Four Corners turns 60: Inside the show that exposes governments and divides viewers

By Zoe Samios

Among Four Corners’ storied reporters: Michael Charlton, Mike Willesee, Paul Lyneham, Tony Jones, Kerry O’Brien and Jenny Brockie.Credit:Greg Bakes

When Bruce Belsham took charge of Four Corners in the late 1990s, there were three letters he never wanted to see on his whiteboard: “FBH”.

They stood for “f—ing black hole” and appeared when the program didn’t have a 45-minute investigation scheduled for a particular week.

“The big pressure as an executive producer is you’ve got to fill it; you cannot go to black at 8:30pm on a Monday night,” Belsham, who ran Four Corners until 2007, remembers. “If an FBH was getting close and you didn’t know how you’d fill it, that was scary.”

Four Corners has avoided going to black for six decades. Under founding producers Michael Charlton and Robert Raymond, the program went to air for the first time on Saturday, August 19, 1961. It opened with a vox pop asking people whether a future governor-general should be British or Australian. The program had six staff members and a budget of £480.

Four Corners’ founding producers Michael Charlton and Bob Raymond in 1982. The weekly current affairs show debuted in 1961. Credit:Fairfax Media

Since then, the work of its reporters — John Penlington, Andrew Olle, Mike Willesee, Chris Masters, Sarah Ferguson and Anne Connolly among them — has exposed corruption, instigated royal commissions and, in some cases, landed people in prison. The program has won 62 Walkley Awards and 23 Logies. It has also co-produced shows with talented journalists from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, such as Adele Ferguson and Nick McKenzie.

At its best, Four Corners has chosen difficult subjects and told their stories so well that they became part of the national conversation. Founders Raymond and Charlton exposed the squalor of Box Ridge Aboriginal Reserve; Masters’ The Moonlight State investigation exposed corruption inside the Queensland police; Caro Meldrum-Hanna unveiled live-baiting in the greyhound industry and a royal commission was called a day before Connolly’s Who Cares episode into the state of Australia’s aged care system aired. Sarah Ferguson revealed the brutal reality of live cattle exportation and the Hayne Royal Commission into banking misconduct can be traced back to reporting by Adele Ferguson.

The program, which has been running at 8.30pm on a Monday night since 1985, has become not only the ABC’s most important program, but the longest running investigative television show in Australia.

Sally Neighbour is the current executive producer of Four Corners.Credit:ABC

Today, Four Corners finds itself in a more complicated position than at almost any other time in its history. It has always been one of the most scrutinised programs on Australian television but its coverage of George Pell and federal cabinet minister Christian Porter in recent years — as well as the accompanying social media commentary from some of its most prominent journalists — has attracted fierce criticism from the government and industry commentators that, in some cases, go beyond the usual conservative cliques.

For her part, executive producer Sally Neighbour says the program has upset state and federal governments for decades (Neighbour was directly involved in one of those moments in her piece about the culture that existed under the leadership of then Victoria premier Jeff Kennett.Ahead of the episode’s launch, he called it an “hour of slime”).

Four Corners has been offending and annoying and exposing governments and then getting attacked by them as a result for 60 years,” she says. “I don’t think it’s any more pronounced than that ever has been.”

The Four Corners team in 1991. Back row: Mark Colvin, Ross Coulthart and Paul Barry. Centre: David Marr, Neil Mercer. Front: Deborah Snow, Andrew Olle and Chris Masters.Credit:ABC

But 83-year-old Penlington, who worked at Four Corners between 1961 and 1969 when then prime minister Robert Menzies said it existed solely to discredit him and his government, believes it is one of the most sensitive periods for the program in its history.Menzies was angry about a report by Allan Ashbolt about the Returned Services League’s role in politics. The ABC was accused of being a communist outlet and Ashbolt was suspended).

“As a viewer and someone who has some knowledge of the program … this is the most sensitive time I’ve seen because of the nature of those stories and the fact that they are so close to government ministers,” he says.

But it’s not just criticism from the government. Industry commentators such as the ABC’s Media Watch have also raised concerns about perceptions of bias in reporting. And then there’s the social media conduct of the team: ABC managing director David Anderson has twice updated social media guidelines in the past year following criticism of posts by Neighbour and Louise Milligan (and 7.30 political correspondent Laura Tingle, who is not part of Four Corners).

“Going from reserve grade at Normanhurst to the Wallabies”

Four Corners’ theme music made the hair on the back of Neighbour’s neck prick up when she arrived as a reporter in 1996.

“It’s the hardest but the best job in journalism, and the bar is very high,” she says “It’s scary, particularly when you start out knowing that you’ve got to hit that bar every time.”

Chris Masters is Four Corners’ longest-standing reporter. His Moonlight State episode in 1987 exposed corruption inside the Queensland police force.

