itself from Stonewall.

  5. I agree with Alan, as well as with the comments from Lee and Gillian Appleton. All make valid points in relation to what may or not be acceptable “comment” in a journalist story and what may not be. The maintenance of “quality”, i.e. the highest professional standards (best practice if you like), across all program genres, not just journalism-related, is essential. It is the very essence of what Ken Watts, whom I write about in Part 1 of the just published “Visionary” article, based his vision for the ABC in the 60s and 70s. The ABC must be the leader, he said, not the follower and its output must be of distinctively higher quality than the commercials’ – and that’s what he generally achieved. His fear was if programs didn’t meet and stick to these well proved quality-based aims, the ABC would become an easy target for its critics. I hope his fear won’t be realised under the new five year plan.
    Yes, as Lee says, public standards have changed – they changed in my time also and Watts was clever enough to adapt to change without diminishing the particular professional standards that are virtually timeless and which remain vital if ABC programs, especially the information services, are to remain at the peak of accuracy, trustworthiness, ease of understanding, and widespread credibility. To say nothing of programs that seek to entertain and be distinctive through their own sets of high production values.

    Alan’s conclusions about what is acceptable journalistic “comment” are absolutely valid. The reality is, today’s audiences expect that news reporting, especially current affairs, is more than just “past-tense” facts and the ABC can’t afford to be left behind in this regard. It has to apply, though, the qualifications regarding standards that Alan amplifies so clearly in the 2018 Report (No16) he refers to. Similarly, the ABC has to accept that the future of so-called linear radio and TV is approaching its end. How it takes advantage of the many new social and digital platforms is a matter for ongoing debate. Whatever the strategies and tactics, “best practice” must always be a core feature.
    I would add only one additional point – and it is at the crux of “best practice” in relation to the most important tool in the journalists’ toolbox, the interview. I wrote some time back deploring the absolute preponderance of the “leading question” as the technique-of-choice for ABC interviewers. The leading question has never been an acceptable technique and, arguably, even more so today. It has seldom been an effective pathway to obtaining real information. Today’s politicians in particular are very well media-trained and ridiculously easily avoid answering a leading question, especially when it begins with today’s almost inevitable and totally predictable, “Do you think that…..”. How does that best serve the needs of the audience for accurate information? What is really damaging to the ABC’s integrity is that it further enables the ABC’s critics to yell “bias!” on the part of its on-air staff. However much “bias” (political or otherwise) is absent from the interviewer’s mind, today’s ubiquitous leading questions, with their inevitable introductory signals, must create the perception the interviewer has already made up their mind what the answer should be. How can that be acceptable in an organisation that seeks to maintain the trust of its audience?
    This particular, but very serious problem isn’t new, of course. It’s been growing for some years. If it was evident when Alan was in his top level Editorial position, I wonder what steps he might have taken to fix it and if he did, why is it that it seems clear they were so obviously unsuccessful?

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