‘Not conceding defeat’: Senator Bragg still wants public hearing on ABC, SBS complaints

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg will look at alternative ways for the public to speak to government about their concerns with the ABC’s complaints handling system after his attempts to instigate a senate inquiry were derailed.

Senator Bragg said he received about 20 submissions to the inquiry before it was thwarted by a Greens motion last Tuesday, and has signalled he will find a way to allow the public to discuss their concerns.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg will not give up his attempt for a public hearing into the way the ABC handles complaints.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/James Brickwood

“I am not conceding defeat on the ability of the public to have their say,” Senator Bragg said. “There are still options which I am looking at. People want parliamentary privilege for their protection. They can’t get that from the ABC, especially when the ABC spends $26 million over four years on legal fees.”

Senator Bragg’s comments come as the ABC and SBS prepare to face another round of senate hearings on Monday. The amount of public money spent on legal fees and broadcaster complaints handling processes are expected to be the focus of the four-hour hearing.

ABC chairperson Ita Buttrose accused the Morrison government of political interference earlier this month after Senator Bragg announced an inquiry into the way the national broadcaster and SBS handled complaints from the public about its content. Ms Buttrose, who had already commissioned an independent review into the ABC’s complaints handling framework, urged the Senate to suspend or terminate the inquiry.

Her request was granted by a motion from Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young who, with the support of Labor and independent crossbenchers, derailed the inquiry until the next term of Parliament. It was shut down after Liberal senator Gerard Rennick failed to attend a vote on a motion to postpone the inquiry.

Senator Bragg, who is the chairman of the senate standing committee on environment and communications instigated the inquiry, said the outcome was “a backward step” for democracy.

He does not believe the ABC’s inquiry is as strong as the senate’s because it does not involve public hearings, where evidence would be protected by parliamentary privilege. His creation of the inquiry broke from the typical procedure whereby inquires are established following a vote on the floor of the senate.

The findings of the ABC’s review, which will be led by former Commonwealth ombudsman John McMillan and former SBS, Seven and Ten news boss Jim Carroll, are expected to be submitted to the ABC board in March. The review was commissioned after a series of complaints were made by from federal and state politicians about programs such as the Ghost Train series into the 1979 Luna Park tragedy.

Complaints about the ABC’s editorial coverage are currently handled by the audience and consumer affairs division of the media organisation. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome, it is referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Complaints about conduct on social media are handled by the manager of the accused.

The ABC’s complaints review consultation paper was made public on Friday with eleven terms of reference. It will assess how well the ABC manages external complaints about feedback about compliance with its standards, whether they are dealt with efficiently, fairly and reasonably and whether appropriate remedies and actions are taken.

It is asking for commentary on topics such as the ease of making complaints, dispute resolution options and the editorial standards or criteria applied by the ABC in resolving issues.

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clarification

A quote provided by Senator Bragg originally stated that the ABC spends $26 million a year on legal fees. This is incorrect. The ABC spent $26 million on legal fees over four years. 

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