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

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 11 July 2019


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?”

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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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