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   Aug 14

Fact Check redux: Unit reborn as RMIT-ABC joint venture eight months after axing

Russell Skelton will relocate from the ABC to RMIT to head up the joint venture Fact Check unit. Treasurer Scott Morrison invoked teh old ‘fake news’ line to defelct an unwelcome question on talkback radio last week. Photo: Daniel Munoz
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Eight months after it was axed as a result of government funding cuts, the ABC’s Fact Check department is to be relaunched – as a joint venture with a university.

The renamed RMIT ABC Fact Check will be housed at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology campus in the heart of the CBD, with a staff of three full-time researchers, an online editor and a chief fact checker working underneath Russell Skelton, who was head of the ABC’s Fact Check unit from its launch in August 2013 until its closure in July 2016.

Mr Skelton, a former senior journalist at The Age and partner of ABC broadcaster Virginia Trioli, will be employed by RMIT under the new three-year arrangement.

Gordon Farrer, an associate lecturer in journalism at RMIT who is writing a PhD on fact check units, will also work with the new unit part-time.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the ABC noted that the unit would also employ “interns drawn from RMIT journalism students and alumni”.

Mr Skelton insisted it would be completely “unfair” to interpret that as a sign the university would be staffing the unit with unpaid, inexperienced workers. “Why would they do that? We’ll have three experienced researchers.”

He said these positions, which are yet to be advertised, could be filled by “experienced journalists, mathematicians or corporate lawyers” among others. Any work done by students will not be for publication without further vetting by the paid fact checkers.

It is expected fact checking will become an integral part of the journalism program at RMIT, and ultimately students from other faculties may be able to take fact checking as a subject.

The unit will be housed in RMIT’s media precinct, part of the New Academic Street project currently under construction. The precinct is expected to be finished by mid-year.

ABC director of news Gaven Morris announced the imminent closure of the Fact Check unit in May 2016, following a reduction in tied funding to the ABC’s news division in the federal budget from $20 million a year to $13.5 million.

At that time, the unit had eight employees, including three fact checkers. At its peak, it had six fact checkers. It also employed interns.

The ABC initially held discussions with Melbourne University about the possibility of relocating the unit to its campus, but those discussions fell over around August last year. RMIT then stepped in with its offer in September.

The need for an independent (or, in this case, semi-independent) fact checker has arguably never been greater, with claims of “alternative facts” and “fake news” being bandied about whenever a public figure – and especially a politician – is confronted with information they don’t like.

Such disputed territory will be the main focus of the unit, says Mr Skelton. “The brief is anybody or any organisation – quite often politicians and ministers – who effect the direction or shape of public policy. We’re not about ‘gotcha’, trying to trip people up. We’re really going after the issues that we think matter to .

“I’ve always thought fact checking was tremendously important in terms of developing well-thought through public policy,” he says.

Despite its presence in the media and communications faculty at RMIT, the unit will not be focusing on the media per se.

“It would take a lot more resources if you wanted to go around every news site pinging fake news,” says Mr Skelton. “The ABC has Media Watch, so we’ve left the media to them. Otherwise you could spend all day doing shock jocks and never get to anything that really matters.”

Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

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