Inside Story

The program that changed Australia

Television | As Four Corners has shown for decades, ABC investigative reporting will always have its critics

Jane Goodall 31 August 2017 2144 words

Adele Ferguson’s March 2016 investigation of the Commonwealth Bank’s insurance arm CommInsure is still having repercussions. Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg/Getty Images

When Kerry O’Brien retired from Four Corners at the end of 2015, he left the program on a high. Reporter Adele Ferguson had won a Gold Logie for “The Price of Convenience” (30 August), an investigation of 7-Eleven’s employment practices. Other 2015 stories with major political ramifications were Making a Killing (February 16) on animal cruelty in the greyhound racing business, and a two-part series investigating the continuing presence of the Mafia in Australia (June 29 and July 6).

With Sarah Ferguson as presenter, the program has remained at the top of its game, and the run of high-impact investigations continues. Hardly a week goes by without a major news item triggered by Four Corners, and many of these are concerned with the longer-term consequences of its revelations.

Adele Ferguson’s 2016 investigation of the Commonwealth Bank’s insurance arm CommInsure (“Money for Nothing,” 8 March) led to an ASIC investigation whose findings were released in March this year and prompted further investigations into the bank, which now faces court proceedings and industry probes on several fronts. A royal commission was set up in response to another 2016 story, Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s exposé of the abusive treatment of boys at the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory (“Australia’s Shame,” 25 July); among the key witnesses was Dylan Voller, the young inmate shown hooded and shackled in solitary confinement.

Recent programs on rorts in the waste management business (“Trashed,” 7 August), the exploitation of aged-care residents (“Bleed Them Dry Until They Die,” 26 June) and water hoarding by major corporate enterprises in the Murray–Darling (“Pumped,” 24 July) have sparked urgent political enquiries. International episodes are often bought in, but recent landmark contributions from the Four Corners team include Peter Greste’s investigation of rising tensions with China in the Asia-Pacific (3 October last year) and Matt Brown’s report from the battlefields of Iraq (21 February).

About a third of the episodes are buy-ins, but the challenge of producing around two dozen forty-five-minute reports a year is formidable, especially in an environment of austerity politics, where the very fact that this can be achieved suggests that there must be something to cut. Since the in-house production team for SBS’s Dateline was disbanded at the end of 2014, Four Corners has been the last bastion of in-depth current affairs journalism on Australian television.

Throughout its history the program has been something of an ideological battleground, and the history itself is contested. Early Four Corners producer and reporter Allan Ashbolt, for instance, was lauded on the one side as the “radical giant of Australian broadcasting” and derided on the other as a crusading Marxist who set out to infiltrate the ABC for the Communist Party. Ken Inglis charts Ashbolt’s founding role as a program-maker with an intellectual vision for the future of the ABC in This Is the ABC; Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture (2013) gives a counter-perspective, describing him as a “mentor and crash-test dummy for ABC activism” who was given to referring to the rival news and current affairs wing as Bullshit Castle.

Cater’s book offers a sceptical view, in stark contrast with The Stories That Changed Australia, a collection of essays edited by Sally Neighbour to celebrate the program’s fiftieth anniversary in 2012. With a contributors list that includes Kerry O’Brien, John Penlington, Caroline Jones, Jonathan Holmes, Mary Delahunty, Chris Masters, David Marr, Jenny Brockie, Liz Jackson and Sarah Ferguson, the book indicates the extent to which the senior echelons of Australian journalism are dominated by current and former Four Corners personnel.

Quadrant went on the attack as soon as Neighbour’s book was launched. Geoffrey Luck, a former denizen of the ABC newsroom who claims reporters were in the habit of coming in to pinch stories during the early life of the program, weighed in with accusations of hubris. Four Corners, he said, “has morphed into a crusading, sensationalist, politically correct and sometimes irresponsible harridan of the airwaves.”

That reaction is no surprise: right-wing publications and think tanks have long been hostile to publicly funded broadcasting. Philip Mirowski, a historian of the neoliberal tradition (and one of its fiercest critics), believes the animosity has a definite starting point, or at least a definable intellectual pedigree. He traces the antagonism back to 1950, when economist Ronald Coase wrote a treatise on the BBC titled British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly.

Coase particularly objected to BBC director-general John Reith’s pronouncement that “to employ broadcasting for the dissemination of the shoddy, the vulgar and the sensational would be a blasphemy against human nature.” For Coase, this implied a form of totalitarianism, “or something verging on it.” As Mirowski tells it, the neoliberal view was that the masses should be provided with as much of the shoddy, the vulgar and the sensational as they could stomach. Neoliberals, effectively engaged in a war on public intelligence, wanted the people dumb.

Mirowski’s account doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Coase wasn’t exactly a card-carrying neoliberal: he was opposed to monopoly in broadcasting, and public broadcasters in the 1950s were basically in a monopoly position. In the intervening decades, with help from the invisible hand of the markets, media monopoly has swung the way of commercial operators. It’s interesting to speculate whether Coase’s position, translated to the twenty-first century, would have led him to attack the Murdoch empire. As for Reith, he may not have been a totalitarian, but there was at least a streak of the dictator in him.

What is more illuminating about Mirowski’s argument is his observation that attacks on public broadcasting may have less to do with any genuine concern about biased content than with a fundamental hostility towards any efforts to create a well-informed public. After all, there does seem to be a correlation between the frequency of attack and the level of knowledge, information and cogency demonstrated in the targeted programs.

