ABC ombudsman reporting to Board only “perilous”: Alumni Chair

ABC Alumni Chair Jonathan Holmes is concerned that the ABC Board decision to have its new complaints ombudsman report directly to the Board rather than through ABC management is a threat to the independence and effectiveness of the complaints process.

The ABC recently announced it was creating a new ombudsman role to head its Editorial Complaints Unit after an independent review recommended that the ABC retain its internal complaints resolution process with the addition of an ombudsman.

While announcing that the ABC Board had accepted all the review’s recommendations, Chair Ita Buttrose, however, said that the Board had decided to move away from the recommendation that the new ombudsman should report to the Board through ABC management.

Buttrose said that Board Directors “felt that this would simply be continuing the system we already have, and we wanted a different approach”.

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Holmes said that he knew of no other “media organisation in the democratic world whose complaints process is kept ‘separate from editorial management’”.

Ombudsmen at SBS, the CBC in Canada and the BBC, he said, report to their respective Boards through their chief executives.

Holmes said that instead of an experience and capable managing director being responsible for editorial complaints process, it would be managed by “a collection of part-time directors, some with journalistic or media experience, some with none – some appointed by a transparent, merits-based appointment system, some the personal picks of the minister or the prime minister”.

This would be particularly problematic, Holmes warned, because so many of the complaints made about the ABC relate to the behaviour of government ministers or alleged political bias.

Until the board is seen to be selected on merit, from a list of people with recognised qualifications for the job, recommended by a non-partisan nomination panel, as the ABC Act requires, this step will be seen as perilous.

Vocal critic of the ABC’s complaints handling, Senator Andrew Bragg, told Media Watch the review had exceeded his expectations.