ABC increases ‘oversight’ at Darwin newsroom as potentially conflicted reporting emerges

by | Nov 2, 2020 | News, NT Politics | 1 comment

The integrity of ABC Darwin’s reporting has been called into question with at least three stories written by Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien over the last two years flagged as potentially biased and serving Mr Gunner’s political interests.

The stories were sent to the NT Independent last week after it was revealed the Chief Minister’s Office helped to facilitate a speaking engagement for the ABC reporter in contravention of the public broadcaster’s integrity policies.

The national ABC office has claimed Ms O’Brien does not have a conflict of interest despite being married to the NT Labor leader and reporting on matters that in some instances directly relate to her husband’s political interests that have not been publicly disclosed.

However, the public broadcaster has now pledged “additional oversight” in the Darwin newsroom – which is run by editor John McElhinney – following the NT Independent’s questions about how the online stories were approved and how the perceived conflict was addressed.

John McElhinney

ABC Darwin news editor John McElhinney

The issue has also attracted Federal Government attention, with NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon saying the taxpayer-funded broadcaster has clearly breached its own standards and has pledged to hold its executives accountable at upcoming Senate Estimates hearings.

Conflict not disclosed in articles

In an article from April 2018, about the proposed Nhulunbuy space launch project, Ms O’Brien directly references figures attributed to her husband as they related to the perceived economic positives of the project in the face of criticism from local independent MLA Yingyia Mark Guyula.

The story, entitled, “Nhulunbuy space project naysayers will deter investors to Arnhem Land, Indigenous group warns” quotes an Indigenous business leader who stands to profit from the private Equatorial Launch Australia space project, and Mr Gunner’s figures, to suggest Mr Guyula’s objections to the project would “scare away” private investment and cost Indigenous people much-needed jobs and economic prosperity.

“…Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the region could reap $100 million in economic benefits from the project, with the potential of 35 jobs during construction and a further 32 once the centre opens,” Ms O’Brien wrote in the article.

The story did not disclose that Ms O’Brien is married to Mr Gunner.

Mr Gunner has strongly supported the rocket launch project since 2017 and has heralded it as crucial to his government’s plan for the NT’s future economic prosperity.

Arafura Games presented as a success in ABC story before economic returns assessed, other coincidences revealed

A human interest piece written by Ms O’Brien about the politically controversial Arafura Games, which Mr Gunner reinstated after the previous CLP government scrapped them due to high costs and little economic return for the Territory, dated April 29, 2019, states that the event is “fostering goodwill between sporting neighbours and sharing sporting and cultural knowledge”, before proceeding to suggest massive crowds were on hand and to tell heart-warming stories of participants and how the games helped them overcome adversity.

Days later, Mr Gunner announced the estimated $8 million taxpayer-funded games would return, before a proper cost-benefit analysis was completed that would have determined whether they were economically viable.

On September 20, 2019, Ms O’Brien wrote another feature-style online article celebrating the achievements of a local coral exporter, which focused on his sustainability practices.

One week later, the same exporter won the “Chief Minister’s Export Award” for sustainability practices.

Other articles have also been raised from ABC sources as potentially furthering Ms O’Brien’s husband’s policies, including one celebrating the NT’s burgeoning hemp industry, another about water security in the Beetaloo basin area that failed to mention fracking, as well as numerous stories about the positives of a cotton industry in the NT – all areas that relate to Mr Gunner’s policies.

ABC defends conflict of interest while Senator calls it ‘a clear breach’ of policy 

An ABC spokeswoman told the NT Independent that the ABC stands behind Ms O’Brien and her reporting, but has “put additional oversight in place in ABC Darwin to ensure there are no conflicts”.

“Ms O’Brien’s marital status does not disqualify her from being able to work as a journalist. Her work can be assessed on its merits and the ABC is satisfied it meets our editorial standards,” spokeswoman Sally Jackson said to questions about the online stories.

“Ms O’Brien is employed as a journalist reporting on general rounds in the Darwin newsroom and is not in an editorial decision making position.

“The ABC has put additional oversight in place in ABC Darwin to ensure there are no conflicts.”

But Senator Sam McMahon said the alleged breaches of ABC’s editorial policies and the clear conflict identified in the stories is a black mark against the Darwin newsroom.

“The ABC, as the recipient of massive amounts of taxpayer funds, has an obligation to provide independent and unbiased journalism,” she said.

“This is a clear breach of their own internal policies and shows that they cannot be trusted – in Darwin at least – to be considered independent.

“I have raised my concerns with the [Federal Communications] Minister [Paul Fletcher] and will be questioning ABC management in Senate Estimates [next week].”

Internal discontent at ABC Darwin has festered for years over conflict of interest

Several senior journalists and other ABC staff have held concerns about the inherent and unaddressed conflict of interest for years, first raising issues with management and the ABC’s Media Watch program following Mr Gunner’s 2016 election as Chief Minister.

It’s understood management moved Ms O’Brien to the national Landline rural program then, but she remained in the Darwin office and eventually drifted back into rotating positions including chief of staff, executive producer of the 7pm television bulletin and radio news reader, as well as general reporter. She had cycled through some of the roles as late as her maternity leave earlier this year.

While on maternity leave, Ms O’Brien played an active role in Mr Gunner’s 2020 re-election campaign, posting photos and actively engaging the public on behalf of the Chief Minister via various social media channels.

She resumed her role at the ABC last month. The conflict of interest matter was raised again last week after the ABC failed to report on a heated exchange between Mr Gunner and another ABC journalist, as well as the arranged “morning tea” engagement for Ms O’Brien at Gateway shopping centre.

Mr Gunner’s office has repeatedly refused to comment on the conflict of interest.

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