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David Anderson says ‘racist’ ABC Alice Springs town hall report should never have aired

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The ABC breached its own editorial guidelines of accuracy and impartiality when a contentious radio report focusing on a community meeting in Alice Springs went to air last month.

The findings of the ABC ombudsman were handed down on Tuesday before managing director David Anderson faced a grilling at Senate estimates.

The AM radio package, which aired on January 31, sought to report on the division rampant in the town amid the alcohol and anti-social behaviour crisis.

However the morning package included various vox pops describing the meeting as a “total white supremacist fest”, without alternative views, which the local mayor at the time said was a gross representation of what had happened.

Mr Anderson conceded the AM report had not adequately represented the variety of views in the room, but later reports by the same journalist, including for the PM program and 7pm news bulletin, had included both sides.

Mr Anderson said the ABC was still trying to figure out how the one-sided report – which was found to be “racist” by the ombudsman – had been able to go to air, but admitted it had been an error.

“It should not have gone to air,” he told estimates.

“I do think that the systems and processes we have in place did not pick up the issue with that story before it was included in the AM package.

“I think that certainly the reporters’ endeavours were true. Her reports for later that day for 7pm (news) was a good report that did contain all the perspectives that needed to be with the context as well.

“The other reports were good, but on that particular three-minute AM story, I think certainly when I heard it, I knew we had a problem.

The ombudsman received 19 complaints, most concerned that the AM report had “presented only the views of those attendees who claimed the meeting had been racist, despite a range of different perspectives being expressed at the event”.

The ombudsman cleared the reporters’ other stories on that day.

The opposition’s spokeswoman for communications Sarah Henderson, who herself is a former ABC reporter, said the journalist had been “grossly let down by ABC News management”.

She said it was “incredulous” that the process on the day was still being reviewed.

“You are the editor in chief, the buck stops with you,” she told Mr Anderson.

He said he had asked to understand precisely what had happened, saying it had been a failing in an otherwise good system of editorial checks and measures.

Mr Anderson reiterated the views were not that of the ABC, merely that of attendees who had attended.

He confirmed the journalist responsible for the reporting – a Sydney based Indigenous Affairs reporter – had not been inside the room for the meeting, but that her colleagues had been.

The ombudsman also found the report was inaccurate in describing the “hundreds” of people under the room, rather than the thousands of people who were actually in attendance.

ABC News issued a statement after the findings were made public, apologising to audiences for “providing an incomplete picture of the event in this instance”.

Estimates also heard the Alice Springs newsroom did not have a single Indigenous staff member, while the Darwin bureau had two.

Alice Springs based Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said it was “very concerning” that the Territory’s 30 per cent Indigenous population was not reflected in its local arm of the public broadcaster.

Mr Anderson said he shared the Senator’s concerns.

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