Flat White

ABC Four Corners does longevity well, accuracy badly

17 August 2021

12:03 PM

17 August 2021

12:03 PM

It’s no secret our national broadcaster is fond of self-congratulation.  

This week, the carefully choreographed ‘back-slapping‘ reached dizzying new heights as ABC TV marked a full sixty years since flagship current affairs show, Four Corners, first went to air. Hey, if you don’t blow your own trumpet, who will? ABC TV is a world expert on self-promotion.

Since 1961 — when television itself was only five years old — Four Corners has, according to Four Corners, been bringing Australians “fearless and forensic” reporting.  

I recall watching, with my grandfather, the captivating Caroline Jones in the 1970s. He was clearly infatuated with the Four Corners presenter. We both believed and trusted everything Jones uttered and with good reason. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when politics in Australia was actually interesting, the show mattered. 

It was relevant, coherent, broke stories and unearthed information that politicians and private sector vested interests wanted kept from prying eyes and the bright light of day. 

But, back to this week’s back-slapping. Amid highlighting the ‘highs and the highs’ of the trip down memory lane ‘over the decades’ it became obvious that there would be zero self-analysis of the many disastrous and costly ‘lows’ of the program. Think the error-ridden, truly atrocious Murray Darling River coverage, the highly questionable Ghost Train episode and the dubious pursuit of a senior member of Federal Cabinet resulting in litigation and defamation action. These were recent real clangers, but there have been many others.

Put another way dear readers. This glowing ABC reminiscence left out the nasty bits. You know — the ones where the taxpayer has had to pay hundreds of thousands in litigation costs (almost a million dollars this year) and much more over the last five years (the ABC legal department of 28 people apparently has no record of precisely how much of our money it’s paid out defending the indefensible).

Just days before the sycophantic Four Corners promo aired this week reporter Louise Milligan lost a defamation case involving a series of ‘personal’ tweets about LNP Andrew Laming MP, thus presenting the taxpayer with a bill of around $130,000.

The Age reported that Milligan had agreed to pay the costs. Of course, ABC managing director, David Anderson outrageously claimed “particular and exceptional circumstances” in the Milligan-Laming matter thereby handing the costs to taxpayers. You can be sure that Anderson will be forensically questioned about this at his Senate Estimates appearance in October. He did such a stellar job last time, they’ve asked him back again.   

The name Milligan is likely to feature prominently — and so are the idiotic, confused and confusing ABC policies relating to the social media exploits of high paid supposedly professional journalists. 

Keeping a television show going for sixty years is, by any measure, an achievement. By distinction, the overt, serious and regrettable decline in the quality of the show — let’s include all ABC TV current affairs shows — was not touched upon in this fatuous, flawed analysis by the ABC. 

Put more directly, the show’s standards have failed — and failed miserably – to match its longevity. 

Today it takes approximately thirty-five souls to put the weekly gig to air. This includes a stable of high-paid reporters, producers, executive producers, researchers, camera and sound operators along with technical wizards and others. 

The ABC — especially the Four Corners I grew up with — featured easily some of this country’s most talented broadcast journalists.  Making the cut comfortably are Chris Masters, Andrew Olle, Marian Wilkinson, Liz Jackson, Debbie Whitmont, Matthew Carney, Mark Willacy, Sarah Ferguson and of course the hugely talented Caroline Jones. One or two others fell just below the cut. Many more were nowhere near it. 

The current crop of reporters at Four Corners (some award-winning but not well known), along with Louise Milligan, cannot be said to be anywhere near the class of those above for whom quality research and accurate reporting meant everything. Integrity lay at the heart of their work. They loved their work, not themselves. 

Towards the end of the Four Corners’ back slapper, Executive Producer (and former reporter) Sally Neighbour joined Sarah Ferguson in a riff about how important public interest journalism is,  referencing integrity, accuracy and relevance. 

Sadly in 2021, on each of these worthy criteria, ABC Four Corners and the stable of other current affairs pretenders fail — and fail badly.

All taxpayers, and what’s left of the ABC viewing audience, deserve a great deal better than that on offer now. This is ‘near enough is good enough journalism’ unworthy of the national broadcaster.

A 120-year celebration for Four Corners would seem unlikely. 

John Simpson is a former ABC news reporter. 

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