Communications minister goes after ABC for airing Four Corners ‘Inside the Canberra bubble’ episode

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has demanded the ABC answers why “the personal lives of politicians [are] newsworthy” following a recent Four Corners episode.

In a letter sent yesterday to the public broadcaster’s chair, Ita Buttrose, Minister Fletcher asked for responses to 15 questions within 14 days, including ‘Why does the board consider it appropriate that the privacy of the attorney-general and Minister Tudge … be compromised’ and ‘Does the board say that there are no such relationships involving Labor, Green or independent politicians?’

The communications minister also accused the ABC of displaying bias by featuring interviews with an employment lawyer “long aligned with the labour movement”, Josh Bornstein, and a former Labor candidate for pre-selection, Jo Dyer.

“Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program evidenced clear bias against the Liberal Party, with this bias evident in the choice of persons interviewed, the making of specific allegations in the face of clear factual denials, and the fact that the program failed to investigate or report on conduct engaged in by Labor, Greens or independent politicians?” the minister asked Buttrose in the letter.

In response to Minister Fletcher making the letter public – he posted it on Twitter but disabled replies – Bornstein tweeted: “Dear Ita, Why isn’t #4Corners more like Sky After Dark? Kind regards Paul”.

The letter was sent before The Australian’s Sharri Markson (News Corp) published an ‘exclusive’ story front page today claiming the government is also pursuing the ABC for allegedly having a private investigator surveil the attorney general and Minister Tudge.

In its response, the ABC flatly refused the allegations, and noted that it has not received questions regarding surveillance from the government; “they appear to have been sent to The Australian first”.

“‘Inside the Canberra Bubble’ explores the workplace culture in Australian Parliament House, including investigating specific allegations concerning two of Australia’s most senior politicians,  Attorney-General Christian Porter and Immigration Minster Alan Tudge,” the broadcaster said.

“We invite the public to watch the story and decide for themselves on the import of the issues it raises.

“The ABC stands by its journalistic independence and right to report without fear or favour on matters Australians have a right to know about.”

In a recent interview, Buttrose commented that the ABC “is not designed to make those under scrutiny feel comfortable”.

Louise Milligan, the Walkley-Award winning reporter behind the episode, previously drew comparisons between the government’s “siege mentality” over the program and the Catholic Church’s response to allegations of child abuse. She also drew attention to Fletcher disallowing comments on his tweet.

The episode was shown three weeks ago, after the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, had to appear in Senate Estimates earlier that day, answering questions about whether the episode – titled ‘Inside the Canberra Bubble’ and attracting 824,000 metro viewers and 1.176 million nationally – “was in the public interest” before it had even aired.

Minister Fletcher referred to Anderson’s evidence in the letter, in which the managing director said “the chair has seen the program and supports the decision to publish it”.

It’s not the first time this year that the national broadcaster and the minister have clashed. When the ABC made more than 200 redundancies in response to a budget shortfall, the communications minister repeatedly asserted the broadcaster’s funding is increasing, rather than decreasing.

The ABC’s fact checking unit concluded Fletcher’s statements were “misleading” and “ignored the issue of real funding, which takes into account inflation”.

But Fletcher hit back, calling the report “riddled with errors” and alleging the ABC was “playing games” in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald (owned by Nine Entertainment Co.). Following the report by The Sydney Morning Herald the ABC wrote to the masthead’s editors, claiming the Nine newspaper “did not challenge Fletcher’s unfair and unbalanced portrayal of its contents”.

Graphs supplied by RMIT ABC Fact Check Check unit.

When announcing the redundancies, Anderson cited the indexation pause, which freezes the ABC’s operational budget at 2018-19 levels until 2021-22. Anderson said this effectively cuts the ABC’s budget by $84 million over that period.

Graphs supplied by RMIT ABC Fact Check Check unit.

Mumbrella has contacted the ABC for comment on the minister’s letter and questions.


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