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ABC on reporting on surveillance, product placement and online content

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 19 Nov 2013

Senator LUDLAM: Mr Scott, I am going to take you back to where you began in response to some remarks that you made on questioning from my colleague Senator Ruston. I was watching and listening fairly attentively from my office downstairs and appreciate the candour of your comments regarding the story that the ABC and The Guardian broke yesterday. I think it was extremely well put. I am interested in the process of redaction. I notice that, of the slides you published, six or so slides have been redacted. Have you done that in collaboration with The Guardian, or is that something separate?

Mr Scott: I think there were discussions with The Guardian, but there were also discussions with appropriate authorities. As would usually be the case with a story, we went to appropriate figures-I will not go into detail on that-saying that we were aware of these matters, that we had seen these documents and that this was the shape of the story that we might be running. There was some consultation around that. I think that, in light of representations that were made, a decision was made to withdraw some elements on those slides. I will not go into the detail of that information, but that was a decision that we came to. That is not an atypical process.

Senator LUDLAM: Were you at that point coordinating with the editors of The Guardian?

Mr Scott: I believe I was aware the story was coming together and finally briefed on its shape before it went to air, but I believe that, even though, when the ABC was aware of this material, the ABC reporting staff made its own calls, made its own inquiries and wrote and filmed our own stories independently from The Guardian, there were points where there was discussion with The Guardian, including around the time when the story would be published.

Senator LUDLAM: Presumably in what form the primary source material would be published.

Mr Scott: Yes. I think there was an agreement around what material would be redacted and the reasons for that.

Senator LUDLAM: Can we assume that some of those redactions are a direct response to your process of checking with various authorities?

Mr Scott: Yes you can.

Senator LUDLAM: Publishers including The Guardian, The New York Times and others in the United States rest on first-amendment protections when they put this material to air or online, but in the UK, you are no doubt aware, the offices of The Guardian have been not quite raided but have had the editor told, 'Time's up; you've had your fun' and The Guardian has been forced to drill out and destroy hard drives containing the source material and, effectively, told to stop publishing. To their credit, they have not. What is the legal situation here in Australia? On what constitutional protections, if any, do you rest when you put a story like this to air?

Mr Scott: I do not have precise detail in front of me. We had this story legalled. We did not believe there was any legal impediment to broadcasting this material, but I do not have that precise legal advice in front of me this afternoon.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Do you publish under some kind of implied freedom of publication or are you exposed in the same way as publishers in, for example, the UK?

Mr Scott: We clearly do not have the first amendment here. In our discussions with authorities yesterday there were no other issues raised with us that was an inhibitor on us publishing this material.

Senator LUDLAM: That is good. I know it would not normally be the practice.

Mr Scott: And our act does require us to comply with the law. This is one of the reasons why we seek legal advice prior to publication.

Senator LUDLAM: I guess I am more concerned that the law is silent rather than containing any explicit prohibition for you to do what you have done. The law in the Australian Constitution is silent.

Mr Scott: That is true. There is no prevailing first-amendment protection.

Senator LUDLAM: Publish and be damned-and good on you for doing so. Changing the subject briefly: there have been some reports in a newspaper about potential product placement in ABC programming. Does that go on? Is there an explicit policy?

Mr Scott: No, there is no product placement in ABC content. I have seen some of those articles and been a little bit confused by them. I have some material here on that. The ABC's editorial policies prohibit the use of product placement. Product placement would pose a threat to our independence and integrity.

Senator LUDLAM: Indeed.

Mr Scott: But that is not to say, though, that products will not appear in a drama program and the like. But we are not being paid for them.

Senator LUDLAM: That is good. It is good that your policy is that clear. Have you had complaints or are you just aware of the media stories?

Mr Scott: We are just aware of a series of stories. Someone has watched some of our programs with a stopwatch and said that a certain car brand has appeared a lot, but that is the car brand that the characters in the drama were driving. Anyway, our editorial policy's section 11 makes clear the guidelines that operate. It is also covered in section 12 and section 13 of the editorial policy. Our television division adheres to those requirements. There is no product placement in ABC commissioned content, and our independent producers are aware of those requirements.

