What happens to ABC journalists found to have performed unprofessionally?
In August 2006, a Four Corners program on forestry in Tasmania was found by the The Australian Communications and Media Authority to be bias and inaccurate. This program attacked the management of Tasmania’s forests and timber industry. Lords of the Forest was found by the independent adjudicators to fail almost every test of professional journalism; it did not even meet the ABC’s own Code of Practice on impartiality and accuracy in current affairs reporting.
Subsequent to the ACMA findings, I have been asked by several people: “What will now happen to the journalist in question Tikki Fullerton?”
Well might they ask. If history is any guide, she will probably go on to stardom.
Sixteen years ago, Four Corners made an equally clumsy foray into Western Australian forest management. This was The Wood for the Trees, broadcast by ABC TV on June 18th, 1990. I was then a forester working for the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM), also a senior officer of the department.
CALM had recently published management plans which provided for the full balance of forest uses from “locked away” nature reserves, to National Parks, to State forests where timber cutting and regeneration were permitted. We also had significant programs of plantation development and wildlife management, and we provided extensively for forest visitors and recreationists. Our forestry work in those days was fully endorsed by State and Federal governments and by the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority. This will surely resonate with Tasmanian foresters in 2006.
In spite of all this, CALM was deeply unpopular with extreme environmentalists. Four Corners were sooled onto us by Perth green activists, who saw this as a way to discredit us nationally, and tip the political balance against the timber industry and the forestry profession. One of WA’s most rabid environmentalists admitted subsequently in a radio interview that she had mapped out the Four Corners interview schedule for their program. It became obvious later that the activists not only suggested the interviewees, but also the lines of questioning and field stops. Four Corners worked in WA with them for some weeks before even contacting anyone in CALM. When eventually they did meet up with us it was clear that their position had been rigidly determined. They were out to get us.
The resulting program was diabolical, even worse than Lords of the Forest. All the most reprehensible traits of agenda-driven journalism emerged: the presentation of unsupported and incorrect statements by environmentalists as if they were indisputable facts; failure to check statements by our critics, or to show our refutation of them; uncritical acceptance of the most palpably absurd assertions made by political activists; and failure to interview anyone (including CALM scientists) who might have provided an alternative view to some of the most outrageous claims. One of the guest interviewees was the owner of a small art gallery. Another interviewee given plenty of air-time was a small-time disgruntled sawmiller, who (surprise, surprise) was uncomplimentary about CALM’s allocation of logs, just possibly because of our failure to allocate a large number of really good ones to him. Two Canberra CSIRO botanists were also interviewed, and the journalist cleverly made out that they were critical of CALM’s system for protecting rare and endangered plants, although what they actually said was totally innocuous. I later met these two botanists and they were disgusted at the way the journalist had manipulated them.
I was present in the room when the Four Corners journalist interviewed CALM’s Executive Director, Dr Syd Shea. The interview lasted nearly four hours without a break. In the broadcast this was reduced to a few minutes of carefully selected snippets. The journalist was aggressive and unrelenting throughout.
It was the first time I had watched a current affairs journalist at work. The first thing that struck me was that he had already made up his mind. The second was that the purpose of the interview did not appear to be to gather information or seek understanding, but to attack a person and an organisation. He would ask the same question over and over, but every time he would phrase it in a slightly different way. And he would keep coming back to issues already discussed to probe them yet again, searching for a weakness or something he could later portray as a damning admission.
It would be too much to hope that Tasmania’s forestry people had time to marshal media resources, but we were fortunate – we managed to make our own video of the interview. This allowed us later to compare the actual questions and Dr Shea’s answers with the massively edited version eventually shown by Four Corners. All the journalist’s and editor’s stratagems were thus dramatically exposed. Anything said by Dr Shea which did not fit the journalist’s predetermined position was edited out, while any slight slip or ambiguity was highlighted. Later, the journalist ridiculed Dr Shea as a ‘baby-kissing politician’, while showing a shot of Shea kissing a baby. The journalist neglected to mention that the baby shown was Dr Shea’s daughter.
Dr Shea was not a man to take this sort of personal insult lying down, any more than he would accept the unjust assault on his agency. With the full support of Premier and Minister, he strongly counter-attacked the ABC. A wide range of State and Federal politicians were briefed and their support obtained. An official complaint was written up and published in a substantial document. This included the transcripts of both films – ours and the one shown by Four Corners – of the same interview. A total of 44 separate instances of factual error, misrepresentation, bias and selective editing were described. The document also set out the secretive comings and goings of the Four Corners team in the field, where they had the gall to behave as if CALM was some sort of dangerous terrorist organisation.
Tasmanians who are still fighting the ABC over Lords of the Forest will be pleased to hear that in the end Syd Shea had a win. ABC management was repentant. Four Corners presenter Andrew Olle broadcast an apology in which the litany of false assertions and incorrect statements in The Wood for the Trees was admitted.
But Tasmanians may not like to know the following. Despite the apology, the Four Corners journalist who anchored the program, Mark Colvin, was subsequently given a series of plum overseas assignments. Today he is one of Australia’s most prominent journalists, the host of the ABC’s flagship current affairs radio program PM.
Tikki Fullerton, the journalist from Lords of the Forest, has re-appeared many times as a front-line journalist for the ABC since Lords caused such a storm of anger. As far as I can determine (from letters to the ABC’s Managing Director) she has not even been reprimanded. Nor, to my knowledge, has the ABC ever apologized over the Fullerton program. There is clearly a culture within the ABC, or at least among its journalists, that they are above criticism.
Unfortunately, any apology and adverse finding will always be too late. As the extreme environmentalists know who cook up these programs in the first place, what matters is the initial impression. What they count upon is the gullibility of television viewers, especially those who watch the ABC, live in the leafy suburbs and don’t know anything about forestry, but like to indulge in trendy arms-length environmentalism. Thus, cruel damage is done – irreparably in WA, as it turned out.
Sixteen years after The Wood for the Trees program I am still unable to watch Four Corners; indeed I have not been able to watch any television current affairs programs since then without a feeling of betrayal. I have seen how the journalists work, experienced first-hand the editorial trickery, the deep bias, the loaded questions, the uncritical acceptance of absurd nonsense from people with the ‘right’ ideology, and the selective interviewing.
For me, the Four Corners attack on forestry in WA was the moment when ABC current affairs journalism lost its credibility. I realised then that a ‘crusading’ journalist was one who closes one eye in order to see better with the other. From this perspective, even though it hurts to admit it, Lords of the Forest was simply déjà vu.
Perth, Western Australia
PS Within a few days of ACMA’s findings on Lords of the Forest and its advice to the ABC to review its procedures for preparing current affairs television programs to ensure impartiality and accuracy, the Stateline program in Western Austraslia broadcast a program which tried to demonstrate that logging in the jarrah forest would destroy quokkas. I won’t go into the details, other than to say that I have lodged an official complaint which describes 11 separate instances in the program of bias, misrepresentation, selective interviewing, factual error and failure to undertake basic research. What this tells me is that unprofessional journalism and the penetration of environmentalist influence within ABC current affairs is systemic and probably inoperable. The disease is even yet to be diagnosed within the Corporation, let alone addressed. “
Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.