The ABC has accused the Morrison government of using News Corp to attack its journalism after the Australian was briefed about a series of government questions for the broadcaster before the ABC received them.
On the front page of the Australian on Wednesday, investigations editor Sharri Markson reported that the ABC “is facing questions from the Morrison government” over the use of private investigators for its Four Corners report on inappropriate behaviour by ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.
But the ABC had not received any questions by Wednesday morning.
“These questions have not yet been received by the ABC; they appear to have been sent to the Australian first,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
“The ABC did receive some questions yesterday from the Australian’s Sharri Markson, which we answered in full.
“This exchange has resulted in a page one ‘Exclusive’ story in the Australian today headlined: ‘Did the ABC have ministers tailed?’
“We reiterate the answer we have already provided to this question.
The government has escalated its row with the ABC by asking the public broadcaster to confirm Attorney-General Christian Porter or Immigration Minister Alan Tudge were not the subject to surveillance as part of a Four Corners investigation https://t.co/qRRP7QXyMV @SharriMarkson pic.twitter.com/WWw1loMepK
— Kylar Loussikian (@kloussikian) December 2, 2020
The report in the Australian follows the publication on Twitter on Tuesday of a letter from communications minister Paul Fletcher in which he asked the ABC chair, Ita Buttrose, if the Four Corners program met the standards of accurate and impartial journalism.
The letter and the leak to the Australian have escalated the war the government is waging on the Four Corners program, which began before the story aired last month.
Hours before the program aired, ABC managing director David Anderson told Senate estimates Buttrose had contacted him to say a ministerial staffer had contacted another member of the ABC board to “alert them this story was coming”.
“What I’ve had are questions as to whether it’s in the public interest,” Anderson told Senate estimates when he was asked to justify the story before it aired.
Anderson said it was extraordinary that the Coalition was attacking a program it hadn’t yet seen.
Fletcher admitted on ABC radio on Tuesday that his “senior broadcasting adviser” contacted a member of the ABC board to discuss the Four Corners program before it aired. When asked by the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas if the staffer called to “essentially lobby” the board member, Fletcher said there was nothing “irregular” about his office talking “very regularly” to the ABC and to other media organisations.
Guardian Australia can reveal the broadcasting adviser was Emma McDonald, a former ABC staffer who moved to the minister’s office after a stint as the ABC’s head of public affairs last year.
A spokesman for Fletcher declined to comment.
Markson wrote that Four Corners had been asked “whether a private investigator conducted covert surveillance on senior ministers at taxpayer expense during the compilation of its report exposing the private lives of politicians”.
“The government has escalated its row with the ABC over the controversial Four Corners program by asking ABC managing director David Anderson to investigate if Attorney-General Christian Porter or Cities Minister Alan Tudge were subject to surveillance – or any other private investigation – including that paid for by a third party,” the Australian reported.
“‘Can the ABC confirm that neither minister featured in the program was monitored, secretly recorded or the subject of any other form of surveillance’, the questions read.”
Despite the ABC telling the Australian on Tuesday it did not use private investigators and no one was tailed, the newspaper published the speculative story “ABC asked: did you have ministers tailed for Four Corners report?” on the front page.
The executive producer of Four Corners, Sally Neighbour, described the story as “arrant, scurrilous nonsense”.
This story is arrant, scurrilous nonsense. Here are my answers to @SharriMarkson’s questions, which she avoided reporting in full:
Q:Did 4Corners use the services of private investigators for its Inside the Canberra Bubble story on Nov9?
— Sally Neighbour (@neighbour_s) December 1, 2020
“We invite the public to watch the story and decide for themselves on the import of the issues it raises,” the ABC said.
“The ABC stands by its journalistic independence and right to report without fear or favour on matters Australians have a right to know about.”
(1/2) News Corp’s The Australian has today published a series of questions it says are being put by “the government” to the ABC’s Managing Director, David Anderson, regarding the Four Corners episode “Inside the Canberra Bubble“. https://t.co/u2FKXSIcrY
— 4corners (@4corners) December 1, 2020
Markson reported that “new questions” were lodged on Tuesday night by Liberal senator Sarah Henderson, but the Senate committee told the ABC it had not received them yet.
A spokesman for the communications committee said on Wednesday the questions on notice from Henderson had now been received but declined to say when. They have not been published yet.
Porter refused to accept the ABC’s denial it had used a private investigator, telling Radio 6PR he would wait until the broadcaster had answered Henderson’s questions on notice.
“Well, I think if something extraordinary happened, like an agency or body engaging a private investigator to follow you around, the whole purpose of it is you wouldn’t notice,” Porter told his home town radio station.
“I just wouldn’t know that. But look, I understand some quite detailed questions have been asked in a usual process of agency heads in the Senate. I think they were different from the questions that we’ll put to the ABC from The Australian. I’d obviously be pretty interested to see what the answers to those questions are in due course. But how would you know?”