The rot set in with current affairs, and ABC news has since lost its bearings

The rot set in with current affairs, and ABC news has since lost its bearings, by Geoffrey Luck.

I began my working life as an ABC cadet journalist 15 years before ­Michelle Guthrie was born. …

The community’s simmering disquiet with the public broadcaster’s decline in credibility has been trying for years to find its expression in policy terms. The ­recent populist clamour to “sell off the ABC” can be seen as a final incoherent shout from the frustrated and disappointed. …

Wrong priorities advertised in public:

Guthrie’s recent speech to the Melbourne Press Club … demonstrated how little she understood of journalism. … She also went on to define the role of her journalists as “their relentless drive to ensure that the institutions and processes which are the foundations of our democratic system work to the benefit of that community; their determination to provide a voice for the powerless, the weak and the intimidated; their ability to shine the light on malfeasance and corruption”.

Wrong! That’s exactly the problem with ABC news and current affairs. One might think a managing director who had ­assumed the unearned title of ­editor-in-chief would at least make seeking facts and objective truth the hallmark of a news service. It used not to be difficult to define news in those terms. …

Some specifics:

ABC news is now trivialised. Every night the flagship 7pm television bulletin runs petty local stories ahead of news of consequence to the nation and the world. The audience decline reflects its loss of credibility. …

The multiplicity of news programs across many radio and TV channels has put supervision of news content in the hands of the producer of each. Gone are the knowledge, wisdom and authority of the chief sub-­editor, who caught mistakes ­before they went to air and put a stop to any juvenile attempts to ­introduce comment or opinion.

ABC news once had a style guide. If it still exists, it’s been ­watered down, or allowed to be flouted. For example, adjectives were banned, except in quotation. Today reporters use them to subtly colour their stories. Preambles and summary conclusions were prohibited because they were comment, potentially indicating how a listener should interpret the item. Opinion, unless as a direct quote, would see the reporter sent back to rewrite. Yet the other day a Washington correspondent took it upon himself to characterise Donald Trump as “a President under siege”, then interpreted his comments about past policies as ­“insulting the other side”.

Such lazy, undisciplined writing goes unremarked, but is understandably seen as evidence of bias. Too often, interviewers don’t just ask questions, they argue. …

In the past, there was discipline. Personal views were never ­allowed to intrude. Management control and sub-editorial oversight ensured that, and reporters understood instinctively that ­impartiality was fundamentally the basis for public trust. It was our role to provide the facts, not to change the world.