The Guardian July 25, 2001


Muzzles out for the ABC

by Peter Mac

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation last week moved an ominous step 
closer to losing its editorial independence with the attempted muzzling of 
a Four Corners program on the conservative Coalition's smear 
campaigns against its opponents. The program contains material highly 
damaging to a number of senior members of the Liberal Party.

Since the Howard Government came to office, the ABC has been increasingly 
hamstrung by government funding cuts and restructuring, with the result 
that its independent role as the national broadcaster has come under major 
threat.

Last week, the day before the Four Corners program was due to go to 
air, the General Manager of the ABC, Jonathan Shier, (a former Liberal 
Party staff member and hand-picked Howard Government appointee), announced 
that the program would not go to air as planned.

He claimed that he needed to seek legal opinion because of misgivings about 
the program expressed to him by Max Uechtritz, ABC Director of News and 
Current Affairs.

This was the first in a series of "economies of truth" expressed by Shier 
concerning the program.

Firstly, as Shier knows well, the production of any serious investigative 
news and current affairs program carries with it a risk of retaliatory 
legal action.

As national broadcaster, the ABC's need to disclose information in the 
interests of the mass of the Australian people overrides the risk of legal 
action from vested interests. It is true, for example, that the Four 
Corners program on corruption into the Queensland police force resulted 
in legal action that ran for 14 years. However, the program also prompted 
an enquiry that resulted in the prosecution of a number of major public 
figures for corruption, and a massive clean-up of the State's police force.

Secondly, the program had been six months in production and had already 
been cleared for broadcasting by independent advice provided to the ABC's 
own legal department, which has itself become expert at assessing the risk 
of incurring major legal damages.

Shier cited the recent awarding of major damages against the ABC over a 
7.30 Report item as justification for seeking further advice (and 
thus delaying or even suppressing the Four Corners program). He was 
backed by a spokesman for the Minister for Communications, Senator Alston, 
who commented that "the ABC ... have just lost a million in a (defamation) 
case". However, that particular judgement has been appealed by the ABC, 
which may yet win the case.

(Both Alston and Shier may have been influenced in their statements by a 
strong desire to discredit the head of the ABC's legal department, Judith 
Walker. It is said that they consider her too willing to broadcast 
"contentious" news reports.)

Finally, the News and Current Affairs Department was actually satisfied 
that the program should go to air. In referring the matter to ABC 
management, Uechtritz was not asking Shier to intervene to halt the 
program, but was merely alerting him as to the serious nature of the 
program and the possibility of legal action.

Shier was subsequently forced into a humiliating retraction of his initial 
press statements implicating Uechritz in his decision to withdraw the 
program.

Nor, apparently, was the legal advice he received sufficient to justify 
withdrawal. Following a national public outcry Shier was forced to accept 
the broadcasting of the program last Monday.

As the national broadcaster, a key role of the ABC is to produce news and 
current affairs programs that fearlessly expose organisations whose actions 
are contrary to the interest of the Australian people. Although by no means 
perfect, the ABC has by and large fulfilled this role well, with a 
performance far superior to that of the commercial media.

In particular, the Four Corners coverage of news and current affairs 
has been the most comprehensive, honest and penetrating of any program in 
the history of Australian TV broadcasting.

For this reason programs like Four Corners, and the more frequently 
broadcast 7.30 Report, now head the list of ABC programs which the 
Howard Government would most like to see either emasculated or axed 
altogether.

It would be a mistake to think that the current ABC upper level management 
has been routed over the Four Corners debacle. They are still 
dancing to the tune of the Howard Government, which remains bitterly 
opposed to the independence of the national broadcaster, and which has 
recently launched a vicious attack on the integrity of the support group, 
"Friends of the ABC".

As long as the Howard Government remains in office its agenda for the ABC 
will remain unchanged.

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