September 25, 2012
Hubris (ὕβρις in ancient Greek) is a canker that will worm its way through an organisation from the point when it ceases to be self-critical and begins to luxuriate in the glow of its legitimate successes. Why would musing about extreme pride and arrogance, a loss of contact with reality and an over-estimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power, lead me, instantly, to think of the ABC?
The reason, or excuse, was the release of The Stories that Changed Australia – Fifty years of Four Corners, an immodest little publication by ABC Books to belatedly celebrate the half-century of the programme 1961-2011. There is no doubt that Four Corners has many times over the years, made Australians sit up and take notice. A glance through its archives on the ABC website (but only back to 2000) will serve as a reminder how frequently it has told us things we needed to know, and perhaps would not have known without its probing and prodding. In this, the programme represented a worthy continuation of the long-standing tradition of investigative journalism – hitherto entirely the province of newspapers, and strangely almost completely neglected by radio.
But in coming to believe its stories changed Australia, Four Corners failed to recognise or acknowledge how it itself had changed. From its beginnings as a newsreel programme that merely adapted stories and interviews from a wireless to a video format, Four Corners has morphed into a crusading, sensationalist, politically correct and sometimes irresponsible harridan of the airwaves. The solid reportage of the earlier years, and the important exposes of Chris Masters of Queensland police corruption or Rugby League intrigues seemed to have been succeeded by the shrill voices of the ABC sisterhood.
The book’s fourteen chapters, selected to illustrate programme themes of Politics, Crime and Corruption. War and Terrorism, and Immigration and the Environment are shared equally between male and female reporters. But to make up the numbers to achieve this balance, Sally Neighbour, the editor had to reach back into history. Jenny Brockie last worked on the programme in 1990, Mary Delahunty in 1983, and Caroline Jones in 1981. The four women who have dominated the programme this century – Neighbour, Liz Jackson, Sarah Ferguson and Debbie Whitmont reflect the modern strident face of Four Corners and its aggressive reformist character. They epitomize the belief that the role of the journalist is to intervene, to influence, to shape, not merely to report.
The opening chapter of the book, by my old colleague (and look-alike) John Penlington is titled “Over My Dead Body.” Although John was not there from the beginning (he didn’t join until 1963), it purports to tell the story of the programme’s origins, and the struggle of Bob Raymond and Michael Charlton to get managerial support for a public affairs programme to be modelled on the BBC’s Panorama. The title repeats the supposed statement by then-Controller of News, Keith Fraser (not named), in opposing the establishment of an independent unit not subject to the Commission’s policies on news integrity, objectivity, fairness and accuracy. Penlington repeats the widespread myth that Fraser’s objection was merely a selfish defence of territorial power. It was in fact the beginning of the decades-long inter-departmental warfare between News and Current Affairs which, like the Korean War resulted in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The origins of this friction were accurately summarised in the 1981 Dix Report on the ABC:
“The Talks Department, and later Public Affairs, tended to recruit directly from the universities and from other non-journalistic professions people whom they trained in the use of broadcasting techniques and who used their skills to present programmes such as Four Corners in television and AM in radio which were a combination of fact and comment.”
The ABC Chairman, Sir Richard Boyer had been adamant that the Commission’s news and information programmes should follow in the Reithian tradition of ‘due impartiality.’ General Manager Charles Moses had therefore taken a big risk in persuading the Commission that an untested programme should be given the autonomy which could breach this precept. Agreement was won by promising the personal supervision of Assistant General Manager Clem Semmler (who had no interest in television and no intention of interfering.)
Penlington is undoubtedly correct in writing that the initiative for the programme came from Raymond and Charlton. I believe that Ken Inglis’s version in his history, This is the ABC, crediting the idea to Moses is wrong. Inglis relied too much on official records. What saved the day for Four Corners, was that Boyer died before it made the first of its many mistakes, and the excesses of its producers mired the ABC in public controversy.
Raymond was 39 and had a sound background in newspaper journalism in the UK, but no experience of TV, let alone broadcasting. Michael Charlton was five years younger, the son of Con Charlton, the ABC’s Victorian Manager. A staff announcer, he affected a “plummy” English accent, already exaggerated by then-BBC standards, and was known for his sporting commentaries, especially in cricket. Their plan for Four Corners was hardly original, although novel in Australian television: a magazine consisting of forty-five minutes of news clips drawn as widely as possible from around the world, and a feature interview. (The interview was the only thing which distinguished it from programmes of the News Division – Newsreel and Weekend Magazine.) The problem was they had no independent source of film and no budget for it.
Those of us working in Television News at Gore Hill soon discovered their solution. Bob or Michael would drop into the newsroom for a chat. On their way out, via the film editing room they would help themselves to one or more of the reels of film on the rack put aside for scripting for the nightly Newsreel programme that followed the news.
The mystery of the disappearance would be solved by the re-appearance of the item on Four Corners at the weekend. Four Corners was born out of larceny. News hit the roof, and the general manager had to ban the enterprising duo from News premises. The escapade did nothing to improve relations between news journalists and the growing band of cowboys in television and soon, radio public affairs programmes which operated under none of the journalists’ professional constraints. General management and the Commission failed utterly to grasp the necessity of defining a code of conduct for programmes that invited opinions and could stray irresponsibly into comment.
