The ABC censors the Australian Civil Liberties Union


The popular "Your Rights" booklet has been withdrawn from circulation because the ABC objected to a short article exposing the bias of the ABC against Pauline Hanson.

This is "YOUR ABC" in action....

The ABC used to be considered an independent national broadcaster free of political bias. Sadly this is no longer the case as the study below clearly demonstrates.

The letter below written by the ACLU president to the chairman of the ABC followed an extraordinary series of events where "Your ABC" endeavoured to censor well documented criticism of its operation by the ACLU in its book "Your Rights, 1998".

From: Australian Civil Liberties Union
P.O. 1137
VIC 3053

Att: Donald McDonald

Dear Sir,

Re: Distribution of "Your Rights"

The Australian Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) laymans guide to law, "Your Rights", was published in May this year, containing criticism of the ABC and its complaints procedures in the section headed: "It’s your ABC-A Hoax?". Copies of "Your Rights" were sent to all members of the ABC Board, many senior managers, and to Kerry O’Brien and Maxine McKew, the subject of the two complaints I lodged with the ABC.

Five months after "Your Rights" was placed in newsagents by the distributor, Gordon and Gotch, the ABC wrote to Gordon and Gotch in a letter dated 7 September 1998, claiming that "pages 75-76 of the publication contained misleading and incorrect statements about the ABC". The letter then states "in the circumstances we request that you cease distribution of the publication or as a minimum, have the references to the ABC removed.

"Your rights" was already on a routine interim recall by Gordon and Gotch, who advised me that the remaining copies of "Your Rights" could be re-issued in mid-December, when the issue between the ACLU and the ABC had been resolved.

I faxed a letter to the ABC on 1st October, requesting a list of the "misleading and incorrect statements". I said that most copies of "Your Rights, 1998" had been sold and I could incorporate alterations to correct any errors in a proposed reprint. I requested that the ABC fax a list of the "misleading and incorrect statements" on the same day as my fax, in view of the print deadlines. I have not received the information I requested from the ABC.

Does the ABC appreciate what a dangerous precedent it is setting in endeavouring to censor a publication which criticises the ABC?

The allegedly misleading statements were set out in correspondence between the ABC and the ACLU before "Your Rights" was published and the ABC did not then seek to answer my statements and has not provided a list of the allegedly misleading statements.

I believe the section in "Your Rights" discussing the ABC has got under someone’s skin. I have sighted a letter dated 13th July, written by Roger Grant, the general manager of the ABC Corporate Affairs, who is criticising "Your Rights, 1998". Mr Grant, who was defending the ABC against the criticisms of the ACLU, contained in "Your Rights" made "misleading and incorrect statements" about the ACLU and myself. I also have other letters in my possession relating to the ABC’s objections to "Your Rights".

The letter dated 13th July claimed that my account "glosses over a good deal". The letter said I was in touch with the ABC over several years and was a vexatious letter writer. In fact the only complaints I have lodged with the ABC in the last 10 years were the two complaints referred to on page 75 of "Your Rights". The letter from Mr Grant said I had claimed the ABC had withheld reporting of the research of Dr Price on immigration, When I said that the ABC seldom, if ever, referred to the arguments calling for a reduction in Asian immigration. When was the research of Dr Price mentioned on the ABC prior to "Your Rights, 1998" being published? Although I listen to the ABC a great deal, I cannot state that the research has never been referred to. Even if at some stage the research was mentioned, is this an argument for the ABC to "heavy" Gordon and Gotch into stopping distribution of the book?

Mr Grant’s claim that I did not state my two complaints related to the treatment of Ms Hanson and her critics is contradictory by even a cursory reading of "Your Rights".

Mr Grant’s letter then claimed that the ACLU was politically motivated and recommended the "official" civil liberties movement in Victoria, namely Liberty Victoria, whose two principal spokesmen are not only members of the ALP but are endorsed ALP candidates for the federal and state elections. Although I am a former member of the ALP, apart from one member of the ACLU executive, who belongs to the ALP, no member belongs to another political group.

The relevance of Mr Grant’s remarks that I had said "Ms Hanson should be an icon for feminists" and his reference to a suggestion I received that I send a box of "Your Rights" to the Australian League of Rights escapes me.

What is "incorrect and misleading" is very much in the eye of the beholder. What is clear, however, is the threat of freedom of speech posed by the attempt to knock a book critical of the ALP off the racks in newsagents. What the ABC is saying is that, because it does not like my version of events, it wishes to censor it, not contradict it – an amazing reaction by a national broadcaster.

