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In Celebration of Laura Tingle

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The Australian’s ferocious attacks on Laura Tingle following her off-the-cuff remarks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival have ignited a wider debate about the ABC and its impartiality, as the paper no doubt hoped.

ABC Alumni subscribers will have differing views about the wisdom of Laura’s remarks, and the robustness of the ABC’s response – as indeed do the directors of ABC Alumni. But your Board is happy to endorse these reflections in praise of Laura’s work by Alan Sunderland, who as a former Editorial Director of the ABC has more experience than any other Alumni director of making nuanced judgments on matters such as this.

The inordinate amount of debate initiated and fuelled by News Corp over a few stray remarks at a writers’ festival have obscured the much bigger picture, which is the rich, insightful and determinedly impartial body of work Laura has delivered and continues to deliver for the public broadcaster.

Let’s get the storm in a teacup out of the way first.

Yes, the ‘outrage’ over Laura’s off-the-cuff, conversational remarks at the Sydney Writers Festival was ignited and stoked by the Murdoch press. And yes, those remarks were not delivered on an ABC platform or in any way overseen or approved by the ABC. But regardless of the controversy’s origin and motivation, the ABC needs to take each and every criticism seriously, for one simple reason. The public broadcaster belongs to the Australian people, and is accountable to them. It doesn’t have the luxury of defiantly ignoring accusations of bias - a luxury which is often indulged in by other media organisations. The ABC quite appropriately looked into them and decided that they were unwise. Laura herself also acknowledged the lack of context that made them problematic. As a former ABC Editorial Director, that all sounds about right to me, although I acknowledge that views can and will differ on this. That’s the nature of making editorial calls.

But what followed - the notion that this had somehow outed one of Canberra’s most long-serving, respected and celebrated political journalists, with stints at the Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the winner of two Walkley Awards as well as the Paul Lyneham Award for Press Gallery Journalism, as ‘partisan’ - was patent nonsense.

Equally absurd, I hope and trust, is the notion that a (I think justified) rap over the knuckles for loose language at a writers’ festival will discourage ABC political reporters from doing their jobs.

The bigger picture here is the instructive one. Long before Laura’s remarks at the festival sparked the latest round in the culture wars, she had delivered a powerful piece for the ABC analysing and critiquing Peter Dutton’s budget reply. The criticism in this piece was strong, but it was in no way partisan. It was full of context, analysis and background, just the kind of thing that political journalism does best. In fact, it mirrored many of the comments made at the festival, only this time with the detail and explanatory context that ensured they would not be seen as potentially partisan.

Similarly, in the lead-up to the budget, Laura wrote a piece accusing the Albanese Government of ‘egregious and dishonest … parochial toadying’, but once again there was no partisanship, just a willingness to analyse and critique important public policy issues with strength and clarity.

At the same time, Laura’s colleagues at the ABC have delivered strong and insightful reporting and analysis in recent days on the fair work decision, the Josh for Canberra push and the ‘immigration mess’ engulfing the government.

The ABC has a long tradition of first-class political reporting and analysis, stretching from the days of Richard Carleton, Paul Lyneham, Paul Murphy and Kerry O’Brien through to Barrie Cassidy, Andrew Probyn, Chris Uhlmann and now Laura Tingle. There wouldn’t be many on that list who hadn’t been accused of bias by one side of politics or the other. There also wouldn’t be many who hadn’t, at one point or another, done something inside or outside the ABC that could have been done better. In 45 years of working and observing journalism, I am yet to find a perfect journalist anywhere in the world.

The secret is to acknowledge the occasional shortfalls openly and honestly (something the news media in general is particularly bad at) while keeping a sense of perspective and celebrating the strengths of what we do,

So let’s not be taken in by mischief-makers, catastrophists and those who want to turn the normal reflections and corrections of a well-functioning news organisation into some kind of existential crisis.

Instead, let’s celebrate the fine work that our best ABC reporters deliver time and time again, and let’s acknowledge that Laura Tingle is foremost among them. Long may her work continue.

Alan Sunderland 4 June 2024

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