Former 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone has conducted a review of ABC current affairs programs and found no systemic bias.

Former 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone has conducted a review of ABC current affairs programs and found no systemic bias. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

An independent audit of the ABC's asylum seeker coverage has uncovered isolated examples that could be perceived as biased – including a television report whose "one purpose" was to elicit sympathy for people smugglers.

But the review of ABC television current affairs programs, conducted by former 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone, found no systemic bias in the broadcaster's coverage of the contentious issue. Of the 97 surveyed stories on asylum seekers, 93 raised no concerns.

A separate audit of 23 ABC radio interviews with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott during the 2013 federal election campaign found all were sufficiently impartial. While clearing the ABC of bias, reviewer Andrea Wills, a former BBC journalist, did make recommendations to improve future coverage.

Responding to the audit reports released on Wednesday, ABC chairman James Spigelman said: "Well over 95 per cent of the content examined attracted no criticism or concerns. However the criticisms that were made are welcome, and have received proper consideration by content divisions and the relevant journalists and program teams."

In his review of asylum seeker reporting by the 7.30 and Lateline programs from August 2012 to December 2013, Mr Stone identified four stories that concerned him.

Mr Stone was most critical of a 2012 Lateline report in which a reporter visited an Indonesian fishing village to interview a lawyer representing Indonesians held in Australian prisons on people-smuggling charges.

"The segment appeared to have only one purpose – to exploit the bias of imagery to evoke sympathy for crew members of people smuggling vessels," Mr Stone concluded.

"It portrayed them – without any semblance of proof – as frequently misled as to their real mission and too naïve to understand why they are offered more money for one voyage than the average Indonesian fisherman makes in a year . . . In my view, if a program sets out to cover a story in a way that is intended to convey a particular message or evoke a particular response from its viewers then that constitutes reporting that can widely be seen as biased."

In a response to the audit, ABC director of news Kate Torney said: "ABC News agrees that more scrutiny should have been applied to the claims of total ignorance of the venture by the man's family and, apparently, the accused man."

Mr Stone found another 2012 Lateline story raised suspicions of bias because it was likely to lead viewers to believe that Australia's treatment of Tamil refugees is so inhumane that it should not sit on the UN Security Council.

Mr Stone also found a 7.30 segment, broadcast in April 2013, should have applied more caution when broadcasting claims that a Tamil asylum seeker was tortured by Sri Lankan intelligence officers. While praising the story as an important contribution to the asylum seeker debate, Mr Stone concluded it contained a "fatal flaw" as the torturers may not have been intelligence officers.

"This segment, as it went to air, appeared to have misrepresented the testimony given to it by the torture victim, who effectively admitted he had no way of knowing the true identity of his tormentors," Mr Stone concluded.

ABC stories, aired in January, containing allegations that the navy deliberately burnt the hands of asylum seekers were outside the audit's timeframe.

In her review of ABC radio interviews with Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott during the 2013 election campaign, Ms Wills writes: "I did not identify any examples where I felt the language of the ABC interviewers could be described as emotive, hyperbolic, inflammatory or derogatory in the 23 items analysed.

"I did not observe any occasions when an interviewer unduly favoured one perspective over another within the sample of radio items analysed for this editorial audit."

Ms Wills said radio interviewers should take care to appear neutral when signing off radio interviews to avoid perceptions of bias. It was inappropriate for a Sydney ABC host to wish Mr Rudd "good luck for the rest of the campaign", Ms Wills said.

Ms Wills also suggested ABC radio programs could make more use of talkback with political leaders during election campaigns and broaden coverage beyond hot topics such as carbon pricing and paid parental leave.

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