I note that Mr Grant has said I am a "vexatious letter writer", that the ACLU is not a "bona-fide" civil liberties organisation, that I am pursuing a political agenda, that "Your Rights" is not a "legitimate publication" and that I make nuisance phone calls to the ABC etc... I am not sure why he has these views. While it is clear the aim of the ABC is to stifle criticism of the ABC, I’m not sure whether there is some other factor at work in the way the ABC has responded to the ACLU. In thirty years of honorary work as a civil liberties activist, I have never come across such hostility from a person in a responsible position.

The claim by Mr Grant in the letter dated 13th July that "Your Rights" is "not legitimate" is curious. Since it was first published more than 350,000 copies of "Your Rights" have been sold and a further 70,000 have been given away to pensioners and applicants for Legal Aid etc. It is the most commonly used layman’s guide to the law in Australia. Reviews on the back cover include reviews by many prominent Australians, including a review by the late Sir James Darling, a former Chairman of the ABC, who was a member of the ACLU for the last 15 years of his life and often wrote to me with suggestions about ACLU activities. The back cover also had reviews from many well known magazines and newspapers. The 1998 edition has received numerous favourable reviews including a review in a mass circulation newspaper, The Sunday Mail (14/6/1998). The review stated that "even if your lief is on the straight and narrow you could do worse than have at hand a copy of the 24th edition of "Your Rights". At $4.95 it could one day be one of the best investments you’ve ever made. It won’t win any design or production awards but it’s all there where you want it".

Mr Grant may claim that the ACLU is not the "official" civil liberties movement but ACLU spokesmen have spoken on more than 15 radio stations in the last 5 months alone, and the ACLU has been quoted in Herald Sun, Sydney Morning Herald, The Courier Mail, The Financial Review, The Adelaide Advertiser, The Australian, The West Australian, The Sunday Mail, in the same period.

I am sure that many of the reviewers of "Your Rights" and some of the prominent Australians who supported the ACLU’s activities, would be interested in Mr Grant’s remarks.

I learnt of the attempt by the ABC to stop the distribution of "Your Rights" in the same week that the ABC went to great lengths in Court to prevent censorship of the ABC in giving air time to "Pauline Pantsdown" who, it was claimed, implied Ms Hanson was a homo-sexual, prostitute, transvestite, involved in the Ku Klux Klan and was a receiver of anal sex. I agree with Richard Ackland (Sydney Morning Herald 2/10) that the censorship of "Pauline Pantsdown" sets a dangerous precedent. I am sure that Richard Ackland and many other supporters of freedom of speech in the media will be even more intrigued by the double standards of the ABC in attempting to stifle criticism of the ABC, and by the curious arguments used by Mr Grant. The double standards of the ABC reflected in the different ways Ms Hanson and her critics were interviewed was the subject of my two complaints to the ABC.

I believe that if the ABC takes an overview of the situation it may decide that it is involved in a course of conduct which will damage the ABC’s reputation as a fairminded broadcaster and as a defender of freedom of speech. Has the ABC really thought through the implications and possible repercussions of its request to Gordon and Gotch to stop the distribution of "Your Rights" because of alleged but undocumented inaccurate statements?

I do not expect the ABC to provide the details requested in my letter of 1st October of inaccurate statements in "Your Rights" because I do not believe such a statement exists. This is implicitly conceded by Mr Grant in his letter of 13th July, which relies on ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and reference to "Your Rights" as not being a "legitimate publication".

I am not sure of the relevance of Mr Grant’s claim about the ACLU being "not bona fide", "Your Rights" being "not legitimate" and the ACLU having political agenda, to the complaints made by the ACLU and the attempt by the ABC to censor "Your Rights", but since Mr Grant seems to believe that his claims are relevant and other people in the ABC may think likewise, I have answered his claims.

Yours faithfully,

John Bennett
President Australian Civil Liberties Union
Cc All members of the ABC board

Here is the article in "Your Rights, 1998" (pages 76/76) that the ABC objected to:

"It’s Your ABC" – a Hoax?

The ACLU sent a letter to Maxine McKew on 19 May 1997 complaining about the discourteous way she interviewed Hanson. In the letter the ACLU President said that he had always admired her skill and her objectivity but thought she was rude and unprofessional in continually cutting off Ms Hanson in mid sentence. He said that he had never seen her interview any other politician in this way and said he was not sure why the interviewer insisted that Ms Hanson have a detailed media policy. "Her party had existed for about a month. The Liberal party had existed under that name for more than 50 years." He asked whether she would berate John Howard and continually interrupt him about his lack of any coherent media policy.

