‘Cronyism and lack of ethics’: ABC’s claims that Darwin conflict of interest resolved are untrue, staff say

by | Nov 17, 2020 | NT Politics | 3 comments

The ABC’s claims that it has managed its conflict of interest with Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien have been dismissed as untrue by ABC journalists speaking to Media Watch.

The ABC Darwin newsroom’s conflict of interest was the focus of the venerable program on Monday night, raising new questions over the integrity of the newsroom under editor John McElhinney.

An ABC spokeswoman told Media Watch the conflict had been resolved by providing “additional oversight” in the newsroom after the NT Independent first reported on the conflict late last month that had been ongoing for more than four years.

The spokeswoman also claimed in a longer statement to Media Watch that addressing the matter had included “openly discussing the situation within the newsroom team to ensure any potential issues can be got out in the open and managed”.

But Media Watch host Paul Barry revealed that several journalists did not believe the situation was being effectively managed and was never discussed, with one suggesting “cronyism” and a lack of ethics was to blame.

“Media Watch has spoken to several ABC journalists who say there is a conflict of interest here and management is not taking it seriously enough,” Mr Barry said.

One journalist, who was not named, refuted the ABC’s official claims of an “open discussion” and managing the conflict effectively.

“There has been no open discussion on this situation … and it remains as the elephant in the room,” they said.

Another suggested the problems at the ABC Darwin newsroom ran much deeper.

“[There is a] general malaise [around] ethics, little drive to chase down hard investigative news and cronyism which comes down from the top,” they said.

‘Cosy conversation’ organised by Chief Minister’s Office raised colleagues’ ire

The NT Independent revealed last month that Ms O’Brien had a speaking engagement at a local shopping centre arranged through the Chief Minister’s Office that was billed as getting to meet the award-winning journalist and “NT Chief Minister’s wife”.

“The cosy conversation, mixing O’Brien’s roles as ABC journalist and NT first lady, left staff wondering why management allowed it to happen,” Mr Barry said.

John McElhinney

ABC Darwin news editor John McElhinney

ABC staff the NT Independent spoke with said the speaking engagement had not been approved by Mr McElhinney, however, the ABC spokeswoman said in the statement to Media Watch that “Ms O’Brien advised her manager of the content of her speech in advance to ensure there was no inappropriate political content”.

The ABC spokeswoman also claimed there had been no complaints about Ms O’Brien’s conflict of interest made at any time to management by journalists in the Darwin newsroom, which a source told the NT Independent was “bullshit” and that complaints had been raised.

The Media Watch segment also highlighted questionable stories written by Ms O’Brien over the last two years that seemed to serve her husband’s political agenda.

ABC said they backed the stories as meeting all editorial standards, including one that saw Ms O’Brien quoting Mr Gunner’s financial figures about a space launch project that did not disclose Ms O’Brien’s relationship anywhere in the story.

Outcome of ABC managing director’s inquiry yet to be released

Last week, NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon grilled ABC managing director David Anderson over the conflict of interest at Senate Estimates.

Mr Anderson admitted he had not been made aware of all the issues around the conflict, including that staff had raised concerns about it not being managed effectively.

“Senator, I know that has not been raised with me,” he said. “I think I’d remember that. That has not been raised.

“I think that if there was an issue, that we would deal with it through the processes we have when it comes to our code of conduct.”

Senator McMahon asked Mr Anderson if he thought it was appropriate for a reporter to campaign for a politician and then resume work for the public broadcaster, to which he responded that he would take the question on notice and look into the matter.

Monday’s Media Watch program showed social media photos of Ms O’Brien at political events with the Chief Minister in the days leading up to the NT Election, which they described as “happy snaps”.

The ABC declined to produce Mr Anderson’s answers to Senator McMahon’s questions. Mr Anderson will need to respond to the Senator by next week.

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