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Excellent TV journalist is admonished for being 'feisty' and 'emotive'.

“The interview speaks for itself… I don’t feel I have to defend anything.”

The Australian Broadcasting Commission, our ‘ABC’, has commissioned a report into their own coverage of the 2014 budget. And they’ve found that award winning journalist, Sarah Ferguson may have breached the ABC’s guidelines about bias.

Why?

Because her interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey was “feisty”, showed “disrespect” and had an “emotive” and “aggressive” tone.

The interview was broadcast on Budget night on the ABC’s 7:30 program. It was also nominated for a Walkley Award for journalistic excellence. But according to a new independent report, the interview was less-than-excellent.

Colleen Ryan, a former editor at the Australian Financial Review was in charge of delivering the report. She watched 76 ABC programs from the perspective of a first-time viewer and attempted to “assess it, as would an average ABC viewer in terms of its impartiality.”

The Ferguson interview with Joe Hockey was singled out as problematic. Mainly, because of this first question:

For those who are unable to watch the video, Ferguson asks: “Now, you’ve just delivered that budget. It’s a budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?”

The independent report states that while there was no factual bias contained in the interview,  Ferguson’s questions “rattled” the Treasurer and that her “tone” made it appear as if the Treasurer was “under attack”. It went further in suggesting that Ferguson did not treat her interview subject respectfully enough:

The report calls Ferguson “aggressive”and states that because the Treasurer  was “tired and rattled” and “performed poorly” in the interview, the perception of bias was made stronger.

As the national public broadcaster, the ABC’s editorial policies are fundamental to its integrity. The ABC conducts reviews as well as internal and external audits to maintain the highest journalistic standards and ensure coverage is comprehensive, unbiased and ethical.

But ABC News Director Kate Torney has responded in defence of star interviewer Sarah Ferguson’s impartiality.

“The fact that this may make interviewees “uncomfortable”, does not necessarily mean that the interviewer is either aggressive or is failing to demonstrate due impartiality,” Torney said.

 FOR MORE ON FERGUSON: 8 times Sarah Ferguson totally smashed it out of the park

When contacted for comment, Ferguson said that “the interview speaks for itself… I don’t feel I have to defend anything.”

Surely this is what journalism is? A strong interview that asks tough questions, pushes a subject on controversial issues and demands straight answers isn’t bias – that’s just a journalist doing their job.

Unsurprisingly others have also leapt to Ferguson’s defence. Veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes said on twitter that the ruling was “stupid”, and praised Ferguson’s interview.

And one of Australia’s finest interviewers,  Andrew Denton, told Mamamia that the report was “misguided” and “damaging”.

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“Calling someone biased is a really serious thing to say. It’s misleading to look at bias in isolation like that, bias can only be determined by looking at a range of interviews, and in Colleen Ryan’s own judgement, that was not the case,” Denton said.

He says the remarks about Ferguson’s “tone” were worrying.

“It’s an entirely subjective argument. Sarah is the finest working journalist in the country. She is fearless, forthright, acute. Judged by context – as it should be – Sarah’s work is exemplary. Whether or not someone found the tone confronting is irrelevant.”

Mr Hockey told Fairfax radio today that his feelings on the interview don’t really matter and he would leave it up to others to judge whether the interview was fair.

Joe Hockey. Under pressure.

Denton is 100% right.

In a country where we are consistently bemoaning the inability of our politicians to answer a question directly, Ferguson’s interview style is refreshing. She is forthright and strong.  She allows her subjects to have their say, she asks a variety of open and direct questions, she doesn’t suffer fools.

But at the same time, she is always respectful, including referring to Hockey as “sir” in the interview in question. This is a journalist whose job it is ask the difficult questions.

To call it “aggression” is offensive and arguably, a gendered characterisation.

In a week where Kyle Sandilands involved the Prime Minister is a discussion about poo, and Andrew Bolt buddied up to the Prime Minister, having his “friend” on the show and telling viewers “he’s a good bloke”, it’s interesting that one of the best female journalists in the country is the one whose job performance is being critiqued.

Would a male interviewer ever be taken to task for being overly ‘aggressive’? Is the suggestion of excessive ’emotive tone’ from Ferguson an accusation that would be levelled at the ABC’s Tony Jones or Chris Uhlmann? Or is this seemingly unfair characterisation of Ferguson’s interview really just about our perceptions of how male and female journalists should behave?

Quite simple: Some of the language used to describe Ferguson wouldn’t be applied to men. None of the male journalists identified in the report were described as “aggressive”, as using “emotive tone” or showing “disrespect” for making a politician uncomfortable or causing them to struggle in providing an adequate answer. This sort of interview would earn a male interview the label of “tough” and probably a whole lot of praise, to boot.

Sarah Ferguson

Overall the report found the ABC’s budget coverage was “excellent”, with only three out of 76 analysed items identified for criticism and no doubt the ABC will take this review very seriously; as is their charter.

But as watchers of ABC television and consumers of their news and current affairs programming, surely the vast majority of the public are fans of Ferguson’s take-no-prisoners style. Refusing to let politicians get away with the standard sound bite, weasel words, sweeping statements or three-word slogans is something to be admired not admonished.

Let’s just hope that despite this finding, Ferguson will continue to investigate, research, report in the way she does best: directly, strongly, forthrightly.

And if our “perceived bias” can’t handle that? It’s not her that needs to change.  It’s us.

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