A copy was sent to Brian Johns the Managing Director requesting his comments. A letter was also sent to Kerry O’Brien asking why he did not seek to correct Robert Hughes when he said the percentage of ethnic Asians in Australia was 2.7%, when the estimate of demographers such as Dr Price puts the figure at more than 9%. I had not received a letter to the three letters of the 19th May 1997 by the 8th June so I sent a reminder letter to each of the recipients of my original letters. When no acknowledgment of the, by then, six letters had been received I sent further reminder letters on 15/11/97. I also sent a separate letter to Mr Johns on 15/11/97 referring to my earlier letters to Ms McKew, Mr O’Brien and himself stating that I had not received a reply or even an acknowledgment of any of my letters. I then asked "is the oft repeated message" "Its YOUR ABC" directed only at ABC employees?"I finally received a belated letter from Lateline on 23/11/97, more than 6 months after my original letter.

I enquired by phone whether i could expect a reply to my, by then, six letters to Mr Johns and Mr O’Brien (including one sentence reminder letters) and finally received a letter from the General Manager ABC Corporate Affairs, Roger Grant on 23/12/97 which, while not specifically referring to my original letters of complaint, and not dealing with the complaints, stated that the ACLU was pursuing a "political agenda" and that after the ABC had checked with a rival civil liberty organisation, the ACLU could not be regarded as part of the "official" civil liberties movement. Mr Grant also said by phone that he regarded me as a "vexatious letter writer", but he did not make clear whether the lodging of three brief complaints, or subsequent brief letters seeking a response was vexatious.

I could not see the relevance of these comments to the failure of the ABC to respond to my queries directed to Mr Johns and Mr O’Brien and to explain why Lateline took more than 6 months to respond to my letter of complaint. The letter from the ABC dated 23/12/97 drew a distinction between "pursuing a political agenda" and engaging in a "genuine public debate". It can be inferred that the ABC has a policy of not replying to complaints which it deems are following a "political agenda" and are not from what it regards as an "official" group after it has consulted a rival group. I pointed out to the ABC that pressure groups almost by definition have a political agenda and that the political agenda of the ACLU was to promote civil liberties and especially freedom of speech. I asked whether the ABC has a political agenda in relation to immigration, multiculturalism and Ms Hanson, and whether Ms McKew and Mr O’Brien ever pursued a political agenda or did so in relation to the startlingly different modes of interviewing Ms Hanson and Mr Hughes.

The letter from Mr Grant is one of the most interesting I have ever received in 30 years as a civil liberties activist. The lack of civility and good manners shown by Ms McKew in her interview with Ms Hanson which I commented on in a letter to The Age (11/6/97) is not confined within the ABC to Ms McKew as evidenced by the failure of the ABC (despite its stated policy to respond promptly to complaints) to reply to letters from the ACLU and by the cavalier and illogical response to ACLU letters by Mr Grant.

By way of contrast the Victorian police which nobody alleges is overstaffed, which is often the subject of criticism of the ABC, and which does not run a saturation media campaign, claiming "Its your Victorian Police", always promptly acknowledges letters of complaint and replies to them in due course. I write a detailed letter to Mr Johns and others in the ABC in the hope that the ABC can improve its administrative procedures and respond to complaints promptly and with more logic. The Chairman of the ABC, Mr Donald McDonald finally wrote to the ACLU on 2 April 1998 saying that the ABC did not intend to reply to my letters of 19 May 1997 to Mr Johns and Mr O’Brien.

The political agenda of the ABC is demonstrated by its refusal to allow majority opinion which opposes the current high level of Asian immigration, to be reflected in its programmes. The arguments of Dr Price in The Canberra Times (18/5/97) calling for a reduction in Asian immigration are seldom if ever heard on the ABC. When did you last hear someone on "Your ABC" putting the case for a reduction in Asian immigration? The ABC, like The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald is a vehicle for propaganda on some issues.

Dr Price in The Canberra Times said that the Minister for Immigration Mr Ruddock, rightly rejected the claims of Ms Hanson "that Australia will be 53.6% "Asian" by the year 2040. On recent Asian ethnic strength will be only 24.9% though that is a rapid increase from 2% of 1978 and 9.6% of 1997." (Mr Ruddock’s 7.5% "Asian born" omits all Asians born in Australia.) Dr Price said that Mr Ruddock also challenges Hanson’s 139,000 "immigration" (figure for 1995-96, saying that there were only 99,100 settler arrivals and 28,800 departures, a net of only 70,300. But Hanson includes an estimate of 69,000 visitors overstaying, either illegally or with official permission. Dr Price’s calculations, for foreign born persons, show net of 130,000, quite near Hanson’s.

Dr Price deplored the racist remarks and actions of some Hanson supporters and said he wanted Asian and other immigration to continue, but more slowly. Immigration has been so high that Anglo-Celts, who founded and developed modern Australia, could fall from 77% of population in 1978 to 70% in 1997 and to just 58% in 2040. Such speed of ethnic change is completely unacceptable in other countries and is now affecting peaceful intermixture in Australia. For 20 years governments have completely ignored the two-thirds of Australians wanting lower immigration. Many non-racist Australians, fed up with this are reluctantly supporting Hanson. Dr Price said that the more her opponents use undemocratic force to oppose her meetings the more her support will grow.

