'Siege mentality' as ABC's Four Corners bursts Canberra bubble

Amanda Meade

Louise Milligan says government tried to ‘emotionally manipulate and threaten’ ABC. Plus: News Corp reporter’s Halloween post condemned

ABC building
Critics of the ABC say Monday’s Four Corners program was proof the broadcaster should be defunded. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP
Critics of the ABC say Monday’s Four Corners program was proof the broadcaster should be defunded. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 21.29 EST

ABC journalist Louise Milligan has likened the “siege mentality” of the Morrison government over allegations of inappropriate ministerial conduct to that of the Catholic church when confronted with allegations of child abuse.

“It was fascinating in the lead-up to the story how the forces corralled to try and shut it down,” the Four Corners reporter told colleague Annabel Crabb at the virtual launch of her book, Witness, on Thursday night.

Milligan, the author of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, released her new book, about the failures of the criminal justice system in sexual assault trials, in the same week as her expose of a culture in parliament “that can be toxic for women”.

“No one answered any of our questions,” Milligan said. “We gave those ministers two-and-a-half weeks’ notice of the story and … they didn’t answer any of our questions. They fired off a whole lot of off-the-record emails in which they tried to emotionally manipulate and threaten us.

“They went over our heads. And they didn’t just go to the executive producer of the program or the director of news. They went to the managing director and the board and tried to editorially interfere in the national broadcaster. This is the sort of institutional power that you come up against when you try to expose this sort of behaviour. And it is analogous to my book because it’s about young people who are in these dreadful situations who want to come forward publicly but are afraid.”

Guardian Australia approached the relevant ministers for comment.

‘Hatchet job’

The reaction to the story by some sections of the media was to call for the ABC to be defunded.

For ABC critic in chief Chris Kenny it was evidence the ABC had “surrendered any pretence of objectivity, intellectual integrity, honesty or high-minded journalism”.

“Four Corners essentially allowed itself to be the vehicle for another Turnbull revenge attack on his own party,” Kenny wrote in the Australian. “It was tacky, transparent, and tedious. You do not have to endorse the behaviour of these politicians to also hold that it is none of our business.”

On her Sky News program, Peta Credlin labelled it an “ABC hatchet job” and Liberal senator Jim Molan insisted the ABC should lose its funding.

But it was former Conservative party senator Cory Bernardi who had the most extreme response. The former Liberal told Andrew Bolt on Sky News the program was a “disgrace” and there needed to be an investigation into “closeted gay members of parliament”.

“The same cabal of people who are saying women are being targeted want to ignore some of the closeted gay members of parliament who also have relationships with male staffers,” Bernardi said.

Whole Nine yards

Australia’s two biggest media companies, News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment, have responded less than enthusiastically to the Senate’s decision to hold an inquiry into media diversity.

Following the popularity of Kevin Rudd’s petition for a royal commission into Murdoch media, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young was successful in establishing the inquiry and plans to call the former prime minister and Malcolm Turnbull, who also signed the petition.

Nine’s chairman, Peter Costello, says the inquiry won’t tell us anything we don’t already know and Nine doesn’t like being “tied down by endless inquiries” or the significant costs involved. And the former treasurer could not hide his disdain for the involvement of Rudd and Turnbull.

“If we’re called upon to give any evidence of course we will,” a grumpy Costello told journalists after Nine’s virtual annual general meeting. “The chances of anything new coming out of it I would rate as very low. We also think the move by former prime ministers to inquire into outfits they think were unsympathetic to them says as much about them as it does about the media. The media is scrutinised every single day, there are multiple outlets who scrutinise each other. I rate the probability very low.”

Murdoch’s man in Australia, News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller, had earlier pointed out the company had taken part in at least nine media inquiries in a decade.

“As always, we will continue to constructively engage in these important conversations,” Miller said.

‘Payback’ time

But the real vitriol for Rudd and Turnbull came via Sky After Dark, courtesy of Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff.

In a 10-minute editorial, Credlin defended Murdoch’s dominance of the Australian media, where its newspaper circulation occupies two-thirds of the market. Credlin said News Corp supported a broad range of views – she had former Labor minister Stephen Conroy on her show – and Nine and the ABC were “more influential” because they owned television and radio stations.

