National Security

‘Embarrassing scandal’: ABC axes lucrative contract with disgraced RMIT fact checking unit

February 22, 2024

Thursday 22 February 2024
Jack Houghton
Sky News

A disgraced fact checking operation run by RMIT university has lost a major contract, with the ABC cutting ties with the operation after a seven year partnership.

Taxpayers forked out more than $670,000 to the university through the ABC, a funding arrangement which has been described as wasteful and inappropriate by political figures.

RMIT Fact Lab was suspended by Meta after an investigation by Sky News Australia, dubbed The Fact Check Files, revealed a strict Code of Principles was likely not being followed.

Fact checkers at RMIT worked alongside the national broadcaster in a partnership project known as ABC RMIT Fact Check, and shared resourcing with the RMIT Fact Lab group.

Both units were run by fact checking director Russell Skelton, who was caught campaigning in favour of the Voice referendum on social media while his team used their positions to police the debate, and censor views against the proposition.

RMIT was also operating without accreditation from the a body known as the International Fact Checking Network, which oversees the global fact checking ecosystem Meta uses to police platforms Facebook and Instagram.

Sky News Australia revealed in August that the national broadcaster was facing pressure to cut ties with the group as it was revealed Meta’s foreign funded partnership with RMIT may have influenced the Voice referendum.

Senator James Paterson, who has been critical of RMIT’s fact checking operation and its financial relationship with the ABC, said it was “hardly surprising” the ABC would seek to cut ties with the organisation.

“It’s hardly surprising that the ABC has finally decided to distance itself from RMIT “fact check” after their embarrassingly one-sided contribution to the Voice campaign,” he said.

“The scandal is the taxpayers money in the meantime that was wasted on this dubious arrangement. RMIT would be wise to reconsider whether it’s a good idea to continue the operation given the brand damage they’ve sustained as a result.”

After RMIT became reaccredited by the IFCN in November, Mr Skelton said he was looking forward to continuing the “fight against misinformation”.

“I look forward to continuing Fact Lab’s close relationship with the IFCN in the fight against misinformation and disinformation,” he said.

“This is most welcome news as it also vindicates the high standards FactLab has always adhered to when striving to better inform the public as part of the META program.”

The operation used foreign funds to target journalism in Australia, including work by Sky News host Peta Credlin who weighed into a debate about the length of a key document related to the referendum.

However, despite publicly proclaiming to return to fact checking, RMIT Fact Lab has not published a fact check since the fallout of the Sky News Australia investigation in August last year.

The university has also not returned to fact checking on Meta platforms.

Left-wing news website Crikey, which has been working alongside RMIT on fact checks recently, broke the news on Wednesday, claiming RMIT management had been “blindsided”.

“Crikey understands RMIT management felt blindsided by the decision from the ABC, with sources saying it appeared that the ABC had concerns over pressure from fact-checking politicians,” the article read.

“One source told Crikey that the relationship between RMIT and the ABC had become one-sided in recent years, with the university taking a lot of criticism from conservative media over the Fact Check project.”

RMIT recently helped Crikey publish a controversial story attempting to fact check disturbing anti-Jewish footage at the Sydney Opera House days after the horrific October 7 terror attack in Israel.

That finding is disputed by Jewish leaders who have several witnesses standing by the authenticity of the vision. The findings have also been criticised by Jewish leaders who say the semantics are irrelevant as the communication captured in video was clearly negative towards Jewish people.

RMIT told Sky news it was "proud" of work done during the partnership.

“RMIT is proud of the longstanding partnership we’ve had with the ABC and the important work accomplished by RMIT ABC Fact Check," a RMIT spokeswoman said.

“Through the partnership we have elevated public debate and progressed the capability and quality of fact checking across the media landscape.

“The ABC has made the decision to establish a dedicated verification team, ABC NEWS Verify, which will operate in-house. As a result, the partnership between RMIT and ABC for RMIT ABC Fact Check will conclude at the end of the current agreement.

“RMIT is committed to upholding the integrity of public information and will continue to do this through a range of activities.

“These include our existing media and communication education offerings, ARC-funded research, the CrossCheck online monitoring tool and training for journalists in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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