By Zoe Samios, Lisa Visentin and Stephen Brook
Conflicts – between journalists, editors and management – are the subatomic particles of journalism without which not much journalism appears. But rarely has an internal editorial process become so public than when the ABC’s managing director David Anderson decided to delay an upcoming Four Corners episode about the prime minister and his connections to a QAnon conspiracy theorist.
Once again when ABC journalistic endeavour rubs up against the federal government, the friction throws the national broadcaster into turmoil. The ABC’s elite investigative unit strives to uncover damaging political stories that their colleagues can’t or won’t.
As veteran investigative reporter Andrew Fowler, the last person to have a Four Corners episode delayed by ABC management puts it: “Four Corners is the single most important investigative unit in Australia. It’s powerful visual impact has the kind of political clout that really worries governments.”
Yet for its detractors, staff at the program are operating as a journalism vigilante unit whose overzealous reporting and intemperate tweets have plunged the ABC once again into crisis.
A Four Corners episode about Prime Minister was delayed by managing director David Anderson.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The decision by the public broadcaster’s current affairs flagship to pursue a story about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s links to the QAnon conspiracy in the shadow of a defamation suit involving Industry Minister Christian Porter, with the same reporter, Louise Milligan, at the helm, has placed an already irate government on a war footing with the public broadcaster.
After weeks of ignoring Milligan’s requests for comment, Morrison took aim at Four Corners in a press conference last week, claiming it was “deeply offensive” to suggest he has any association with the QAnon conspiracy (which centres on unfounded and discredited claims about an international paedophile ring) and accusing the program of “poor form”.
On Friday, executive producer Sally Neighbour confirmed the episode, which explores the relationship between the Morrison family and QAnon supporter Tim Stewart, will run on Monday night.
One Liberal MP, who requested anonymity to speak about internal party room discussions, said there was a widely-held view within Coalition ranks that Four Corners had a vendetta against the government, and this was being met with an animosity comparable to the Abbott-era nadir when MPs boycotted discussion program Q&A.
“The frustration and concern with the ABC is as strong as it’s ever been. It routinely gets raised in the party room and no one ever gets up to defend them,” the MP said.
“Four Corners has a lot of brand respect and loyalty from its long history of very high quality journalism, so the fact that it has a vendetta is more serious, more concerning. It’s not just any old program”.
The QAnon controversy may be the latest front in the evergreen war between the ABC and the Coalition. But the current escalation in tensions stem from Milligan’s Four Corners episode “Inside the Canberra Bubble”. The epsiode aired in November and detailed allegations of inappropriate conduct and extramarital affairs by Porter and then-Population Minister Alan Tudge with female staffers. Then in February, Milligan set off a bomb inside the cabinet by reporting the existence of a historical rape allegation against an unnamed minister in an article than ran on the ABC’s website.
Porter outed himself within days of the article’s publication, strenuously denying the claims, and launched defamation action the following month. The parties settled the case last week, with the ABC agreeing to pay Porter’s lawyer $100,000 for “mediation and related costs” and to affix an editorial note to the article . But there was no apology.
Inside the ABC, there is a view that the pressure Four Corners receives from the government also resembles a vendetta – often exacerbated by the tenure of a prime minister. The reality is that politicians and influential leaders of all stripes don’t like the program because of its relentless approach.
Tensions also exist between Four Corners and other programs, staff and management inside the ABC. Political editor Andrew Probyn last week declined to ask a series of QAnon questions of Mr Morrison despite a request by his colleagues at Four Corners.
That refusal soon leaked. Probyn has refused to be drawn on the matter, but there is a widespread perception the act underscored the divide inside the national broadcaster between Four Corners and everyone else.
Mr Anderson’s staff announcement he was delaying the QAnon episode on the grounds the program needed more work further exposed that divide.
The unit’s hallowed status sees it operate within a silo independent to the other wings of the ABC. Its team of about 25, led by Neighbour, keep their stories closely guarded before broadcast, using online systems separate from colleagues. Team members tend to keep to themselves, careful about what they say to avoid it leaking – a standard that some say makes them appear elitist.
Some believe the best projects are conducted with other news outlets because they allow reporters to jump in and out of the pressure cooker.
Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour has led the program since 2015.Credit:Danielle Smith DKS
Neighbour, renowned for her uncompromisingly high standards and brusque management style, was incandescent at Anderson’s roadblock just days out from the program’s expected air date.
When the Herald and The Age revealed Anderson’s decision – forcing the broadcaster to confirm publicly his view the story wasn’t strong enough to air in its current form – there was outrage inside Four Corners at the embarrassing leak.
Internally, staff were divided on whether “Inside the Canberra Bubble” should have aired and how the reporting of the rape allegation against Porter was handled. Those involved in the decision making insist Four Corners had enough to push ahead with the episode and argue that it unravelled a broader discussion about cultural issues in parliament and among federal politicians.
In the case of the QAnon episode, staff indicated their concerns were not with processes, but that senior ABC staff members bowed to intense scrutiny and political pressure (concerns, which Mr Anderson and ABC News director Gaven Morris would dispute).
Many QAnon followers believe the 2020 election result was rigged against Donald Trump. ABC’s Four Corners is working on a story that explores the link between QAnon and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Credit:AP
The internal ABC frictions about Four Corners may be simmering, but they were swiftly silenced this week by an editorial in News Corp’s The Australian. Running under the headline, the “Greatest enemy of truth is those who conspire to lie”, the editorial directly attacked Neighbour and Milligan – both former employees of the newspaper.
“Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan,” it said, finishing on the line: “The most dangerous enemy of the journalist is bad, lazy, deceitful journalism.”