It was the same for Masters, Four Corners’ longest-serving reporter, when he started in 1983. “It was a bit like going from a reserve grade in Normanhurst to the Wallabies,” he says.

Over the past decade, Four Corners has averaged audiences of more than 700,000 each episode. That figure has declined in recent years (the average audience was 574,000 in 2020), but the ABC says it has been made up on other platforms such as its streaming service iview and YouTube. A recent episode on Australia Post and the departure of its chief executive Christine Holgate has more than 114,000 YouTube views.

Success for Four Corners is complex. It can be as simple as delivering a program that has people talking, a program that rates well, that breaks a significant piece of news or that generates change. Neighbour says Bloody Business — a documentary by Ferguson that looked at the live cattle export trade — and Making a Killing — Meldrum-Hanna’s piece which exposed the greyhound racing industry — both had low ratings figures.

“People don’t like to watch stories about animal cruelty on television, but they both had incredible impact because people really care about those issues,” she says. “Being able to generate coverage that actually causes the government to say ‘oh, my God, this is a really big issue and a terrible problem’. That’s the impact that Four Corners is after.”

Some, such as McKenzie, view success on the program in other ways. He was the first newspaper reporter to join forces with the Four Corners team and covered a range of issues including abuse occurring at one of the disability sector’s oldest providers.

The expectation of success can be a burden for the Four Corners team, says former reporter and long-standing host Kerry O’Brien.Credit:Craig Abraham

“Helping introduce a successful model where newspaper journalists collaborate with Four Corners to maximise journalistic impact and throw the competitive crap out the door has been immensely rewarding,” he says.

But former reporter and long-standing host Kerry O’Brien says the expectation of success can be a burden for the Four Corners team.

“One of the challenges for 4C is that there is a public expectation that every time they do a story they’re going to cause another royal commission. And the burnout factor is not to be underestimated either,” he says.

The high-pressure environment has taken a toll on even the best reporters. Masters, for example, spent more time defending a program that exposed corruption in the Queensland police department than he did writing the story.

“I wasn’t put on this earth to be a professional defendant, and it’s much harder to defend a program than it is to make one,” he says, reflecting on 10 years of court after the release of The Moonlight State. “That continuing toll on me nearly crushed me; I almost don’t know how I survived.”

Former executive producer Sue Spencer, who led the team from 2007 until 2015, says it is wrong to romanticise Four Corners.

Sue Spencer was Four Corners’ executive producer from 2007 to 2015.Credit:ABC

“Your whole life becomes Four Corners and that’s not necessarily healthy,” she says. “But on the other hand if you want to tell good stories — it’s like anything successful … you have to make choices or compromises.”

Reporters who work on the program are expected to find, pursue and present a story within about seven weeks. The reporter works with a producer and an editor as they put together a script and video footage and prepare for broadcast.

There are two screenings of the show before it goes to air — a rough cut and a final cut. The rough cut involves lawyers, producers and editors as well as the reporter.

On one occasion, when Four Corners was investigating the circumstances of the departure of its managing director Michelle Guthrie and chairman Justin Milne, the rough cut took more than 12 hours.

“It was one of the most editorially and legally tricky stories that I’ve been involved with,” Neighbour says.

Rough cuts can also be ruthless — and humiliating — if you cannot answer specific questions about the topic you are covering. There is an expectation that there will be no errors, according to people that have worked on the program who spoke anonymously. There are also fact-checkers, who run through the program line-by-line and different levels of approval within the organisation, depending on the sensitivity of the story.

But even with its impeccably high standards, former executive producer Jonathan Holmes says it is difficult to deliver a strong 45-minute episode each week.

Former executive producer and Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes believes that a recent, controversial episode on the QAnon conspiracy group and its links was justified.Credit:Getty

“The program has never produced brilliant shows every week,” Holmes says. “It always produced a fair number of potboilers.”

But it isn’t just the potboilers that are criticised. Over the years, the program has also come under fire over concerns of bias and ethics.

A 2008 episode by Debbie Whitmont called The Newman Case, which focused on the conviction of Vietnamese-Australian businessman Phuong Ngo for the 1994 murder of NSW state MP John Newman, was slammed by then NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos for tarnishing public confidence in judicial processes. It was also criticised by Media Watch.

In 2016, Media Watch criticised Four Corners reporter Meldrum-Hanna for the way in which she secured an interview with Northern Territory corrections minister John Elferink for an investigation into youth detention centre Don Dale. That was despite her program, Australia’s Shame, leading to the sacking of Mr Elferink and a royal commission.

Australia’s media watchdog, the ACMA, found that a 2019 episode that focused on whether water infrastructure schemes funded under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were providing value for taxpayer money and saving water had breached impartiality rules.