She said Rudd and Turnbull were failed leaders who were “targeting Murdoch media” because they had both been “rejected and removed” and it was “payback”.

A tweet from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd about a segment on Sky about his push for a royal commission into the Murdoch media.

Guardian Australia asked Sky for comment.

AFR backtracks

A front-page story in the Australian Financial Review that sparked the interest of Liberal MP Tim Wilson has been amended after the chair of CSL, Brian McNamee, complained to the paper, a parliamentary committee has heard.

A story about CEOs pushing Daniel Andrews to open Victoria sooner originally included the line: “Union-aligned industry superannuation fund managers have pressured Mr McNamee to stop his outspoken criticisms of the state government lockdown.”

After the story was published, Wilson followed up by sending letters to dozens of industry funds asking them to confirm whether they had been in contact with McNamee.

But on Friday, Australian Super chief executive Ian Silk appeared before Wilson’s House of Representatives economics committee and poured cold water on the story.

Silk told the committee he called McNamee – only after the story was published – and he said the assertion that industry funds had applied pressure on him to stop criticising the Andrews government was untrue. Weekly Beast has confirmed McNamee also asked the AFR to remove the assertion from their online version, which they did.

Racism row

A social media post that included photographs of Sky News Australia reporter and Daily Telegraph columnist Caroline Marcus dressed as a Wuhan street vendor selling bats has been condemned as racist.

The Instagram post, which has now been switched to private, featured the conservative commentator and her husband in Halloween costumes with their baby dressed as a Wuhan bat with the caption “because what could be more terrifying in 2020 than a couple of Wuhan street vendors hawking one very edible bat?”

After the public post was criticised for blaming Chinese people for coronavirus, it disappeared from public view. Sky News and Marcus have been approached for comment.

Go West

Miranda Devine is not the only journalist popping up in the US election coverage.

The front pages designed by West Australian editor in chief Anthony De Ceglie’s team have travelled far and wide, featuring on US television and news websites and praised by US commentators.

The West Australian’s election day front page with its cool art of the Statue of Liberty anxiously looking through her fingers and the headline “GULP!” was plastered at the top of the homepage of the Drudge Report all day on election day. Then Saturday’s edition, which featured a photograph of president elect Joe Biden and the word “PHEW!”, made an appearance on CNN.

The West Australian makes an appearance on CNN.
The West Australian makes an appearance on CNN. Photograph: Anthony De Ceglie/CNN

But the accolades continued. Last week George Conway, co-founder of the Lincoln Project and a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, shared the paper’s “DONNYSPIT” front page. And Washington Post writer Sarah Fowler shared the Sunday Times front page “AMERICA. GREAT AGAIN.”

The larrikin sense of humour of the Seven West Media-owned newspapers clearly appeals to the Americans.

Sky’s the limit

When the Walkley Foundation announced the virtual awards ceremony next Friday would be a “live broadcast from the studios of Sky News”, the reaction on Twitter to Sky’s involvement was swift and furious.

“Tune in to watch the live broadcast at walkleys.com or at our broadcast partner Sky News (Foxtel Channel 603) and charge your glass with champagne to celebrate the best in journalism from the past year,” the announcement said.

“Excellence in Journalism’ at the studios of Sky News? I guess Four Seasons Total Landscaping must have been booked out,” was a typical response.

The Sky After Dark line-up’s refusal to accept Joe Biden’s win was referenced by more than one wag.

Walkleys chief executive Louisa Graham told Weekly Beast the Australian News Channel, which owns Sky News, had been the broadcast partner since 2015 when the ABC and SBS dropped the rights. (Which is understandable given the industry event is watched by a tiny audience. )

The difference this year – because it is a virtual event due to Covid – is there is no event venue so the broadcast is taking place from a Foxtel studio in Macquarie Park “and not the Sky News studio”, Graham told us. “Thus the announcement that went out through our channels this morning wasn’t accurate and this has now been corrected,” she said.

The presenters for the evening are Sky political editor Kieran Gilbert and NITV presenter Natalie Ahmat.

“The Walkley Foundation works collaboratively with all media organisations,” Graham said. “Journalists from all media organisations, enter, judge and participate in Walkley programs. Sky journalists have on occasion won Walkley awards. Our mission is to celebrate and support great Australian journalism. Walkley entries are judged based on merit and not the news organisation they come from.”