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ABC Alumni Webinar with Gavin Fang, ABC Editorial Director

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Gavin Fang took up his appointment as Editorial Director in January this year.  One of the ABC’s most experienced news executives, he began his ABC career in 2000 in the Perth newsroom.  After a stint as the ABC’s correspondent in Jakarta, he took on a succession of ever-more senior editorial roles in ABC News, ending as Deputy Director of News.  Along the way he had a hand in devising the More Relevant to More Australians News policy, and was ABC News Diversity lead. 

The Editorial Director and his team of editorial advisors are responsible for ensuring that ALL ABC content, screen, audio and online, complies with the ABCs Editorial Polices and Standards.

ABC Alumni board director Quentin Dempster spoke to Gavin Fang for a webinar exclusively for ABC Alumni subscribers on Tuesday 19 March.  This is not a word-for-word transcript but a summary that has been approved by Gavin for wider distribution.


Quentin kicked off by asking if Gavin saw himself as chief censor or chief management officer?

Gavin said he is neither.   “I want our content makers to see our editorial policies and guidelines as ways of allowing them to do the best work that they can, so I’m not censoring them.  We want them to be as brave as they can be. If they follow the standards and editorial policies they will be able to do great work.”

Quentin asked about the reporting lines now that the ABC also has an Ombudsman.

Gavin said that the Ombudsman role was established about 16 months ago. Fiona Cameron deals with complaints and her office has taken over much of the work that used to be done by Audience and Consumer Affairs.  

The editorial policy team are pre-publication advisors.  Ultimately, content decisions are owned by commissioning editors, EP’s etc.   If they need to refer up there are clear lines of referral to the Director of News (Justin Stevens) or the Chief Content Officer (Chris Oliver-Taylor) and through them to the Managing Director as editor-in-chief (David Anderson).  The Editorial Policy team’s role is as advisors and we have to be really clear about maintaining that delineation. We want content-makers to own their own content.  We don’t want to move responsibility or accountability for journalism or other editorial content to an editorial advisor. 

In the rare cases when a matter is referred up to the MD, Gavin would be across the matter first so that he can also provide advice to the MD.

Gavin said his team’s other important roles are (1) ensuring the Ed Pols and Guidelines are up to date and fit for purpose, and (2) training – the ABC needs to put more effort into developing the fundamental skills of journalism and knowledge of the editorial policies.

Quentin asked about complaints

Gavin quoted from the recent full year report from the ABC Ombudsman’s office: In calendar 2023, 5220 editorial complaints – 6539 separate issues – a large number concerned one particular QandA program; if we take that out, 78% of those that were left were about bias – mainly referring to Israel-Gaza – 58% claiming the ABC was biased in favour of Israel, 42% the other way.  Next most common category was accuracy/inaccuracy – but the vast majority of complaints were about bias.

The Ombudsman’s office sends a lot of complaints back to the editorial department responsible for a response. Gavin and his team ask themselves: “How do we approach complaints in a way that is not defensive but allows us to learn from them and share the lessons across the content divisions, at the same time defending our journalists?”

Quentin: Define for us “the recognIsed standards of objective journalism”, as the ABC Charter puts it.

Gavin: Evidence-based journalism, following the weight of evidence, being open-minded, being fair, the things that define our impartiality standard, a balance of perspectives over time, and putting aside your own values and interests, that’s how I would define objective journalism and I don't think that standard has changed.

Quentin: We’re supportive of diversity and inclusion as a staffing criterion, but how do you handle diversity and staff’s understanding of charter obligations?

Gavin:  It’s a Charter obligation for the ABC to reflect and represent the broad Australian community. We cant do that effectively unless the people we employ are able to bring their knowledge and their fact-based perspectives to that journalism.  I would like to break this idea that seems to be forming that impartiality and diversity are somehow in opposition. When you come to the ABC as a journalist you are expected to meet the ABC’s standards of journalism and abide by its editorial policies but that’s not incongruous with coming from a diverse background, having a different set of knowledge, different upbringing, that helps you to understand the community that you are reporting on or in.  Cultural diversity in the newsroom allows us to interpret Australia as it is now, as opposed to what it might have looked like 30 or 40 years ago.

Quentin: And that doesn't change the charter obligations on impartiality and objectivity?

Gavin: Absolutely not, absolutely not.

Quentin raised decisions by the likes of Stan Grant and Nour Heydar to leave the ABC – does the ABC have a problem internally?

Gavin: The MD has put in place a review by Dr Terri Janke [‘Review into ABC Systems and Processes in Support of Staff who Experience Racism’].  Clearly there have been issues, we can always do better.  Do I personally think there is structural racism in the ABC? No, I don't.  But let’s wait and see what the review says.