Inside the ABC

Neighbour says Four Corners is a culture, not a program. She says it has helped the program flourish for 60 years and what will drive it into the future.

“It is absolute excellence in journalism,” she says. “It’s forensic research, rigorous fact-checking and obsession with exposing corruption, misdeeds, abuse of power and justice.”

The unit is siloed from other wings of the ABC. Its team of about 25, led by Neighbour, keeps their stories closely guarded before broadcast, using online systems separate from colleagues. The office doors of the reporters are often shut to allow them to work alone, which is typically unusual (newspaper journalists work in open offices).

Team members often keep to themselves, careful about what they say to avoid it leaking – a standard that some say makes them seem elitist.

“At its best, the program lifts people to a standard like a good sports team that is above where they might be,” Belsham says. “But equally, it’s a grind. It’s remorseless.” He says he has seen young reporters crushed by the pressure and long-standing reporters have made life difficult for newer staff in their plight for perfection.

Ferguson, now based in the US, says there is another toll that people don’t speak about.

“Sometimes it’s a terrible business, being a journalist. You have to persuade people to do things that are not in their best interest, and then you walk away,” she says. “Four Corners absolutely does a public service. But it’s quite a complicated job sometimes.”

The culture that exists has at times caused tensions between Four Corners and other parts of the ABC. Neighbour is known for uncompromising high standards, but there are some that believe the program considers itself exempt from standard editorial processes. They are also often more protected than other programs during budget cuts — due to the costs required to conduct investigations — which Belsham says can cause jealousy.

But he says any views that Four Corners reporters consider themselves elite should be quashed.

“You’re just worried about the f—ing black hole,” he says. “The idea that there is a coterie of elite journalists who are swaggering around is just fanciful. They’re too bloody busy to worry about any of that and under too much pressure.”

A bumpy road

Four Corners has not always been a sure thing. The show almost collapsed before the arrival in 1982 of British-born Holmes, who came from BBC’s equivalent program, Panorama. It was severely underfunded and was struggling to find producers.

Four Corners was really out of date — the way it looked and the way it was edited,” he says. “The other thing we did is we really focused on just breaking two or three really big stories a year. I remember saying that if we get in the news two or three times a year, the program will survive. And if we don’t, it’ll die.”

The changes made under Holmes — and then continued by his successor Peter Manning — shaped the program for the future.

A disturbing scene from Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners episode exposing abuses inside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.Credit:ABC

Recently, Four Corners has come under pressure for an episode called Inside the Canberra Bubble, which focused on the behaviour of Industry Minister Christian Porter. Holmes, who was executive producer from 1983-1986, says Four Corners did not have enough to run Inside the Canberra Bubble, but that the stories that followed were solid.

“I think there is a legitimate question about the wisdom of the program that Four Corners transmitted last November about Porter because they didn’t have the story that they set out to tell,” Holmes says. “They compromised a weird story which claimed to be about the situation inside the bubble, but actually a lot of it was about what this politician had done in his early 20s.”

An episode which looked at supposed connections between a prominent QAnon follower and Prime Minister Scott Morrison also caused problems with the government. It was delayed for a week by ABC managing director David Anderson over concerns Mr Morrison had not responded to comments. Holmes says that episode was justified.

Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan’s The Canberra Bubble episode was criticised by the government and several newspaper columnists.

Four Corners operates in a world where it is easy to talk to the audience. But it also gives reporters a platform to say what they think about even the most legally sensitive stories and situations. Milligan and Neighbour posted tweets about the defamation settlement involving Porter, who tried to sue the ABC over an online story that came months after The Canberra Bubble. The case was dropped after the ABC issued a clarification about the article.

Yet even with imperfections — and ABC budget pressures — Four Corners is stable. “In the time that I was there, it was very good, but nothing of the calibre we see now,” Penlington says. “That’s only come about by putting more money and effort into it, bringing experienced journalists onto it.”

When he started, executives were uncomfortable with Four Corners reporters. They were called the “brotherhood of journalism”. But Penlington says to try to control them is wrong.

“To see them as some sort of group that you’ve got to curb and control to make sure they do proper work seems to be pointless,” he says.

O’Brien, who worked as a reporter on the program before he returned as host in 2011, says Four Corners is still the “pinnacle of journalism”. “The digital technology has brought much greater flexibility and in some ways it’s changed the nature of the craft,” he adds.

As long as there continues to be funding, former producers and reporters say it will continue to exist if it keeps doing what it does best — producing high-quality, important Australian stories.

“Who wants to be the person that says it’s a good idea not to produce this anymore,” Sarah Ferguson says. “We have a massive appetite to know how we are being treated and how power operates. We need to know those things.”

Four Corners’ 60th anniversary special is on ABC, Monday, 8.30pm.

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