The ABC needs to address its Gunner Government conflict of interest

by | Oct 28, 2020 | News, NT Politics, Opinion | 1 comment

EDITORIAL: There is no argument Kristy O’Brien is a good journalist in a bad position.

In fact, the NT Independent editorial board as a whole, while in previous pursuits, collaborated with Ms O’Brien on a journalism project. We have the utmost respect for her personally and her talents as a journalist professionally.

Unfortunately, her current position as an ABC journalist and her highly-charged political status as the Chief Minister’s wife cannot co-exist and creates a problematic conflict of interest for the public broadcaster that calls into question the integrity of all of ABC Darwin’s excellent journalists until it is properly addressed.

The issue was raised again this week, after the Chief Minister’s Office helped arrange a speaking engagement for Ms O’Brien which was most definitely political and has brought up questions about how the ABC reports on this government.

Last Friday, Chief Minister Michael Gunner angrily shut down an ABC journalist for asking questions in the public interest that made him uncomfortable. He demanded the reporter cease her line of questioning around his government’s decision to scrap the legislative scrutiny committee after she suggested his explanation for abandoning the integrity policy “does not pass the pub test”.

For reasons the ABC has refused to explain, they did not report on that extraordinary event. An elected leader shouting down a journalist who dares question him is extraordinary – even by NT politics standards.

It didn’t make the 7pm television bulletin, it didn’t go online and it didn’t even garner a mention on the hourly radio news report. They left their reporter high and dry as she attempted to get to the truth of the matter, instead of supporting her efforts and reporting the absurd outburst to the public.

Perhaps it was because on a Friday afternoon they simply wanted to get home for the weekend and didn’t care. Or maybe it was because they wanted to suppress negative publicity of the Chief Minister because his wife works for them.

We can’t say with any certainty what the reason is because editor John McElhinney has refused to explain, sending questions only he can answer to interstate media advisors to deflect for him.

But the bigger problem for the ABC is that they cannot refute the notion that it was suppressed because they have a soft spot for their reporter’s husband. And therein lies the problem for the ABC and its editorial department.

The ABC has strict policies around political relationships of its employees and conflicts of interest which were implemented for a reason: to protect the integrity and independence of the public broadcaster. To simply ignore its own integrity policies in this case without explanation is troubling and does a disservice to the ABC, its reporters and the public it serves.

The idea that the Chief Minister’s Office would help facilitate a speaking engagement for Ms O’Brien, that is inevitably in the Chief Minister’s political interests to have her undertake, is beyond any reasonable measure of appropriateness for an ABC journalist.

As one ABC employee correctly points out, this glaring conflict of interest simply would not be allowed to happen in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or anywhere else. But in Darwin, where we constantly accept conflicts of interest as part of a corrupt culture, it apparently should just be accepted and everyone expected to look the other way as they have for those in power here for too long.

There needs to be a higher standard in the Territory than what is currently accepted and if any agency can provide it, it’s the ABC.

They are not part of the tropical political rot of Darwin. They are anchored in the real world – outside the NT – where there are consequences for actions and conflicts of interest are dealt with appropriately.

But in this case, the irony is striking; the ABC is conducting its business the same way the Gunner Government does: disregarding its own integrity policies because adhering to them is inconvenient or too difficult.

We know it’s difficult, but here’s hoping the ABC can provide some much-needed leadership for the NT in these dark days and show by example what integrity looks like.

 

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