Senator LUDLAM: That was where I was heading next. How do you police that upstream to work that you commission?

Mr Scott: Those people who work in partnership with us understand that they need to deliver in terms of the editorial policy. When we contract with them to make a drama or a documentary, they know that part of the contractual requirements is that they are in compliance with the editorial policies. They indicate that we have final editorial control over that product. We provide training sessions for production teams that include issues like commercial references and our product placement prohibition. We have a website that provides further support and information. So I do not think it is the case that we have a clear policy but independent producers who work with us make up their own rules. They have to deliver under the editorial policies that would operate if we were doing this internally, and we do our best to inform them and educate them around those policies. And we can review their adherence to those matters.

Senator LUDLAM: All right; that is pretty clear. Lastly for me, on your online platform: what is your policy on iview about how long and how many of your programs will be resident on your website?

Mr Scott: It is a good question. iview is continuing to experience tremendous growth for us, and we look to expand that service in response to audience demand. The issue of the availability of a program on iview comes to rights negotiations.

Senator LUDLAM: Can we confine it for the moment just to stuff you hold the rights to? I am interested in particular in your current affairs work.

Mr Scott: That is a good question. Everything we put on iview we hold the rights to, but I will draw another comparison. For a program like Doctor Who or Broadchurch that we acquire or even a program that we make like Time of Our Lives we will make a payment that allows us to broadcast it a certain number of times on free-to-air television and then a window, linked usually to that free-to-air television broadcast, that we can broadcast on iview for. That is usually a 14-day window. You can look at different catch-up services around the world. The BBC has been at seven days and in some aspects they go to 30 days, but we are at 14 days. That is basically what we buy from our production partners and the like. So that has generally been the way that we have dealt with iview across the board: you educate your audience that it is a 14-day window. If you look at the iview traffic, it almost has a half-life. You get a slight pick-up on days 12, 13 and 14 because people are aware it is going to go. So that is the way we have set it up.

There is an argument we are now investigating around our archive. I would like more archival material available on iview, but that would probably be archival material that people need to pay for like they pay for it now. If you wanted to go watch a series of Sea Change, the only way you could do that is go to our shop and buy a DVD. We think you should be able to download that the way you could go on iTunes and download archival programming.

Senator LUDLAM: What about an asset like Four Corners?

Mr Scott: A lot of that material you can still find. I think we are still thinking through how we deal with our long-archive Four Corners; but, beyond the 14 days, you can find a lot of that material on the Four Corners website that you can play full length and often with additional material linked back to that program. But the way we set up iview, if I understand the thrust of your question, is to indicate that this is a 14-day catch-up window by and large, and that is the way it is operated. How you deal with the long archive of Four Corners-50 years of archive-we are still thinking through. There is a question about how much should appear on iview and how much should appear on the website. Then there is the whole cost of delivering this. There was some additional money that was provided for CDN costs in the last budget, but I think it was Mr Ebert from SBS who earlier said, 'One of the miracles of broadcast technology is that, if one person watches or a million people watch, it is the same cost.' One of the challenges of digital delivery is that every additional person who is drawing material down from the system triggers a cost back to the broadcaster providing it. So how we manage the demand of iview is a significant question for us.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. I will leave it there. I am not proposing that an episode of Four Corners from 40 years ago is going to be posing a massive drain on your servers. It is more that the entire assemblage is of cultural importance.

Mr Scott: I think that is true. I think the BBC is doing some of this. We still have a challenge with the cost of digitising our archive and how you create an architecture that makes it accessible.

Senator LUDLAM: Don't lose any of it while you are making your minds up.

Mr Scott: We are keen to preserve it.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam, do you have one more question?

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, just one last question that I will ask you to put on notice. My staff are demanding to know when Rake is coming back.

Mr Scott: I can tell you, being a resident of Sydney, I would get word of sightings around Macquarie Street and William Street in the second half of this year. The ABC will be launching its television slate for next year in about a week's time. I think you can expect Rake season three in the first half of next year, and I understand that there are troubled times ahead for Cleaver Greene.

CHAIR: That completes questions for the ABC. Thank you for your presence.


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