Quentin asked whether clearer guidelines on ABC people’s use of social media are needed.

Gavin:  Social media guidelines have been around for years and are pretty good. Younger people are growing up with social platforms and use social media as a communication tool and a way to engage on issues and topics.  When they join the ABC though they need to maintain impartiality, and not do anything to damage the perception of that impartiality, so we have to help them do that without owning their social media content, because we don’t own it, it’s their private correspondence.

Quentin:  When I was at the ABC I only posted stuff that linked to other ABC programs or to my own programs: no editorial comments or backhanders, that was my duty as someone funded by taxpayer. 

Gavin: We don't expect people to use their personal social media for their work, and we don’t want them to, but sometimes (for example for regional reporters) it’s essential to have a Facebook presence.  So we need to grapple with the technology and the way that people are using it and ensure that our policy is fit for purpose.

Quentin: Social media is so valuable to the ABC in drawing audiences to ABC content.

Gavin: And we make ABC content for TikTok and for Instagram and we do that because we know that this is where many young people especially are getting their news.  TikTok is the most used search engine – not Google as we might think – for people under 30, and they’re typing in whatever the news topic is that they want to know about and they are searching in there. If we are a trusted public service media organisation it’s our job to reach out to Australians who may not be coming to our own platforms; but we need to ensure that we stick with our editorial standards, that makes us different from Joe Bloggs posting about what he thinks about something.

Quentin said he understood Gavin could not talk about the Antoinette Lattouf affair because it is before the Fair Work Commission, but did he think generally that senior people at the ABC were occasionally doing what he called “a pre-emptive buckle” to outside pressure and in the process risked damaging staff’s reputation and even their careers? How could trust be rebuilt between staff and management?

Gavin didn’t agree that there had been “pre-emptive buckles”. He has seen managers including the MD defend ABC staff to the hilt in ways they would never know about.  We build trust by being as transparent as we can be; there will be times when staff don’t need to know their work is being criticised because you want them to concentrate on their work, but any time you are planning to concede something to a complainant you need to bring in the affected staff because they need to have a say in that.  So it’s all about having good processes.

Quentin asked if any senior manager to Gavin’s knowledge had told journalists not to use the word ‘genocide’.

Gavin: Not anyone I know and not me. We’ve provided guidelines to staff who have asked: “how do we tackle the issue of genocide and claims of genocide?” We provided advice. It was not saying people could not use the word genocide. What we were saying is that it’s a highly contentious and contested issue, if you are going to be reporting on it or the ICJ or on claims of genocide you need to provide an adequate opportunity for the evidence or a rebuttal or relevant perspectives from the other side.  Like any story, if you are unsure, refer  up to your manager, that is a normal process. We’ve always said put the normal journalistic processes around the use of the word.

Quentin:  John Lyons and others at union meeting claimed that ABC was biased towards Israel and Netanyahu government especially in first couple of weeks after the Oct 7th attacks.

Gavin: I’m a big admirer of John and he has done terrific work in Israel.  What I’d say is, it’s been a really fast-moving story, reporting on a terrorist attack that killed more than 1500 people, having access to the victims, their families, telling what happened: it’s easy to look back and say ‘What else should we have done?’ but I don't think we got it wrong and at the time I think our reporting was good.

Quentin: The ABC employs 1500 journos, a lot quite young, some in isolated regional bureaux – do they get adequate training and editorial oversight?

Gavin: I think that training is critical and one of the main focuses of our team.  A couple of things I want to look at more closely: (1) are we doing the basic induction training, basic editorial policies, well enough; and (2) what are we doing regularly for mid- and senior-level people, how can we improve their skills and their craft in the News and Contents Divisions? Those are my top priorities

Quentin asked about ABC Verify

Gavin:  The BBC has set up a very big Verify team, looking at misinformation, providing reliable fact-based info on contentious issues. Example – during first part of Israel Gaza war there was user-generated content flying around the internet and being used for stories. We set up a team to verify the info coming in, to test whether it was true or not, to do things like examining time stamps, comparing incoming material with other stories – verifying external sources.  It will not be another layer of oversight of the ABC’s own reporting.

Quentin asked about rules that restricted doco-makers from access to ABC archives because they can’t be sold for “political messaging” – very broad definition being applied.

Gavin is having a look at the guidance policy that surrounds archives and political messaging – it may well be over-tight.


Quentin thanks Gavin for his time.  Gavin said he welcomed the opportunity to receive feedback and his door was always open.






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