From time to time, ABC journalists are targeted by hostile governments. Usually the staff, who adhere to strict editorial guidelines, are supported by management. But when 4Cs reporter Andrew Fowler’s “Party Tricks” episode aired in July 2001 he and his team did not expect the harassment they experienced from an irascible ABC managing director.
By Andrew Fowler / 11 August 2021
The Four Corners 40th birthday party in 2001. Plenty of self-congratulations. Everyone seemed pleased with the year. Everyone that is except Jonathan Shier, the Managing Director – an important omission. For Shier also held the crucially important role of editor-in-chief.
Shier it must be pointed out had no experience in journalism, but he had other qualities. He was a former Young Liberals state president and federal government staffer. Shier it is now accepted, had been given the job at the ABC, in part, to fire journalists deemed out of favour with John Howard’s Liberal Government.
A few weeks before Four Corners’ 40th, with a federal election in the offing, I’d reported a program titled “Party Tricks”. It detailed the lengths that senior Liberals would go to blacken the Opposition by attacking the business activities of former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating.
As the drink flowed late into the night, Shier bailed up the program producer Quentin McDermott. “Party Tricks” had been a “boring” program, Shier told him. McDermott was “stupid” he said.McDermott recalled that Shier’s “tone was abrasive, his attitude aggressive, and he was clearly stung by the fact that my own attitude to him was not deferential.”
As he continued his verbal assault, claiming erroneously that the program had been changed substantially after he delayed it from being broadcast, Shier appeared blissfully unaware that the then Media reporter for The Australian, Amanda Meade, was recording every word. Meade’s story made quite a splash the next day. Shier clearly hadn’t paid attention to an important element of the story he’d tried to stop.
As part of the program, we’d used hidden cameras to secretly record senior Liberals, including Howard’s Cabinet secretary Senator Bill Heffernan at a clandestine meeting. Working with McDermott and colleague Peter Cronau, we had gathered damning evidence of a Liberal Party dirty tricks operation.
Shier, who had beaten highly qualified opposition to be appointed by an ABC board chaired by Howard friend, Donald McDonald, tried desperately to get the program pulled. Even after it was cleared by both the ABC’s in-house lawyers and an external barrister, Shier brought in another QC for a legal opinion. He too gave the program the green light.
When “Party Tricks” eventually aired it exposed the depths the Liberal Party would plumb to tarnish Keating, a Labor icon, but just as importantly it brought into sharp focus significant bullying and harrying by a hostile government determined to silence journalism that holds it to account. Not much has changed.
As well as working on Four Corners for more than 10 years, Andrew Fowler was Head of ABC’s Investigative Unit (2002-2007). He is the author of three major books on media freedom: Shooting the Messenger: Criminalising journalism (Routledge 2018), The War on Journalism: Media moguls, whistleblowers and the price of freedom (Random House 2015), and The Most Dangerous Man in The World: Julian Assange and Wikileaks fight for freedom (MUP 2011, 2012, 2020).