ABC head Mark Scott admits mistakes over report claiming navy inflicted asylum seeker burns

The ABC has bowed to pressure from the Abbott government and media rivals by admitting it gave too much credence to claims asylum seekers had suffered burns because of treatment by the navy.

The admission the ABC’s reporting should have been ‘‘more precise’’ comes five days after Prime Minister Tony Abbott leapt upon the ABC’s reports as evidence the public broadcaster "instinctively takes everyone's side but Australia's".

The ABC has been criticised for claiming in news reports aired on January 22 that new footage of asylum seekers’ burnt hands ‘‘appears to back up’’ the allegations of mistreatment.

Some asylum seekers claimed they suffered burns after navy personnel forced them to hold onto a hot engine - a charge denied by the government and since contested by witnesses in some subsequent reports.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison labelled the ABC’s reports ‘‘outrageous slurs’’ against navy personnel and called on the broadcaster to apologise.

In a statement posted online on Tuesday afternoon, ABC managing director Mark Scott and head of news Kate Torney said: ‘‘The ABC’s initial reports on the video said that the vision appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims. That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

‘‘The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point. We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims. The ABC has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation.’’

Scott and Torney insisted that the ABC was right to broadcast the video and air the asylum seekers’ claims.

‘‘Claims of mistreatment by the Australian military are very serious and a responsible media, acting in the public interest, will need to seek an official response and pursue the truth of the claims,’’ they said in their statement.

The national broadcaster had come under fire on ABC TV's Media Watch on Monday, with host Paul Barry saying the network erred in reports that included accusations of abuse.

Fairfax Media revealed on Sunday that Head of ABC news content Gaven Morris had sent a memo to senior staff reminding reporters and editors not to ‘‘embellish’’ or add ‘‘any flourish to asylum seekers’ claims of mistreatment.

The ABC’s admission came as it was revealed the broadcaster had poached The Australian’s media editor Nick Leys to handle its media relations.

The move shocked many observers given the hostile relationship over recent years between the ABC and The Australian, published by News Corp Australia.

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