It’s also true to say that documentaries and investigative reports tend to veer to the left by their very nature, since they are typically concerned with imbalances and abuses of power. Most Four Corners stories focus on ordinary citizens falling victim to some form of corporate or organisational malpractice. And the elephant in the room is the law: why has it failed to protect citizens’ rights against the most flagrant and egregious abuses?

“You have an organisation that throws up difficulties, hides behind technicalities, bullies their way with their medical and legal experts… against a helpless and defenceless claimant,” says Benjamin Koh, one of the whistleblowers in the CommInsure case. Aveo, the company whose practices in the aged-care industry were under the spotlight in “Bleed Them Dry,” has made a fortune for its managers and its new initiative, Freedom Aged Care, has the potential to tap into $4.6 billion in annual government funding. Aged tenants are subject to inflated and arbitrarily imposed fees for anything from a $10 bandaid, to $60,000 for “refurbishment” of a unit that has been recently repainted and recarpeted.

Law courts have been late in discovering the power of victim impact statements, which are akin to the testimonies at the heart of these programs. And there is no medium like television for getting across the impact across. The victims are seen in their homes, with family members whose lives have also been turned upside down by the crisis; the camera picks up the tension in their faces as they struggle for emotional control, communicating so much that remains unsaid.

In fact, choosing the right witnesses is a crucial matter for producers and reporters. Adele Ferguson’s investigation into CommInsure starts with a visit to Wee Waa in outback New South Wales, where diesel mechanic James Kessel is at work repairing a tractor engine. Kessel recounts what happened after he had a sudden heart attack. He’d been paying insurance premiums for twenty years without any real sense that he’d need the safety net; when the crisis came, it turned out that the net wasn’t there at all.

CommInsure had used an outmoded and unreliable medical criterion for assessing the condition. Kessel summarises the response. “Your troponin levels were not at the right level so you, you don’t, you don’t get it. See ya. Goodbye. Have another heart attack. Better luck next time.” With his tattoos and laid-back manner, Kessel is evidently more used to solving problems than being one. His laconic delivery covers a world of pain. “See, if I would’ve died, which — well, well, completely — and buried, um, it makes me wonder: would they have found a way to get out of that as well, you know? Like, ‘Nup, he’s not dead enough.’”

Victim impact is less personal where the damage is done to the community at large, and here the challenge is to give a sense of what the big picture means in individual lives. “Pumped,” Linton Besser’s enquiry into the massive corporate water-hoarding enterprises in the Murray–Darling, is one of the most important programs ever broadcast on Four Corners. Ominous talk of “water wars” has been growing among environmental forecasters, and it seems some operators are already preparing to play a dominant hand. If they can make a huge profit from profligate use of publicly owned water for cotton crops, they might one day make a much bigger killing by reselling the water itself.

Besser began his report by talking to Phillip O’Connor, mayor of Brewarrina, who has recently resigned from his other role as president of the local fishing club over a donation offered by a wealthy cotton grower. O’Connor wanted to turn it down — “It was sweetening money” — but a majority vote went against his decision. Fishing clubs, Besser comments, are at the heart of the community in these small river towns; a division like that must reveal tension in the community. “No, no tension in the community,” a club member responds. “It’s just we’re not going to talk about it. We don’t need to talk about it.”

There’s no tension like the tension you can’t afford to acknowledge. This is where, as an investigating process, the television documentary can reveal so much more than any legal enquiry. Editing and juxtaposition can control perspective, reinforcing ironies and emphasising connections.

The ingrained caution of local figures like O’Connor contrasts with the forthrightness of some of the officials with a broader oversight. Bill Johnson, former Murray–Darling Basin Authority Official, offers a stark account of what’s actually happening. Some of the larger irrigators have constructed private dams that are “mind-boggling” in size, he says. “They’ll take your breath away.” You can drive for kilometres and the walls run all the way. Some of those dams could hold a sizeable portion of Sydney Harbour.

Leah Le Lievre, a grazier downstream of one of these monoliths, is “a little bit worried” about having insufficient supply to take a shower and keep her cattle watered. Publican Cath Marett observes that it’s “detrimental for everybody.” But Johnson’s commentary overrides the language of local diplomacy. People are “beyond angry,” he says. “They’re dismayed.”

The dismay went nationwide in late July and early August. There were calls for an ICAC into the alleged collusion between NSW government officials and the two largest irrigators to flout the federal Murray–Darling plan. Tensions between state and federal governments flared, with South Australian water minister Ian Hunter pushing for a judicial enquiry and federal water minister Barnaby Joyce insisting it was all a matter for New South Wales.

Before he conceded the necessity of a federal review, Joyce took the time to fire off at Four Corners, accusing the program of “trying to create a calamity.” Speaking to local stakeholders, he contended that “they’re going to take more water off you, and shut more of your towns down.” The logic was pure Lewis Carroll.

Demands for “fair and balanced” reportage are legitimate if they do not themselves arise from a propaganda campaign. The reporter’s job is to provide the evidence that there is a case to be answered, not to meet a courtroom’s standard of proof. The courts and official investigative processes should take it from there.

In the current political environment, there is no way that an investigative current affairs program, especially one broadcast on the ABC, can find neutral territory. Of necessity, it will remain a conflict zone, and it will inevitably bring the national broadcaster into the crossfire. Over the years, Four Corners has earned the opprobrium of Labor and Coalition governments. Minor parties and independents have also suffered from its inquisitorial determinations. Its role is not to ensure political equity in the choice and coverage of stories, but to work against inequities in the balance of power between citizens and the larger forces at play in their lives. •