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.