Image for Georges River: the ABC apology is ridiculous

It is eleven months since the then Premier of Tasmania, David Bartlett decided to officially complain to ABC management about a two-part Australian Story documentary screened on ABC1 called Something in the Water. Last Monday the program’s presenter Caroline Jones ended the time slot with a short statement referring to that program.

(On Tasmanian Times: HERE )

The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott’s summary of findings and additional material placed on the Australian Story website make for interesting reading.

There were several complaints about this program, including one from the former Tasmanian premier who alleged, following the findings of his government’s George River Water Quality Panel, that the program had been based on what he described as “severely flawed science”. Excerpts of his complaint are included in the MD’s summary:

From my reading of Mr. Scott’s summary of findings, none of Mr. Bartlett’s issues of complaint were upheld, however. The summary states:

“An internal ABC investigation has since found that the program in some respects fell short of ABC editorial standards relating to contextual accuracy and balance.”

Mr. Scott’s summary goes on: “In the program, the audience was not told in enough detail why the various authorities did not agree with the concerns Dr Bleaney and Dr Scammell raised in 2004. Dr Bleaney’s anecdotal observations were not placed into the context of available health data for the region. Viewers needed more context to be able to assess for themselves the reasonableness of the authorities’ response in 2004.”

I was also interviewed for this program and I was aware that the producer had contacted Tasmanian government officials and attempted to obtain interviews with them whilst the ABC production team was in Hobart. Nowhere in this summary do I see any acknowledgment of the producer’s efforts to secure interviews from the authorities in order to have their responses heard. I note that the government’s refusal to be interviewed was acknowledged in the program.

Despite their refusal to be interviewed, as Mr. Scott’s summary acknowledges, the Australian Story program did their best to include the authorities’ views by use of their media reports at the time and a summary of their views. Still, according to Mr. Scott, “This was not sufficient.”

In my view Mr. Scott’s ruling was not in anyway a reference to Mr. Bartlett’s very serious allegation that the program was based on “severely flawed science”. It seems his ruling is based on the dogged refusal of Tasmanian officials to take part in this program and that by their action it somehow deprived the viewers of “more context to be able to assess for themselves the reasonableness of the authorities’ response in 2004.” From my viewing of Australian Story programs over many years, I recall numerous instances where the end-statements highlight that certain parties declined or refused to take part. Were any of these Australian Story episodes the subject of similar complaints and lengthy inquiries?

In my view it was ridiculous that the ABC be asked to apologise simply for not including the Tasmanian government perspective when that government itself refused to co-operate!  I note the letter from Tasmanian Director of Public Health is published on the website.

It seems particularly disappointing that Mr. Scott’s summary has not acknowledged the program’s attempt to obtain interviews with Tasmanian government officials. 

After such a lengthy inquiry process, Drs Bleaney and Scammell’s proof of concept and their team of scientific researchers have not been challenged. The science is ongoing and Dr Bleaney’s immediate recommendations for water quality measures to protect St Helen’s drinking water are still in place in 2011.

Australian Story viewers across the country must have been bemused at what all the fuss was about. Letters from the two lead scientists’ are also now published on the Australian Story website and they also make for interesting reading:

Tasmania’s forestry interests have a history of shunning media and vetoing any investigations into their realms.

The question remains, was Mr. Bartlett’s complaint pressed upon him by this politically-powerful industry? 

The conflict of interests of several of the panelists on the GRWQ Panel has already been highlighted in an earlier article on Tasmanian Times.