Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s politicisation of the coronavirus pandemic is the focus of a fresh complaint filed with the ABC, after the public broadcaster aired a Labor political ad which is alleged to have breached its editorial policies.
Territory Alliance filed the formal complaint late last week, alleging the broadcaster breached its “production guidelines” by airing Labor advertising material in the announcement spots it affords all major parties in the lead up to the NT election.
The spots, which have been airing since the campaign period commenced, are intended to be “political comment or statement only and must not be in the nature of an advertisement”, which would violate the ABC’s charter not to air political ads.
The ABC considers an “advertisement” to include the use of “catchwords and jingles” and “attempts to associate parties or candidates with anything universally approved” – in this case, public health policies which all parties agree on.
The Labor ad, which first aired on ABC Radio Darwin and on ABC television on July 31, involved Mr Gunner informing Territorians about coronavirus-related public health policies, including border restrictions, the cost of fines for breaching health orders and offering standard health advice before pleading with Territorians to vote Labor so he could continue to “protect lives”.
“The police commissioner, the chief health officer and myself; we all have a job to do,” Mr Gunner said in the ad. “But you have got a job to do as well. Get back in the habit of keeping your distance, washing your hands, staying home if you are sick and getting tested. On August 22 we are going to the polls. I am asking for your support so the Labor Government I lead can continue to protect Territorians’ lives. Let’s stay safe together.”
TA alleges the comments constitute a political advertisement by aligning Mr Gunner with public health policies to combat the COVID-19 crisis that all parties agree on.
“There are multiple news reports and statements made by the NT political parties in terms of their universal support for COVID-19 protections and support for public health actions to reduce the spread of the virus such as hand washing, social distancing and border protections for areas in Australia with community transmission,” the complaint letter read.
“It is inappropriate for the Chief Minister and NT Labor to use public health matters such as protecting the community from the spread of the coronavirus for political benefit when the matters referenced are universally agreed.”
Perceived conflicts of interest with ABC Darwin and Michael Gunner raised again; broadcaster says interstate executive approved ads
Questions to the Darwin ABC office were handed off to a company communications specialist in Sydney who declined to comment on the complaint, but defended Labor’s ad and the ABC’s handling of the spot in response to questions sent by the NT Independent.
“The Labor Party spot covers legitimate public policy issues relating to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” John Woodward said. “That is consistent with our guidelines, which don’t preclude a sitting government referring to actions they have taken.”
On July 27, the Darwin ABC newsroom ran an online story that highlighted criticism of Mr Gunner using the pandemic for his own political gain in social media ads, but the Territory Alliance complaint letter states the issues raised in that story do not appear to have been applied to ABC’s own scrutiny of ads they produced and aired for Mr Gunner.
The ABC spokesman offered no comment on that matter.
Mr Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien works for the Darwin ABC newsroom, which has raised questions about the broadcaster’s review processes for vetting the spots before they were aired and who exactly approved them.
“All the announcements are checked prior to broadcast by an experienced ABC executive from outside the Territory,” Mr Woodward said. “There is no political influence in the process, which is the same for all parties in all elections.”
NT Labor secretary Anthony Brereton did not respond to the NT Independent’s requests for comment.