High-profile no campaigner Jacinta Nampijinpa Price turned down interview requests from the ABC to discuss the voice referendum more than 52 times, according to the national broadcaster’s referendum coverage review committee report.
The report found the yes campaign had about twice as much coverage overall as the no campaign. The reasons for that, according to the report, included a lack of people willing to come on to discuss the no side, time taken up by government press conferences which often argued for the yes vote, and a decision to focus on First Nations voices, who were predominantly arguing for yes.
Overall, 51% of coverage across radio, television and online was supportive of the yes case, 23% was against, 2% undecided and 24% neutral, according to Isentia data.
The 14 October national vote for a First Nations voice to parliament was defeated after more than 60% of people voted against it.
Monday’s report found the ABC fulfilled its role as a national public broadcaster.
“The coverage was high quality and successfully included diverse voices and opinions from all parts of Australia,” it found. The report stated that coverage was never meant to be 50/50.
“The goal was to ensure that audiences on all platforms were presented with the main arguments for and against the propositions in the referendum on every platform within a reasonable time,” the report said.
“This was achieved.”
All ABC teams reported it was “significantly more difficult getting no voices to speak on the record”.
“This was true of both high-profile representatives of the campaign, such [as] Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, and ordinary citizens for talkback and vox pops.
“It was true in both predominantly Indigenous communities and predominantly non-Indigenous communities.”
The no campaign had fewer high-profile advocates and focused on social media and “what they perceived as friendly broadcasters”.
“Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, for instance, declined at least 52 interview requests with the ABC and did not agree to a single interview on a major broadcast program,” it found.
“A wide range of yes advocates made themselves available.”
Other reasons for less no coverage included the nature of the news cycle – the preponderance of government press conferences and National Press Club speeches in favour; that proponents in general are “inevitably scrutinised more than critics”; a lack of on-the-record opposition from people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (the ABC chose to elevate First Nations voices who were predominantly yes voters while the no voters were sometimes reluctant); and that “explainers” were counted as yes.
A total of 383 complaints were made during the referendum campaign, with 315 of them about bias – 250 complained about bias towards yes, 48 about bias towards no, and 17 about “other” bias.
The ombudsman’s office investigated 121 complaints and found four were in breach – all were about “an inaccurate reference in a 7pm TV News story to the 1967 referendum having granted Indigenous Australians the right to vote”.
The report details some programs’ difficulty getting guests on.
Q+A had many people declining invitations.
“Prominent no campaigners Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Liberal senator Kerrynne Liddle were invited most weeks,” the report said.
“Warren Mundine was confirmed twice and pulled shortly in the week before the show. Fair Australia, which was handling the official No Campaign, would not suggest any other representatives.”
Neither Price nor Mundine appeared on 7.30 “despite repeated requests”. Chief political correspondent for the current affairs show, Laura Tingle, said in October that comments she made defending the ABC against accusations of bias were seeking to “explain the dilemmas and frustrations of providing balanced coverage in a campaign when one side of the debate was not available, and where many wild claims have been made”.
Several regulars declined to go on The Drum “because they “didn’t want to identify as ‘no’ publicly”.
The News channel had “many bids that were unsuccessful, guests who cancelled interviews, and segments cancelled or cut short by us to maintain balance or because live events interrupted the bulletin”.
Weekend Breakfast struggled to compete with Insiders to get high-profile no campaigners.
Guardian Australia has contacted Price and Fair Australia for comment.