#AceNewsReport – Aug.17: As we celebrate the 60th birthday of our much-loved program, the Four Corners team believes that the quality journalism it represents has never been more essential to the health of our democracy:
#AceDailyNews says ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’ as …The prime minister was livid as he stared down a hapless senior executive at the ABC. The cause of his ire was a program that had recently aired on the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs program, Four Corners: Watch a special 60th anniversary episode tomorrow night at 8:30pm.This article draws in part on recollections in The Stories that Changed Australia: Fifty Years of Four Corners.
‘I know about you and your Four Corners’, the PM fumed. ‘And I want you to know that I know, and my ministers know, that the sole reason for that wretched program is to discredit me and my government.’
So who was the prime minister and what was the year?’
It might have been Scott Morrison in 2021 venting about a Four Corners story on his friend, an avowed QAnon supporter.
Or Bob Hawke in 1983, incensed over the explosive NSW corruption story The Big League and its allegations about then NSW premier Neville Wran.
Or John Howard in 2001, fulminating about revelations of political skullduggery by senior figures in the Liberal Party in Party Tricks, which was sensationally pulled ahead of broadcast by then ABC boss Jonathan Shier.
The list of possibilities goes on, and on.
In fact, the year was 1963, and the prime minister was Robert Menzies, then well into his second decade in power and in high dudgeon over a Four Corners expose on the extraordinary influence then wielded by the seemingly untouchable RSL.
It was the first time, but by no means the last, that Four Corners would feel the wrath of the government of the day.
For 60 years this month, governments of all persuasions have been scrutinised and scandalised by Four Corners in countless stories exposing corruption, ineptitude, injustice, conflict of interest and abuse of power.
It’s exactly what the program is intended to do, and it’s what it does best: Holding the powerful to account, telling truth to power, without fear or favour.
As the latest in a long line of journalists who’ve been privileged to hold the role of Executive Producer, I’ve heard all the war stories and experienced first-hand the attempts by governments – state, federal and foreign – to pressure, coax and intimidate Four Corners and the ABC over stories that reflect poorly on their use of power.
In the 1990s, as a newcomer to the program, I reported on Victoria’s pugnacious premier Jeff Kennett, his relationship with the founders of Melbourne’s Crown casino and his family’s share dealings in a listed ASX company, Guangdong Corporation.
Kennett was ropeable, lambasting Four Corners as “that awful bloody program” and our story as “an hour of slime” (a phrase we gleefully purloined for our on-air promo).
Twenty-five years later, as Executive Producer, I oversaw Louise Milligan’s controversial story Inside the Canberra Bubble, which exposed the toxic atmosphere for women working at Canberra’s Parliament House, and her follow-up piece Bursting the Canberra Bubble, which reported on the historic rape allegation against former attorney-general Christian Porter, which he denies.
Those stories provoked an intense campaign behind the scenes from within the government to pressure the ABC board and management over Four Corners’ coverage.
I am proud to say that on all those occasions, and many others, Four Corners resisted the political pressure, just as it has for all of its 60 years.
When Four Corners first hit the airwaves on August 19, 1961, not all at the ABC were celebrating. The grandly titled ‘Controller of News’ resented the upstart new show’s encroachment on his fiefdom and famously declared: “This program will go to air over my dead body.” Go to air it did, with a staff of six and a weekly budget of £480 pounds.
The first episode featured a US astronaut discussing America’s first orbital space flight, an interview with Olympic swimmer Jon Konrads and a feature on a popular American harmonica player.
Eager that the new show not upset its political masters, ABC management was satisfied with the debut. The verdict passed on by one relieved middle manager: “That was an excellent program. I don’t think we could have offended anybody.”
Back then the ABC imposed strict constraints on journalists covering politics. They had to request permission from the general manager for any politician to appear on air, and an Opposition MP could only be interviewed if the relevant government minister also appeared.
It didn’t take long for the new program to upset the Menzies government. In 1963, after a story on home ownership, housing minister Sir William Spooner demanded a right of reply, and the ABC’s chairman ordered the program to oblige.
Presenter Michael Charlton told viewers the show had been “instructed” to give Spooner his say, “and here he is”. The interview went to air uncut, letting Spooner ‘drone on and on’ for nearly half an hour. “It destroyed any credibility he had,” inaugural EP Bob Raymond later recalled, seemingly satisfied.
But the story that really riled Menzies was an investigation into the powerful RSL that ran a few months later. The RSL had been a staunch defender of the White Australia Policy and avowed opponent of communism, and according to one minister was the only public organisation in Australia with “direct and regular access to the federal cabinet”.
The Four Corners story included an interview with the editor of the Communist Party newspaper Tribune. It sent the government apoplectic. The reporter was removed from the program, but later reinstated after irate staff signed a petition blaming political pressure and demanding his return.
As another of the program’s first reporters, John Penlington, later wrote: “The RSL affair heralded a continuing battle over the program’s and indeed the ABC’s role and commitment to investigative journalism.”
That battle has continued for 60 years. And it’s not only conservative governments that have taken exception to being in the crosshairs of Four Corners.
Four Corners unpopular with both sides of politics
In the 1980s, the Hawke Labor government railed against Four Corners for years, after a series of programs that began with Chris Masters’ landmark expose The Big League.
A story that started as an investigation into dodgy dealings on the football field morphed into explosive allegations of judicial corruption, which implicated NSW Labor premier Neville Wran. In its aftermath, the powerful head of the NSW Rugby League was convicted of fraud and the former chief stipendiary magistrate was jailed for conspiring to pervert the course of justice.
The story triggered a royal commission that ultimately exonerated Wran. Many in Labor, especially the powerful NSW Right faction, never forgave Four Corners and the ABC. Their hostility was fuelled by subsequent Four Corners stories on Labor’s agonies over uranium mining policy and on the powerful transport boss Peter Abeles, a good mate of Hawke’s.
Later in the 1980s, Four Corners shifted focus to Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, exposing a morass of police corruption reaching all the way to the state’s police commissioner. The day after Chris Masters’ The Moonlight State aired, a judicial inquiry was announced, leading to more than 100 convictions and the jailing of the commissioner himself.
Masters’ journalism helped clean up Queensland – but for that he paid a heavy price. For years afterwards, he and Four Corners were tied up in the courts fighting litigation from enemies he had made while doing his job.
Such legal ordeals remain all too common for journalists who dare to dig and then must run the gauntlet of defamation laws that are tilted heavily towards plaintiffs.
Decades on, Four Corners is still shining its light into dark places. In the past five years alone, our programs have prompted royal commissions into the aged care sector, youth detention in the Northern Territory, the banking system and water theft from the Murray Darling Basin.
Four Corners continues to evolve. Today you’ll also find us on iview, Facebook and YouTube, where our stories attract a global audience and our digital storytelling provides world-class online stories with a huge readership.
The current Four Corners team is proud to be among the generations of journalists who’ve maintained the program’s reputation for excellence for 60 years.
For that longevity, we owe a debt of thanks to the people of Australia who have backed the program and stood up for its journalism. Without that loyalty, we wouldn’t have made it this far.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions, which have stopped us from travelling and created logistical nightmares for filming, interviewing and editing, we’ve still managed to turn out high-quality stories week after week.
The times ahead look even more challenging for programs like Four Corners. Nightly television audiences are declining. Conspiracy theories peddled online and on social media take hold in a blink.
What we think we know as facts easily get lost in a fog of misinformation. Trust in political leaders and media grows ever more brittle. The traditional media industry is fighting for its life, and media bosses are disinvesting in journalism that doesn’t turn a buck.
#AceNewsDesk report ………Published: Aug.17: 2021:
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