Monica Smit ABC interview: inaccurate, harmful, offensive say Audience and Consumer Affairs

Following a complaint to the ABC in the wake of a 12 August interview with the founder of Reignite Democracy Australia, Monica Smit, Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that it was a “serious editorial misjudgement”.

They found that ABC Far North Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy, harm and offence. A correction has been published and, after the finding is reported to the ABC board, it will be published under upheld complaints.

A post here on 18 August, examined in depth a series of bogus claims made by Smit (pictured), and touched on the importance of editorial accuracy. On 13 August I’d submitted a complaint to the ABC summarising the most significant points made in that post.

As mentioned in the post under Editorial Standards?, after the interview, presenter Adam Stephens did clearly outline his reasons for having Smit on. He thought it is interesting people hold such views and that, as evidenced by RDA pamphlet drops, some residents around Cairns had been swayed by Smit.

He also added:

Whether you wanted to hear from Monica or not there are people that are listening to her message, and sometimes it’s… I think worthwhile in actually learning about the motivations of some of these groups in our community, and some of the people that feel strongly enough to actually join groups like this and distribute their information.

This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that Smit is a skilled manipulator. She is well versed in faux justifications for anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown claims. The RDA site leaves no doubt that they present harmful and divisive claims backed up by legal loopholes and the misrepresentation of studies. At the time, Smit had already incited a number of illegal protests. It was clear she had no regard for community safety. It is a factor that ABC management should have proactively made clear to programme producers across the country.

In an ideal world, disinformation would be refuted on the spot. In reality, because Smit (and others like her) cover such a range of topics, and use obscure details, this is impossible. The answer is to never provide air time. A decade ago, anti-vaccination activist Meryl Dorey was given ABC air time to discuss an immunisation incentive. She used both opportunities to spread disinformation. Complaints were upheld and Dorey hasn’t been on the ABC since. Let’s hope a similar fate awaits Smit.

The correction published by the ABC is as follows:

ABC Far North: On 12 August, ABC Local Radio Far North Drive interviewed a member of anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). The program failed to explain that the interviewee had no medical or pandemic expertise; and that the group is anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and encourages illegal lockdown protests. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand. During the interview it was stated that mask wearing is dangerous; this is inaccurate. The interviewee made repeated erroneous claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected by the presenter. The program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

ABC’s editorial standards are covered in the Code of Practice. Ultimately, Audience and Consumer Affairs found that the interview breached the ABC standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2, and for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6. The full email response from Audience and Consumer Affairs is below (with permission of ABC).

Dear Mr Gallagher

Thank you for your email regarding the 12 August edition of ABC Far North’s Drive with Adam Stephen, which featured an interview with Monica Smit of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). I apologise for the delay in responding.

Your complaint has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards, which are explained in our Code of Practice. We have carefully considered your complaint, sought information from ABC Regional management and assessed the content against the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy and harm and offence

Drive has explained that local Cairns businesses had received flyers from RDA, and that they broadcast an interview with a business owner who expressed his frustration with the “irresponsible” behaviour of this group which would “put everyone else in danger”. Following this, the editorial decision was made to interview Monica Smit from RDA.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that within the context presented, this interview was a serious editorial misjudgement. Our findings are set out below against the relevant editorial standards.

Accuracy

2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.

2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.

As you explain, at no point was it made clear that Monica Smit and RDA have no medical or pandemic expertise, nor are they advised by medical experts. It was not made clear that their flyer and website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Further, it was not explained that RDA is an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination activist group which attends, supports and encourages illegal lockdown protests and other activities. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand and in particular to the credibility of the claims made by Monica Smit.

As you point out, Monica Smit made numerous inaccurate and unsupported statements in this interview which were not corrected or adequately challenged by the presenter. The claims made by Monica Smit regarding mask wearing and lockdowns were both alarming and erroneous. The interviewee was allowed to make repeated inaccurate claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected. Further, the program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2.

Harm and offence

7.1 Content that is likely to cause harm or offence must be justified by the editorial context.

7.6 Where there is editorial justification for content which may lead to dangerous imitation or exacerbate serious threats to individual or public health, safety or welfare, take appropriate steps to mitigate those risks, particularly by taking care with how content is expressed or presented.

Audience and Consumer Affairs observe that reliance by listeners on the information provided by Monica Smit during this interview about public health orders was likely to cause harm. This includes the inaccurate information about mask wearing, lock downs and comments made by the interviewee on how to breach / avoid health orders.

The likely harm was not justified by the editorial context. Issues around groups like RDA are newsworthy to a degree, usually because of the threat or harm they present to the wider community and their illegal activities. An interview with a fringe activist with no medical expertise talking about public health matters requires very solid context and rigorous debunking; that did not happen on this occasion.  

The material propagated by Monica Smit in this interview put RDA followers and the people around them at risk, and the editorial context did not justify the likely harm. The program did not take adequate care with how this content was expressed or presented, particularly in relation to accuracy. 

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6.

ABC Regional apologise for this serious lapse in editorial standards. This matter has been discussed with the program team and a correction published here. In keeping with Audience and Consumer Affairs’ usual processes, this finding will be reported to the ABC Board and a summary published here

Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the attention of the ABC. Once again I apologise for the delay in responding. Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (www.acma.gov.au).

Yours sincerely
(redacted)
Investigations Manager
Audience and Consumer Affairs


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