Australian Civil Liberties Union

Attempt by ABC to censor Your Rights


Attempt by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to censor Your Rights

The 24th edition of Your Rights was published in May 1998, containing criticism of the ABC and its complaints procedures in a section headed: Your ABC - A Hoax? I said that Maxine McKew had been unfair in her interview with Ms Hanson while Kerry O'Brien on another program had let one of Hanson's critics off the hook.

The ABC wrote to the distributor Gordon & Gotch in September 1998 claiming that pages 75-76 of the publication contained misleading and incorrect statements about the ABC, and requested Gordon & Gotch to cease distribution of the publication or, as a minimum, have the references to the ABC removed. Gordon & Gotch, which regarded the letter from the ABC's legal department as a threat of legal action under the Trade Practices Act, said they would cease the distribution of Your Rights until the issue between the ACLU and the ABC had been resolved. The ABC claimed that Your Rights was inaccurate because of the omission of some material and the inclusion of other material.

The ABC said I omitted to say that the ABC Melbourne office is familiar with the complaints I have made over the years before the two complaints discussed in Your Rights, that I have made as many as four phone calls a day, that I have been specifically advised I am a vexatious complainant and that the Australian Broadcasting Authority refused to take my case. All these claims are incorrect.

An FOI application vindicated my claim that I had not made complaints to the ABC apart from the two complaints referred to in Your Rights and that I had made fewer than ten calls to the ABC, and those were mainly brief calls seeking replies to letters. I specifically said in Your Rights I had been advised that I was a vexatious letter writer, and although I minuted a letter I sent to the ABC, to the ABA, I specifically told the ABA I did not wish it to pursue the matter because I was tired of wasting my time.

The ABC claimed that I inferred the ABC treats the public with disrespect. If the ABC had treated my two complaints with respect and followed its own best practice complaints procedures, the dispute would not have arisen.

The ABC's legal department also objected to my opinion that the ABC has a political agenda and is a vehicle for propaganda on some issues. However as Terry Lane, (The President of the Free Speech Committee said (Australian, 8/11) "there was nothing in the criticism of the ABC that you would not expect to see in the letters to the editor column" and that "Bennett's views were not out of the ordinary". He added that "the large ABC thinks it can get away with squashing the small Mr. Bennett".

The response by the ABC reveals a novel approach to journalistic ethics. The ABC seems to believe that material critical of the ABC objected to by the ABC should not be distributed unless material favourable to the ABC, as dictated by the ABC, including factually incorrect material, is included, and material critical of the ABC, objected to by the ABC, including moderate expressions of opinion, is excluded. The ABC would be unable to function if it used this approach to its own news and current affair programmes, when commenting on other organizations and individuals.

What we have here is a publicly funded national broadcaster, which prides itself on the veracity of it s news reports, trying to suppress a book containing factually correct statements about the ABC by claiming that the book should have contained material critical of the complainant prepared by the ABC which the ABC knew to be false as demonstrated above.

It is difficult to know why the ABC, knowing it was subject to FOI, would made false statements about a pattern of complaints over the years, about me omitting the claim by the ABC that I was a vexatious letter writer, about the ABA refusing to take up my case, and about being requested not to phone the ABC. One theory which I do not accept is that the ABC was put up to its outrageous "try on" by people who object to my defence of the freedom of speech of historical revisionists.

I believe it is more likely that the ABC's actions were due to an ABC culture of political correctness leading to treating people requesting, fair treatment for Ms Hanson with thinly disguised contempt, while at the same time heavily promoting the extreme vilification of Hanson by Pauline Pantsdown and taking legal action, by way of appeal, to ensure the vilification could continue. The ABC culture was also reflected in its one-sided reporting of the Hindmarsh Bridge issue which usually ignored strong evidence that the secret women's business claim was false, and in its loss of tapes of conservatives such as Peter Coleman, which prevented their views being broadcast (Daily Telegraph, 31/10).

