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Australia's ABC investigates biased reporting allegations

  |   Dec. 11, 2013 at 8:19 AM
CANBERRA, Australia, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Australia's national broadcaster is investigating allegations of reporting bias, especially in its coverage of politics and asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Chairman Jim Spigelman defended the Australian Broadcasting Corp. against attacks from "conservative" critics, saying ABC is setting up a number of external audits to assess alleged left-wing bias, the Age newspaper reported.

The audits will address complaints of "alleged systematic lack of impartiality by certain [ABC] programs and content makers," he said.

ABC already has started one of several "external audits" on programs and interviews to see if journalists have demonstrated bias, Spigelman said.

ABC, with a budget of $1.1 billion for the past fiscal year, provides television, radio, online and mobile services, as well as overseas services through the Australia Network and Radio Australia.

Although owned and funded by the government, ABC's editorial independence is guaranteed by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Act 1983 -- a similar situation to that of the British Broadcasting Corp. in the United Kingdom.

Spigelman didn't name those who have criticized ABC's reporting.

But his announcement comes after Prime Minister Tony Abbott lashed out earlier this month at what he said was the broadcaster's "very poor judgment" in publishing leaked documents about Australia's intelligence gathering operations.

Australia's relations with Indonesia remain sensitive following the report Australia had tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and members of his inner circle.

"I think the ABC were guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia's national security and long-term best interests," he said.

But Abbott stopped short of saying he would take action.

The Age reported senior ABC managers and editorial staff are worried the Abbott government will make severe cuts to the broadcaster's budget.

Spigelman said BBC journalist Andrea Wills is finishing a report to "assess the impartiality" of all ABC Radio interviews with former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the then opposition Liberal Party leader Abbott during the recent election campaign.

Rudd resigned in the wake of the Liberal majority landslide win in September.

The Age reported Spigelman didn't accept ABC showed was systematic bias in its reporting.

However, he said "it sometimes occurs" and most programs that receive complaints tend to be the ones "which interest the political class most."

"Since my appointment I have naturally been concerned with the frequency of allegations of a lack of impartiality," Spigelman said.

Spigelman said he believes allegations of ABC bias had more to do with the topics chosen for reporting rather than their content.

"Journalists -- all of you, not just you at the ABC -- tend to have a social and educational background ... that make them more interested in, say, gay marriage than, say, electricity prices," he said.

A second audit will consider the "treatment of the debate about asylum seekers," Spigelman said.

Australia's actions to stop the people smugglers and their boatloads of would-be refugees arriving, as well as treatment of asylum seekers in detention is a highly emotional subject for many Australians.

Boat people policies were a major focus in the last election and human rights groups have criticized the government for conditions and detention lengths.

For more than a decade Australian governments have faced an increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving in unseaworthy boats after paying people smugglers in Asian countries for the often dangerous passage.

Government figures show more than 17,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat last year and by June this year the number topped 13,000.

One asylum-seeker vessel was wrecked on rocks in high seas yards from the shore of Christmas Island, killing 50 people in December 2010. The disaster was filmed by media whose clips showed people jumping into the churning sea amid bodies floating in the water.

Most asylum seekers are held on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, and in offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the tiny Micronesian island republic of Nauru. Inmates have rioted and clashed with security guards and camp officials in protests against conditions.

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