The editorial, which sources said had been written by editor in chief Chris Dore himself (a point Dore did not dispute when contacted by this masthead) triggered an outpouring of support for Neighbour and Milligan, including from former colleagues who worked alongside them in their stints at The Australian.
Chris Mitchell, long-serving former editor-in-chief of The Australian, and an outspoken critic of the ABC, contacted Neighbour to tell her he did not agree with the editorial.
The Australian’s editorial June 8. Credit:The Sydney Morning Herald
“I regard Sally as one of my best hirings on terrorism and in my view both Sally and Louise left the paper in high esteem,” Mr Mitchell told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Another former Australian editor-in-chief, David Armstrong, wrote to Milligan expressing his disdain for the piece. “I was impressed when I first met you, which is why I hired you and gave you a start in national journalism,” he said. “I was distressed to read today’s editorial in The Australian…the heading and the final sentence are defamatory verbal abuse. I’m sorry you have been subject to it.”
Former editor-in-chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell says Neighbour and Milligan left the paper “in high esteem.”Credit:Anthony Johnson
Four Corners, now in its 60th year, is still considered the nation’s pre-eminent investigative journalism television program. Over the past decade it has averaged audiences of more than 700,000 each night. That figure has declined in recent years. In 2020, the average audience per episode was 574,000, but the audience fall is made up for on other platforms such as online service ABC iview and YouTube.
“Of course it’s bad, but is it worse than it was when Tony Abbott was accusing us of being un-Australian in our reporting of war matters and slashing our budget”
It has bred some of Australia’s most respected journalists, including Chris Masters, Caro Meldrum-Hanna, and Sarah Ferguson, each of whom were awarded a Gold Walkley, Australian journalism’s highest accolade, while working on the program.
Fowler, who notched up 12 years at Four Corners between 1995 and 2013 broken up by a stint leading the ABC’s Investigative Unit, says the show is unparalleled in its ability to apply the blowtorch to an issue over 45 minutes of uninterrupted television.
He says the Prime Minister’s ties to QAnon are worthy of Four Corners scrutiny.
“I think the QAnon story is extremely interesting. If Louise Milligan has got only one or two extra bits of information to add to the program, I think it’s certainly worth doing. Because there clearly are connections between the prime minister and QAnon and as indirect as they may be, I think the public has a right to know,” Fowler says.
But Fowler is less generous in his assessment of the “Inside the Canberra Bubble” episode, which is widely viewed as Milligan’s first attempt to get the Porter rape allegation into the public domain. He says the show should not have aired in that form.
“There was a problem with that. The Porter material was cut from the program, and then the program went to air without the Porter material in it. And it looked rather odd, because it looked as though the ABC was gunning for the Liberal Party, and singling them out for special attention in these questions of sexual impropriety,” Fowler says.
“By doing that, they left themselves open to being criticised for having targeted the Liberal Party.”
While Milligan ultimately succeed in publishing the allegation, her decision not to approach Porter for comment on the online story – and the justification that it was unnecessary to do so because he was not named – has caused much consternation among journalists inside and outside the ABC.
Fowler backs Milligan’s approach in this instance.
“I think she did it the right way. I think she put out what she had. The public interest has been served. But it’s an extremely painful and dangerous process that the ABC has gone through,” Fowler says.
Fowler knows well the experience of management intervention. The last time a Four Corners episode was blocked from broadcast was in 2001, when then-managing director Jonathan Shier sought to halt Fowler’s investigation into a dirty tricks operation by Liberal Party members to dig dirt on then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. The episode “Party Tricks” ran a week later after external lawyers were called in.
Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter sued the ABC over its reporting. He discontinued the case almost two weeks ago.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“It got very good ratings. It did really well,” Fowler says. “It caused a lot of angst in the Liberal Party, particularly for the Prime Minister at the time – Howard was most anxious and angry about it.”
The QAnon episode and the ABC’s settlement with Porter were both raised at a regularly scheduled board meeting on Wednesday. It was reiterated in that meeting that the board had no control over editorial processes and that the board supported Mr Anderson’s decisions, according to people familiar with what occurred in the meeting.
It is important not to overstate the icy relations with the government, which come against a backdrop of funding cuts and negotiations over a $90 million drama and specialist content funding request.
“Of course it’s bad, but is it worse than it was when Tony Abbott was accusing us of being un-Australian in our reporting of war matters and slashing our budget?” says Alan Sunderland, as ABC editorial director from 2013 to 2019.
“Or everybody’s favourite Malcolm Turnbull who actually introduced further cuts and reduced indexation?
“It’s another episode that is consistent with the politically bullying of the public broadcaster. They care about their own reputation management and care about being forced to fund something they can’t control.”
Opposition communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland says governments should expect scrutiny from Four Corners. “Media scrutiny is the price we pay for democracy and the focus of media scrutiny is a function of who is in power – simple as that.
Sunderland says the ABC must strengthen its direct relationship with the public, saying this is “the only thing” that will safeguard it in the long run.
He praised the efforts of the largely discredited regime of former chair Justin Milne who sacked managing director Michelle Guthrie in 2018 before falling on his sword, saying they instituted public meetings between the ABC and the audience which were “terrific”.
But in week where the use of Twitter by ABC employees was again in focus, he admits social media remains a problem for the organisation. “Nobody gets it right and the ABC has transgressed,” Sunderland admitted.
Sunderland says the input of ABC management into Four Corners programs is not new. Neighbour (who he praises as “tough”, “strong” and “part of a new golden era for Four Corners”) would often invite him into the editing suite to seek input on episodes.
“I don’t read into that kind of process definite proof of dysfunction,” he says. “That’s what you hope happens in a healthy editorial process. The day that we have a federal government that loves everything we do is the day we have stopped doing our job.”
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