The mindset of the ABC was reflected in a claim that Your Rights was not a legitimate publication. This claim was difficult to reconcile with the numerous favourable reviews on the back cover. One review was by the late Sir James Darling, a former Chairman of the ABC, and a member of the ACLU for many years, who often made suggestions to me about ACLU activities - in the circumstances a somewhat piquant point.

A file note from the Melbourne ABC office to the Sydney office containing an inaccurate and highly libellous assessment of me may have led the ABC to believe that I could be easily pushed aside and that no one would come to my defence. They may have been fortified in this belief by equally defamatory statements about me shown to selected journalists by self-styled anti-defamation group seeking to dissuade journalists from dealing with me.

I received considerable support in the media from feature writers in Murdoch owned papers such as Michael Duffy in the Daily Telegraph (31/10) and the Courier Mail (2/11) and Michael Barnard in the Sunday Herald Sun (8/11).

Several ABC broadcasters expressed amazement that the ABC had tried to stop the distribution of Your Rights. The only significant section of the media which avoided comment on the issue were papers in the Fairfax group such as in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald which as I have documented elsewhere despite their pretensions and Codes of Conduct, are the least sympathetic to freedom of speech among the main newspapers. Michael Duffy, in an article headed Crushing Foes as easy as ABC (2/11) said "the action of the ABC is bullying of a most repulsive kind, and is particularly repugnant coming from an organization supposedly devoted to the free flow of ideas". Michael Barnard in an article headed Open Debate off the air at ABC (8/11) said "the ABC seemed to argue that any criticism of the ABC must be presented in a way that meets its approval". Terry Lane, the ABC commentator and President of the Free Speech Committee, said (The Australian, 8/11) that the ABC had set a terrible precedent by effectively censoring Mr. Bennett for expressing views that were not out of the ordinary.

I posted a copy of Your Rights to all Federal MPs with a covering letter and said I intended to send a copy to all State MPs and most libraries. Shortly after the letters were received by federal MPs the ABC caved in on 12/11 stating that it had written to the distributor Gordon & Gotch advising that the ABC did not intend to take further action in relation to Your Rights, and claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that the ABC had never threatened to take legal action.

The ABC's cave in was of course not reported in The Age or Sydney Morning Herald, which, through their silence (and they were fully informed) suggested they would be quite content to see Your Rights, which usually contains documented material about their bias, go out of circulation permanently. However, The Australian, The Courier Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Herald Sun reported the ABC capitulation.

The report by Michael Duffy in The Daily Telegraph 14/12 stated that "two weeks ago I described how the bullies at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had stopped distribution of John Bennett's consumer guidebook, Your Rights, because it dared to criticise them. Following my column, the corporation has retreated and the book will now go back on the shelves. The ABC has not apologised to Bennett or offered him any compensation".

The unprecedented action by the ABC, which was a major threat to freedom of speech, has opened a Pandora's Box. Any powerful pressure group can put on hold the distribution of material it objects to by an express or implied threat to the distributor of action under the Trade Practices Act. Other publishers, especially small publishers, with little clout, could be held to ransom in a similar manner. Many journalists could be adversely affected.

Despite my experience with ABC Management, I hold ABC presenters in high regard. ABC radio and to a lesser extent ABC television are my main sources of information. My criticism of Maxine McKew and Kerry O'Brien was because I regarded them as first rate interviewers and was surprised by their temporary lapses in relation to the treatment of Pauline Hanson. Perhaps unfortunately from the ABC's point of view it is subject to FOI, unlike the rest of the media.

While I am impressed by ABC presenters I am amazed at the ineptitude shown by senior management in this dispute only some of which has been mentioned by me. I am surprised that they were not aware of the importance of contemporaneous documentary evidence (see Your Rights 1998, page 102) and the significance of FOI procedures. The clumsy action by the ABC in attempting to stop the distribution of Your Rights which has an annual print run of only about 13,000 and very limited readership, led to the criticisms of the ABC contained in Your Rights being ventilated in newspapers with a combined circulation of about 1 1/2 million and a combined readership probably in excess of 4 million.



Contents of Your Rights

Australian Civil Liberties Union