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Has the ABCs Four Corners passed its use-by date?

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 11 July 2019


The ABC and its viewers have long lauded Four Corners as Australia’s ‘premier television current affairs program’. The ABC’s website gushes that “For almost sixty years Four Corners has been exposing scandals, triggering inquiries, firing debate and confronting taboos. With an international reputation for excellence, Four Corners works to serve the public interest”.

Those involved in forestry (and perhaps other activities subject to enduring community conflict) would surely beg to differ after being on the receiving end of Four Corners episodes initiated by the typically blinkered complaints of eco-activists. I should know after my experience as an interviewee for the recent Four Corners episode, ‘Extinction Nation’ (24 June 2019).

Forestry has been an infrequent topic on Four Corners, but each time it has been examined from a perspective of hostility towards native forest timber production based on a premise of dire environmental impacts. This has been evident as far back as 1990 when Four Corners ‘investigated’ Western Australian forestry. Following the screening of the resultant ‘Wood for the Trees’ episode, the WA Government forced the ABC to broadcast an apology for 44 instances of false assertions, bias, and incorrect data. It was later revealed that the Four Corners team had been invited to WA by local anti-logging activists, and that one of the state’s highest profile activists had effectively planned the program’s interview schedule including suggested interviewees, lines of questioning, and filming locations.   

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The Four Corners team spent several weeks in the state before even contacting the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) which was responsible for forest management. By the time the program’s presenter, Mark Colvin, eventually arranged an interview with a CALM spokesman, it was clear that his mind had already been made-up after such prolonged exposure to the myths, half-truths, and conspiracy theories of the local activists. According to a former senior departmental officer who was present, Four Corners subsequent four-hour interview of CALM Executive Director, Syd Shea, was aggressive and unrelenting. Far from an exercise in gathering information or seeking understanding, it was a hunt for ‘gotcha’ moments intended to demonise him and his organisation. After editing, only a few minutes of carefully selected snippets from this expansive interview actually made it into the final program.

In 2004, Four Corners was invited by Tasmanian forest activists to investigate the timber company, Gunns Ltd. The resultant ‘Lords of the Forest’episode was promoted for a week beforehand as, “How a national treasure is being chipped away under a culture of fear”. When screened, the program included serious allegations of government corruption and mismanagement, and yet it actively undermined the credibility of explanations by key government and industry spokespersons portrayed as being deceptive and ruthless. On the flip side, there was no apparent effort made to examine the credibility of those activists and a politician responsible for making the allegations. Furthermore, the program’s narrative presented by journalist, Ticky Fullerton, was peppered with factual errors and subjective language critical of the Tasmanian government and the timber industry.

In its aftermath, the program sparked angry complaints which led to an investigation by the media’s Independent Complaints Review Panel. The panel concluded that the program contained “instances of serious bias, lack of balance and unfair treatment” and that“Four Corners broke from its constraining guidelines… its enthusiasm to canvass the logging-in-Tasmania issue … compromised the program that resulted”.Special mention was also made of the program’s use of emotive language such as “… voracious appetite for timber … overwhelming devastation … absolute assault on the landscape and senses … corruption and cronyism …. aggressive forest policy … and mushroom cloud” which were found to leave “the reasonable viewer with the impression that the program is anti-logging, i.e. seriously lacking in balance and fairness”.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Four Corners‘Lords of the Forests’ episode received an Excellence in Environmental Journalism award from the Australian Museum! This says much about the stunning lack of understanding and/or the agenda of the wider scientific community in relation to forestry issues; and suggests that journalism which irresponsibly creates and maintains public controversy is lauded far more than the accurate reporting which underpins fair and balanced media coverage.

Although these two programs were admittedly produced a long-time ago and involved different ABC personnel, the recently screened Four Corners episode, ‘Extinction Nation’, suggests that the program’s culture of unwavering belief in the righteousness of activist campaigns and an associated distrust of and/or hostility towards industry practitioners with an alternate view, remains as strong as ever.

‘Extinction Nation’ devoted half of its on-air time to investigating just two forest-dwelling species that are central to enduring anti-logging campaigns in Victoria and Tasmania. Given that it has been widely acknowledged that Australian forestry has never been responsible for the extinction of any fauna or flora species, such an over-emphasis was indicative of the program’s serious lack of perspective on what the real threats to Australian wildlife are. While timber production is a highly regulated, renewable use that is restricted to a minor portion of the forested landscape, the extinction threats attributable to unnatural fire regimes, introduced feral carnivores, and pest plants, are out of control across the whole landscape. They should have been the primary focus of a program about extinction threats.

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Accordingly, it was hardly a surprise that ‘Extinction Nation’was strongly biased against forestry. Themostobvious bias was in allowing four anti-logging advocates – including three ecologists – to air their views, compared to just one non-scientist timber industry executive voicing a contrary view. However, much of the program’s bias was almost imperceptible to the unknowing viewer, being far more subtly rooted in the omission of critically important context and non-disclosure of the eco-activist affiliations of three of its anti-forestry advocates.

Four Cornersinterviewed me for the program presumably to provide a forestry practitioner’s perspective. After a long career as a forest scientist and being the co-author of a recent scientific paper raising serious concerns about the quality of some forest ecology research that is central to Victorian anti-logging campaigns, I had the technical background to challenge the views of the program’s four anti-logging interviewees. However, three days prior to ‘Extinction Nation’ going to air, I was informed by the producer that my interview (apparently along with several others) had had to be dropped from the program to accommodate new information received at the last minute, apparently in relation to a non-forestry issue also covered by the program. Given the program’s already strong four-to-one weighting in favour of anti-logging interviewees, it is pertinent to ask why one of them wasn’t instead dropped from the program to even things up somewhat?

However, arguably the program’s most significant bias was created by simply not mentioning that most of the respective forested habitats of its two featured endangered species, the Leadbeater’s Possum and Swift Parrot, are not even subject to timber production. The proportion of the forested landscape which is actually being managed for timber production is fundamental to assessing its environmental impact on any species. By omitting this critically important context, the implied threat to these species supposedly posed by timber production was able to be grossly exaggerated.  

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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