On the day federal MPs debated the editorial independence of the ABC, the national broadcaster decided to resurrect two-month-old allegations about the mistreatment of asylum seekers by Australian military personnel.
Its 7.30 program on Monday devoted 22 minutes to a story previously disputed by the federal government, the navy and Customs and Border Protection.
It was also a story discredited as “an overreach” by the ABC’s own media watchdog, leading eventually to an admission by managing director Mark Scott that the broadcaster’s initial reporting needed to be more precise.
The justification for devoting twice as much time to the previously-aired allegations over the appearance of Cardinal George Pell before the royal commission into child sexual abuse was that it was the first time any of the three alleged victims of the January incident had given their version of events.
Its investigation raised “new questions” about the turning back of the boat by the military between January 1 and January 6.
The program spoke to 12 passengers from the boat in two detention centres at opposite ends of Indonesia.
Five of them claimed they had either been involved in the burns incident or had seen it. Two others said they heard screams.
Mustafa Ibrahim, a 23-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker, claimed two Australian military personnel took hold of him and put his hand on the exhaust of the boat’s engine.
Asked if it could have been an accident, Ibrahim said the pair had acted intentionally.
An English-speaking Sudanese passenger, Yousif Fasher, said he had witnessed the incident through an entry point to the wheelhouse.
He then had seen three of the men deliberately burned, “one after one”.
There also were claims four people had fallen overboard, denied after being “rigorously assessed” by Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.
Unsurprisingly, the Abbott government was unimpressed with what it described as recycled and unsubstantiated claims.
“If the ABC just wants to keep repeating and recycling these claims well they can, but the government will continue to strenuously deny them,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the morning after the latest story was broadcast.
“Nothing’s moved on. I suggest the ABC should.”
There are many in the government who think the ABC has a particular fixation about reporting asylum-seeker incidents, especially allegations of mistreatment at sea by military personnel.
“A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in February when asked about Scott’s admission.
That remark and others like it by senior coalition figures, along with a government-initiated efficiency audit of the ABC and SBS, has raised the spectre of funding cuts in the May budget.
Labor MP Melissa Parke took her concerns to parliament this week moving a motion that called on the government to cease its “unwarranted, politically-motivated vilification of the ABC as a news organisation, and its baseless criticism of the ABC’s organisational independence and integrity”.
She also wanted Abbott to provide a clear and unequivocal commitment to no spending cuts at the ABC or SBS.
Parke argued there had been a concerted assault on the public broadcasters in the form of a campaign of veiled and not-so-veiled threats about funding.
Liberal MP Sarah Henderson, a former ABC journalist, reminded parliament the broadcaster had a statutory, legislated obligation to be accurate and impartial in its news and information services, according to the objective standards of journalism.
“I think it is fair to say that, in recent times, the ABC has not always got it right.”
Craig Laundy, an unabashed fan of the ABC, says it should report without fear or favour.
“Put simply, both sides (of politics) should get cranky with the way they report from time to time,” the Liberal MP said.
Laundy dismissed suggestions by Labor’s Alan Griffin that the Abbott government was dog whistling about the ABC.
“What we are seeing is an attempt to undermine the national broadcasters with regard to the role that they play in Australian society,” Griffin told parliament.
Laundy is not the only coalition MP hoping the government maintains adequate funding for the ABC.
Nationals MPs and Liberals representing rural electorates know intimately how important the public broadcaster is to their constituents.
“The ABC really does have a long-standing reputation for providing some of the most independent, credible, up-to-date news in the industry,” veteran Nationals MP Bruce Scott told parliament.
But what he’d really like to see is the Classic FM service extended to outback areas of his Queensland electorate.
It would be a nice change from listening to Slim Dusty on his long road trips.