Several people have claimed credit for the Four Corners title. Whoever and however, it does seem to have been a misquote from the last lines of Shakespeare’s King John:
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.
The shocks came soon enough, when Marxist Talks Department broadcaster Alan Ashbolt joined the team. His editorialising attack on the RSL in 1963, with its promotion of communism, produced the first of a long string of controversies resulting from self-indulgent and irresponsible reporting, that extends to the advocacy journalism of Four Corners today. The programme is now a platform for celebrity reporters with highly-developed levels of social reformism. It is instructive to reflect on some of the programmes made by the three women who carry so much clout in what Four Corners says:
1995: Somalia (Walkley award)
1996: Telling His Story (Rob Riley’s suicide -- Walkley award).
2000: Fixing Cricket & Go to Jail (NT mandatory sentencing -- two Walkley awards)
2001: Putting the Children at Risk (Walkeley award and a pair of UN Peace prizes)
2007: Where does the Buck Stop (Blackhawk disaster)
2009: Who Killed Mr Ward? (Death in prison van -- Walkley award)
2002: The Inside Story (Villawood detention)
2003: About Woomera
2009: Going back to Lajamanu (Aboriginal bilingual education -- Three Australian Human Rights TV awards)
2008: The Newman Case
Whitmont’s The Newman Case urged a re-opening of the case against Phuong Ngo, convicted of the murder of NSW MP Jon Newman. It was based on supposed new evidence by two academics. A judicial enquiry rejected these claims as spurious and endorsed the guilty finding.
1997: Kennett’s Culture
2002: The Network (Bali Bombing)
Jeff Kennett described his programme as “an hour of slime.” Since The Network, Neighbour has specialised in terrorism.
2009: Code of Silence (Women in Rugby League -- Walkley & Logie awards, Queensland Literary Prize).
2010: Smugglers Paradise (Logie Award)
2011: A Bloody Business (Indonesian slaughterhouse -- Gold Walkley award)
A Bloody Business, aired in May, 2011, sensationalised by misrepresentation Indonesian abattoir practices. Secret filming by an animal-rights campaigner of cruel slaughtering was taken out of context and extrapolated as typical. The show led to government ban on exports, and subsequent Indonesian retaliation against Australian cattle exporters. A story that changed Australia!
So, as Shakespeare forewarned, shock them they do, nor do they rue. Instead they pick up prizes. But despite the proud boasts in its publicity blurbs, there may be some apprehension within the ABC that the book’s 14-story format is a cheap, quirky way of paying tribute to the dozens of reporters and producers who have toiled to put out some 2000 episodes.
Sally Neighbour and Sarah Ferguson were to address a meeting of the Sydney Institute last week; instead Liz Jackson fronted for them at short notice, unprepared. After a largely incoherent exposition of her own chapter (interviewing John Howard), she displayed both nervousness and an aggressive defensiveness by interrupting questioners. Few journalists used to working with scripts can ad-lib.
What then should be a dispassionate view of a book to honour the ABC’s flagship current affairs programme? I turned to the Corporation’s new chairman, former NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman, who launched it. “A book for journalists” was his summation. He lamented the focus on the big stories, citing one that had stuck in his memory – a gentle tale on the temple of the Sikhs of Woolgoolga. The chairman also noted wryly that the book avoided mentioning mistakes, all those breaches of editorial policies. “Well, it is hard, when you are having a fiftieth anniversary, to do anything like that. There are dangers in a culture of self-congratulation.” (author emphasis).
So where has Four Corners come in its smug half-century? Judge for yourself by reflecting on how Dick Boyer believed the ABC should face an uncertain world in this excerpt from a 1945 speech:
“I think we all realise that, in the postwar years, we are entering a period in which grave and far-reaching issues of social and political policy will agitate the nation. It is our hope national broadcasting may stand solid and serene in the middle of our national life, running no campaign, seeking to persuade no opinion, but presenting the issues freely and fearlessly for the calm judgement of our people.”
Serving, not changing Australia.
The Chapters, the authors and their service
Kerry O Brien A program called Four Corners and why we need it. 1975-1977, 1985-1986 (Presenter 2011-2012)
John Penlington From the start, there were political controversies. 1963-1971
Peter Reid Times were a-changing: toxic dumping, female troubles, Vietnam. 1967-1973
Caroline Jones ‘Girl Takes Over’: being the first female presenter. 1972-1981
Allan Hogan Idi Amin, PNG and the fall of Saigon. 1972-1978, 1984
Jonathan Holmes No more Mr Nice Guy. 1991, 1994-5, 2003-2007
Mary Delahunty Ferdinand Marcos and Australia’s foreign-aid dollars. 1983
Chris Masters Cops, corruption and criminals in the big league. 1983-2008
Peter Manning Running on adrenalin. (Exec Producer 1985-1989)
Jenny Brockie Encounters with the right-to-life movement. 1983-1986, 1990
David Marr Black deaths and-six pack politics: reporting on Indigenous issues.1985, 1991
Liz Jackson Interviewing John Howard. 1994 & 1996-2012
Sally Neighbour Kennett’s culture and Bali bombers. 1996-2008
Debbie Whitmont Getting inside the detention centres. 1991-1993, 1997-2012
Sarah Ferguson Unjust, unbearable, uncompromising 2008-2012
Geoffrey Luck worked for the ABC for 26 years as a senior reporter and news editor
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray