The ABC's flagship radio current affairs programs — often the source of tension and controversy in the Howard years — have won overwhelming endorsement from a landmark report by an external expert.
An audit of AM, PM and The World Today found they were almost 96% accurate.
ABC managing director Mark Scott said the report supported the ABC's goal of continually improving editorial standards. He emphasised the report was not initiated at the behest of Mr Howard's government.
The review, by an expert who reported to the ABC's director of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick, found 95.3% of items sampled from the three programs were either wholly or substantially accurate for plain facts and were 97.3% accurate on the context of the facts.
Denis Muller, an independent media research specialist and a former associate editor of The Age, devised a method to review a sample of 150 current affairs items from last October.
Drawing on 12 experienced journalists whose names were not given in the 48-page report, the audit compared the 150 current affairs items with the originals of documents used for the items. Dr Muller put items in four categories: wholly accurate, substantially accurate, immaterially inaccurate or materially inaccurate.
"There is a very high standard of accuracy in the material broadcast by AM, The World Today and PM," he concluded.
Inaccuracies stemmed less from recklessness or incompetence than from deadline pressure and "the competitiveness that drives journalists to make the most — sometimes too much — out of their material".
In an appendix to the report, the head of the ABC's news division, John Cameron, contested the findings of inaccuracy in some instances, saying the journalists' news-gathering inquiries had found information that clarified or superseded the original documents.
The review comes against a backdrop of 11 years of tension and sometimes open hostility between the ABC and Mr Howard's government.
Former communications minister Richard Alston complained unrelentingly about the Iraq war coverage in 2003 by the morning radio current affairs program AM, exhausting all the ABC's internal complaints mechanisms and, unhappy with the ABC's overall exoneration of the program, appealed to the Australian Broadcasting Authority with only marginal success.
Mr Howard appointed three noted public critics of the ABC to its board, anthropologist Ron Brunton, News Limited columnist Janet Albrechtsen and historian Keith Windschuttle.
After Mr Scott began as managing director in mid-2006, he moved swiftly to lower the temperature of government-ABC relations, making his first major speech at the Sydney Institute, which is headed by long-time critic of the ABC Gerard Henderson, and in late 2006 appointed respected former journalist and lawyer Paul Chadwick as the first director of editorial policies.
Mr Scott said yesterday he was not providing specific briefings to the Rudd Labor Government on the continuing reviews of programs, policies and procedures.
"We are doing this ourselves as part of our self-regulation, and making the results available to all online.
"The ABC holds itself to the highest editorial standards of independence, fairness, accuracy and impartiality under the framework of our editorial policies," he said.