Hell has no fury like a leading ABC presenter or executive producer scorned – to reinvent and revise the proverb of 18th-century dramatist William Congreve. Or so it seems.

On Wednesday, the Australian Communications and Media Authority released its report into the two-part ABC Four Corners program Fox and the Big Lie, which aired on August 23 and 30 last year. Sally Neighbour was Four Corners’ executive producer at the time and the program was presented by Sarah Ferguson. Neighbour and Ferguson are two of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster’s biggest stars in recent times.

A viewer would not have needed to watch Four Corners on the two evenings to understand that this was going to be a big hit at Fox News in the US. After all, the title gave the game away.

Early on, Ferguson summarised the program’s message as follows: “Fox News didn’t send the mob (to the January 6, 2021, protest at the US Capitol) but its worst outrage generators certainly fuelled its anger. Trump wasn’t alone in his assault on the truth, but he could never have spread the big lie (of election fraud) widely without his most reliable echo chamber, the Murdoch-owned and run Fox News.”

Now it’s not uncommon for defeated candidates and/or their supporters in US presidential elections to claim they were somehow robbed of victory and that the incumbent was improperly elected and consequently lacked legitimacy. Hillary Clinton ran this line against Donald J. Trump following the 2016 election. However, Trump and his supporters have certainly taken up this cause with a certain ferocity following Joe Biden’s victory in November 2020.

Through the years, ABC management has proclaimed the efficacy of its complaints procedures. They are currently under review following the recent decision of the ABC board to establish an ABC ombudsman position to be headed by Fiona Cameron. New policies and procedures will be finalised in early 2023. In the meantime, the existing system is in place.

A complaint concerning editorial matters can be lodged with the ABC’s audience and consumer affairs unit in Canberra. It is staffed by ABC bureaucrats and overwhelmingly dismisses complaints. Anyone who is dissatisfied with a finding of this body can appeal to ACMA. This was the path taken by Fox News. Not content with the rejection of its complaint against the ABC over Fox and the Big Lie that was handed down in November last year, Fox News raised the matter with ACMA.

In the event, Fox News complained to ACMA that there were seven inaccuracies in Fox and the Big Lie. These allegations were assessed with respect to the ABC code of practice concerning “impartiality, fair and honest dealing and accuracy”. ACMA’s overall assessment of the Fox News complaint is that Four Corners “came close to, but did not breach, the high bar set by the impartiality standards in the (ABC) code”. This, in itself, was a serious criticism of the editorial standards of Four Corners in this instance.

In addition, ACMA found there were elements in the programs “where omissions of relevant material meant that factual material was presented in a way that materially misled the audience and that a participant was not dealt with in the way envisaged by the (ABC) code”.

Of the seven alleged inaccuracies, ACMA found against the ABC with respect to two. It held that Four Corners should have included the view that “social media platforms, not Fox, played a critical role in encouraging rioters”.

Moreover, ACMA held that the claim that Fox News tacitly endorsed employees to campaign for Trump was inaccurate. ACMA found that Four Corners should have reported that Fox had issued a statement denouncing the fact that two of its presenters appeared at Trump rallies. At this stage, the ABC would have been well advised to quit while it was (not far) behind. After all, a reading of ACMA’s densely typed 27-page report (excluding appendices) indicates that none of Fox News’s complaints was in any sense frivolous.

In releasing the report, ACMA chairwoman Nerida O’Loughlin, who has substantial experience in media, technology and cultural sectors of the public service, commented: “Current affairs programs such as Four Corners are not precluded from presenting a particular perspective on an issue or reaching a particular conclusion – but that needs to be balanced against requirements to gather and present information with due impartiality.” A considered, reasonable critique of the ABC in this instance. The problem is the public broadcaster has a one-way approach to criticism – it dishes out criticism but cannot take it.

The ACMA report had just been released when ABC news director Justin Stevens bagged the findings of O’Loughlin and her colleagues. Throwing the switch to denial, he described the Four Corners program as both “world class” and “outstanding”. And Nick Leys, the head of ABC communications, signed off on a statement that asserted “ACMA’s interpretation of the ABC’s code of practice will have negative consequences for the future production of strong public interest journalism”. Somewhat hyperbolic, don’t you think?

And there was barracking from the sidelines. In a tweet, former ABC staffer Barrie Cassidy described the ACMA report as “ridiculous”, asking: “Is there anyone else on the planet apart from ACMA and Trump who believe that describing them (the rioters) as a mob is unfair?” In fact, ACMA did not make any finding against the ABC or Four Corners for having described the rioters as a mob in the seven references to this term in its report.

The ABC’s over-the-top response to ACMA’s report has had the unintended consequence of creating attention to its less than professional reporting in this instance. What’s more, it demonstrated the inherent weakness in the ABC’s current complaints system. Individuals and organisations are invited by the ABC to appeal to ACMA – and attacked by the ABC when ACMA finds in their favour.

For the record, the ABC does not intend to record ACMA’s findings on the iview stream of the program or on the transcript on the ABC website. The ACMA criticism is destined to go down the ABC’s memory hole, in George Orwell’s terminology.