ABC admits fault in reporting asylum seeker allegations

Mark Scott has had to publicly defend the ABC. AAP/Alan Porritt

The ABC has admitted the wording in its initial reporting of asylum seekers’ claims that the Australian Navy mistreated them should have been “more precise” and conceded it could have been misleading.

“We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims,” managing director Mark Scott and news director Kate Torney said in a statement.

The admission follows attacks on the ABC’s handling of the story from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other members of the government, News Corp publications and, this week, the ABC’s own Media Watch.

Media Watch’s Paul Barry said: “We believe the ABC should have been far more cautious, given the evidence it had, and given it was making such a big call against the navy.” It had overreached and should admit its mistake, he said.

The ABC’s statement said that its initial reporting on a video showing people with burns had said the vision “appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims” of mistreatment.

“That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

"The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point,” the statement said.

It stressed that the ABC “has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation” - and again pointed a finger at government secrecy.

“Those personnel in a position to provide their own description or explanation of what happened on board the vessel under Navy control have not been in a position to resolve the uncertainty because of the ban on discussing operational detail.”

Saying the ABC made no apologies for covering the story, the statement said: “The ABC has not attempted to play judge and jury on this matter. We have reported the asylum seeker claims, broadcast the video showing burns and consistently sought more detail from witnesses and officials.

"The release of the video, and asking further questions in the light of it, was in the public interest and remains so. Our journalists will continue to investigate and cover this story, and we will continue to urge Australian authorities and the Government to disclose more to the Australian public about the events on board those boats.”

The statement said that claims of mistreatment by the Australian military were very serious. “A responsible media, acting in the public interest, will need to seek an official response and pursue the truth of the claims. This is exactly what the ABC has done throughout.

"Asking questions and seeking evidence is in no way disrespectful of such important institutions. It is because these institutions are trusted and important that any allegations concerning them are investigated.”