Four Corners last Monday was a reminder of the 1927 song, popularised by Elsa Lanchester, “I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales”.

The program, presented by Louise Milligan with Sally Neighbour as executive producer, was titled The Great Awakening: A family divided by QAnon. Put to music, it could contain lyrics like “I spoke to a woman who spoke about her brother who spoke to his wife who spoke to Jenny Morrison who spoke to her husband Prime Minister Scott Morrison”.

It’s not much of a base on which to build the claim that the Prime Minister has a case to answer about an (alleged) association with the US extreme right-wing conspiracy-driven group QAnon. But, apparently, it met the ABC’s current standard for what passes as news and current affairs. By the way, the PM/QAnon story started with Dingo News before being run by The Guardian, the “friendlyjordies” YouTube video, Crikey and then Four Corners.

On Wednesday, the ABC Media Centre issued an unsigned statement which commenced “The Great Awakening is accurately reported and raises questions it is legitimate and in the public interest to ask and examine”.

There were two themes in The Great Awakening. The first turned on the Stewart family. Father Brian, mother Val and daughter Karen, who are divided from son Tim and grandson Jesse over QAnon. It’s a sad, but not unfamiliar, tale of a family fractured over politics, religion or whatever.

And then there was the theme that Morrison is close to Tim Stewart and that he has undue influence over the Prime Minister to the extent of influencing him to include the term the “crimes of ritual sexual abuse” rather than the “crimes of sexual abuse” in his National Apology to the Survivors and Victims of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. This was delivered in the House of Representatives on October 22, 2018.

Four Corners’ point? Well, it is that QAnon conspiracy theorists believe that the world is being run by a secretive group of pedophiles who commit the crimes of ritual child sexual abuse. The suggestion is that Morrison was encouraged to insert the word “ritual” into his speech by QAnon due to the advocacy of Tim Stewart. The aim was to send a morale-boosting signal to QAnon followers worldwide that the Australian Prime Minister was on to the pedophile conspiracy.

Critics of the Milligan/Neighbour story have said there were references to ritual and ritualised child sexual abuse in the reports of the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In its statement titled “ABC response to The Australian”, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster attempted to distinguish between ritualised and ritual sexual abuse and maintained that, for the QAnon conspiracy theorists, “the word ‘ritual’ has a particular import”.

But Four Corners and the anonymous author of the ABC statement seem to be unaware that the term “ritual” child sexual abuse has been used since at least the 1980s with reference to cults. Also, the royal commission itself, headed by Justice Peter McClellan, specifically referred to “ritual” abuse and “rituals” of abuse in Volume 2 of its final report which was issued in December 2017 – almost a year before the Prime Minister delivered his national apology. This is a public document.

Is the ABC in general, and Four Corners in particular, really suggesting that McClellan and his colleagues also intended to send a coded message to QAnon followers? Focus on the word “ritual” is Four Corners’ very own conspiracy theory.

As this column has pointed out for a long time, the ABC is not run by its board (nor should it be). It should be run by the managing director who also happens to be the ABC’s editor-in-chief. But it is a staff collective where the key news and current affairs programs – Four Corners, 7.30, News Breakfast, Insiders and Q&A (to mention only television outlets) are controlled by senior staff. Four Corners is effectively the remit of Neighbour, Milligan and Sarah Ferguson and captive to various causes they promote as activist journalists.

On May 31, the ABC’s Media Centre issued another anonymous statement headed “ABC statement on Christian Porter litigation”. In view of its importance, it is reasonable to assume that this was directly authorised by David Anderson in his capacity as ABC managing director.

In this release, Anderson acknowledged that an article – written by Milligan and carried on ABC Online on February 26, 2021 – contained “serious accusations” against Porter that could not be “substantiated to the applicable legal standard – criminal or civil”. In other words, the ABC proudly runs programs which do not meet the standard of guilt beyond reasonable doubt (the criminal standard) or guilt on the balance of probabilities (the civil standard).

Anderson did not state precisely what legal standard the ABC applies when it makes serious accusations against Christian Porter, Scott Morrison, Cardinal George Pell, the late Neville Wran and more besides. It would seem to be the Milligan/Neighbour standard – that is, believing what a journalist wants to believe.

The Great Awakening created scant attention on the morning after the night before when the program aired – and was scarcely covered in the news, even on ABC outlets. On ABC TV 7.30 last Tuesday, political editor Laura Tingle and presenter Leigh Sales attempted to give the story a kick along. This led to nothing much, since The Great Awakening lacked evidence.

After Tingle’s story, Sales interviewed Immigration Minister Alex Hawke about the Sri Lankan family which is attempting to stay in Australia. But she found time to put it to Hawke that Tim Stewart has a “direct path to the Prime Minister”. Hawke promptly replied that he did not see “a direct path to the Prime Minister last night”. Whereupon Sales referred to some photographs which proved nothing.

What Sales failed to appreciate is that many people like to believe that they have a direct path to the Prime Minister at a time when a photo or pic with the PM is akin to a dance with the Prince of Wales a century ago.