The announcement by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on Tuesday that he had written to ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose concerning the Four Corners program titled Inside the Canberra Bubble, which aired on November 9, was big news and rightly so, but in no sense history making.
In May 2003, Howard government communications minister Richard Alston wrote to Russell Balding, the ABC’s managing director at the time. Alston sought an urgent investigation into coverage by ABC radio’s AM program of the invasion of Iraq by the coalition of the willing (the US, Britain, Australia and Poland) that he believed to be biased. This is covered in Alston’s memoir, More to Life Than Politics? (Connor Court, 2019).
In January 1991, Labor prime minister Bob Hawke objected to ABC TV’s coverage of the first Gulf war, when about 40 nations, led by the US, drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in August 1990. Hawke told The Daily Telegraph at the time that he regarded the public broadcaster’s coverage of the conflict as “loaded, biased and disgraceful”. The occasion is reported in KS Inglis’s book Whose ABC? (Black Inc, 2006). Inglis wrote that Hawke’s criticism of the ABC’s coverage, which Hawke regarded as hostile to the allied cause, set off a “public and domestic conflict as troubling as any in the ABC’s history”.
The response of the ABC to public criticism was to throw the switch to denial and later acknowledge a few minor errors and make a few small changes. Then life went on for governments and the ABC went back into antebellum mode.
Fletcher tweeted his tightly argued letter to Buttrose, of more than three pages, at 10.29am on Tuesday. By 7.32pm on the same day, Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour tweeted a reply to Fletcher declaring “there were NO errors in the #4Corners program”.
This response gives an insight into the ABC’s culture, for want of a better word. Fletcher wrote to Buttrose in her capacity as ABC chairwoman. He said ABC managing director David Anderson had told Senate estimates on November 9 that “the chair has seen the program and supports the decision to publish it”. Anderson told the Senate that he, too, had watched Inside the Canberra Bubble before it went to air.Letter to ABC’s chair is well within minister’s remit
Clearly Fletcher was writing to Buttrose about an ABC board matter. She is chairwoman of the board and Anderson is one of two ABC employees who are board members — the other is the staff-elected director. The letter turned on section 8(1) (c) of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983; in particular, what Fletcher termed “the duty of the board to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”. Despite this, Neighbour, who is not on the board, took it on herself to tell the minister that he was totally and utterly wrong.
Believe it or not, Anderson told Senate estimates on November 9 that what became Inside the Canberra Bubble had its genesis in a “story with regard to women during the pandemic”. Really.
In any event, it ended up as a hatchet job on two senior ministers in the Coalition government: Alan Tudge and Christian Porter. The former was revealed as having had a consensual affair with a female senior staff member in his office in 2017 — before the ministerial code of conduct prohibiting such relationships was introduced. The latter was alleged to have kissed and cuddled a woman in a Canberra restaurant in 2017. Tudge apologised for the affair; Porter denied the allegation.
Anderson told the Senate “there is nothing in the story that has not been sourced … it’s been through all our processes to deal with editorial policies”. He said it had been cleared by senior ABC executives such as Gaven Morris, John Lyons and Craig McMurtrie. Which makes you wonder about the ABC’s editorial standards.
Louise Milligan, who reported Inside the Canberra Bubble, revealed that a public servant who witnessed Porter’s alleged behaviour “picked up the phone of a journalist and he took a photograph”. Milligan also claimed that, later, Tudge “angrily demanded that the journalist delete the photo of his friend Christian Porter”. Four Corners did not produce a photo or speak on camera to the (alleged) public servant or the (alleged) journalist.
Milligan interviewed Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who said the woman allegedly involved with Porter had spoken to her about the incident. According to government sources, the woman in question denies having spoken to Hanson-Young.
Neither the ABC chairwoman in particular nor the ABC board in general runs the public broadcaster. Nor can they. Nor should they. However, all board members have a legal obligation to ensure that the organisation over which they preside is acting within the provisions of the ABC Act and with the ABC’s code of practice. Fletcher is acting in accordance with his responsibilities, as was Alston in 2003 and Hawke in 1991. The Communications Minister asked for a reply in 14 days from the chairwoman on behalf of the board. But he got a go-away response from staff member Neighbour in just nine hours.