Extracts from article by Michael Duffy in The Courier Mail headed "ABC must follow journalistic rule book" on 28th September 1998:

"The irony is that, having the power to do something about bias, there is so little of it to be found. The ABC, not being stupid, is on its best behaviour in this election. Indeed, it is probably providing the most objective coverage in recent memory. Even if the corporation’s news and current affairs sections are left-wing collectives with an agenda dominated by former ALP staffers, they’re not stupid."

"The simple reality, which is easily demonstrated by looking at the record, is that the ABC has been simply and objectively wrong about most valued issues it has touched, from Hindmarsh Island, through industrial relations and immigration to the Greenhouse hysteria. On such matters, for many years, it has routinely broken every rule in the journalistic book, ignoring its responsibility to be objective, keep an open mind, talk to both sides of a dispute and to check the facts."

"Too often it has not been YOUR ABC, but THEIR ABC."

"The only losers from this manipulation and destruction of a once proud institution are the Australian public."

On the 22nd October 1998 the ABC's legal department responded with this classic statement on an unresolved issue (full scanned response at this link):

"The ABC is of the view that this matter is now closed and will not be entering into any further correspondence."

On the 27th October the President of the ACLU responded to the ABC's dismissive statement thus:

Donald McDonald

re: Attempt by ABC to censor "Your Rights 1998" - For consideration by the Board on 29th October 1998

The response by the ABC, which is trying to censor the twenty-fourth edition of "Your Rights" on the basis that it contains misleading and innacurate information about the ABC, reveals a novel approach to journalistic ethics. The ABC seems to believe that material critical of the ABC objected to by the ABC should not be distributed unless the material is favourable to the ABC, as dictated by the ABC, including factually incorrect material is included, and material critical of the ABC, objected to by the ABC, including moderated opinion is excluded. The ABC would be unable to function if it used this approach to its own news and current affair programmes, when commenting on other organisations and individuals.

A letter from the ABC dated 22nd October, which I received on 27th October, suggests that "Your Rights" was inaccurate because of the omission of some material and the inclusion of other material.

Claims by the ABC in the letter I received in the letter of 27th October, that the ABC Melbourne office is "familiar with the complaints" I have made over the years before the two complaints discussed in "Your Rights", that I have made as many as four phone calls a day, that I have been "specifically advised" I am "a vexatious complainant" under the ABC Code of Practice and that the Australian Broadcasting Authority refused to take up my case were not included in "Your Rights" because I was not aware of the claims, which in any case, are all incorrect.

I have not made complaints to the ABC apart from the two complaints referred to in "Your Rights"  and I have made fewer than twenty calls to the ABC over the last two years and those have been mainly brief calls seeking replies to letters. I have not been specifically advised that I am "a vexatious complainant" under the ABC's Code of Practice in either of the only two letters I have received from management (23-12-97 and 2-4-98) and although I minuted a letter I sent to the ABC, to the ABA, I specifically told the ABA I did not want to pursue the matter because I was tired of wasting my time.

The ABC claims that I infer the ABC treats the public with "disrespect". If the ABC had treated my two complaints with "respect" and followed its own "best practice" complaints procedures, this dispute would not have arisen and I would not have been categorised as a "vexatious complainant" - a late in the day categorisation designed to explain away the ABC's failure to observe its own "best practice" complaints procedures.

Although I said the ABC has a "political agenda" and that. like The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, is a "vehicle for propaganda on some issues" (the ABC's letter omitted "some issues"), are such statements to be the basis for imposing political censorship on a publication?

The ABC has said the ACLU is following a "political agenda" and that "Your Rights" is "not legitimate" and much else, but no defender of freedom of speech would seek to ban the ABC from making such statements.

The ABC has set a precedent for censorship of news and current affairs programmes and for pressuring a distributor to discontinue distributing a publication because the ABC does not agree with its contents. A chapter in my forthcoming book, "Threats to freedom of speech" will contain a chapter dealing with the above issues.

I invite members of the Board at its next meeting who support freedom of speech, the right to know, and the give and take of public debate, to carefully read my letters of 8th October and 19th October and withdraw the letter sent to Gordon and Gotch requesting Gordon and Gotch to cease distributing "Your Rights". If the letter is not withdrawn I intend to ventilate the above and other issues in Court and would be pleased if you would nominate solicitors to accept service of proceedings claiming inter alia interlocutory relief and damages for restraint of trade.

John Bennett

President, Australian Civil Liberties Union, P O Box 1137, Carlton, VIC 3053

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