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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.  

A key part of my Four Corners interview was spent explaining how much of the ecological research being used to support Victorian anti-logging campaigns was grossly misleading by claiming that 80% of the mountain ash forest type preferred by Leadbeater’s Possum was designated for timber production. In fact, less than a third of this mountain ash forest is designated for use, with the other more than two-thirds already reserved for conservation. I subsequently sent the Four Corner’s reporter an extract from the Central Highlands Forest Management Plan to prove this point, and I am aware that the Victorian Government’s commercial forestry agency, VicForests, also provided the ABC with similar information.  Clearly, if most of an endangered species’ preferred forest type is not even available for use, it is impossible to claim timber production to be the primary agency of its extinction – as at least one of the program’s interviewed ecologists did.

Furthermore, Four Corners background researchers had been impressively diligent in fact-checking. In my case, I had been contacted by two separate ABC researchers with whom I had discussed and verified various matters associated with my recent scientific paper, over an approximate total time of one-and-a half hours. Accordingly, Four Corners had made itself acutely aware of the extent of already existing conservation reserves, and the alternative science which is finding the possum to be far more numerous, resilient, and increasingly detected in places where it had never been expected to be found. Accordingly, Four Corners’ omission of such inconvenient context is strongly suggestive of a failure to comply with its ethical responsibility for accurate and balanced reporting, presumably to enable it to present a sensational, but grossly exaggerated version of the extinction threat posed by native forest timber production.

My personal experience as an interviewee for the program also provides important insights into Four Corners’ determination to push pre-conceived favoured agendas. Although my hour-long interview included a lot of relevant questions about the issues at hand, other questions seemed specifically designed to undermine my credibility, such as, “You have been described as a timber industry radical, how do you respond to that?” and “Mark, you are a member of the Institute of Public Affairs…”; and, “So Mark, [a particular conservation research academic] is an Order of Australia and is about to receive another international award. He has published hundreds of research papers and worked in these forests for over 30 years. What have you done?”

Clearly, being a professional forester with a varied 40-year career, including writing two books examining the enduring conflict over native forests, meant far less to Four Corners than being an ecological researcher. As I am not a member of the Institute of Public Affairs, I was able to shut-down that particular question before it went any further, but it was clearly an attempt to demonise me by association with an organisation which the ABC’s largely left-leaning audience perceive to be a ‘right-wing think tank’. The attempt to diminish my standing against that of a highly credentialled research academic was based on the flawed premise that foresters who deal daily with broadscale land management responsibility are comparable to scientific researchers who periodically visit forests to monitor plots, but are often oblivious to forestry concepts, plans and practices. Indeed, the body of research authored by the eminent academic in question suggests a complete lack of appreciation that most of the forests he is studying will never be harvested for timber.

One can appreciate that ambushing interviewees with countervailing views can elicit uncertain, incoherent, or angry responses and can thereby create a point of difference against the program’s favoured interviewees who, we can pretty safely presume, get tame interviews. However, while such an aggressive interviewing approach may in some instances expose activities that are contrary to the public interest, its pre-conceived presumption of government or industry wrong-doing is more likely to unfairly malign legitimate and sensible views based on the informed perspectives of those who should know the most through living or working daily within and around the issues being investigated.

Seemingly from the ABC’s perspective, an additional benefit of this biased approach to investigative journalism is that Four Corners creates a supposedly ‘credible’ platform to further advance eco-political lobbying. Recent experience suggests that this can effectively bully governments into making decisions that may lead to unintended consequences or tragic outcomes based on false or misleading pretences that are counter to the national interest. For example, in this case, substantial job losses and a weakened capacity to manage forest fire based on the false pretence that renewable and sustainable timber production occurring in a minor portion of our forests will cause wildlife extinctions.

At least on the evidence of its treatment of forestry over a long period, Four Corners does not deserve its standing as the benchmark for television current affairs. Its propensity for selectively manipulating or ignoring evidence to skew its programs to promote favoured causes has grossly distorted the public record, and one can only presume this also occurs with other environmental issues of which I am less familiar. There is clearly a reason why activist groups invite Four Corners to investigate their causes, and it has little to do with proper investigative journalism.

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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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