The popular ABC show is a ratings winner and counters the nastiness that dominates other current affairs programming. But has Aunty gone too far to give its subjects a golden glow?
The ABC’s Australian Story prides itself on avoiding the cliches of current affairs television: the camera-hogging presenter, the overblown scripting, the predictably pugnacious interviews. It’s after something gentler and more meaningful. A program that allows the subject to tell their story in their own words, that allows the viewers to feel, not just to learn.
Australian Story was born in 1996 — the product of both grand ambition and pragmatic compromise. The ABC’s then head of news and current affairs, Paul Williams, was angling to axe the state-based 7.30 Reports in favour of a national program. Australian Story — to be produced out of Brisbane and profiling Australians from across the country, not just the major cities — would help placate concerns about a loss of regional voices. This was also the Frontline era, a time of heightened cynicism about the accuracy and ethics of current affairs TV.
The idea of Australian Story was radical then — and remains so 17 years later. The program has won a swag of Walkley Awards and is a standout ratings performer, regularly pulling in over 1 million viewers on a Monday night. Yet controversy remains embedded in its DNA.
Some journalists within the ABC, particularly in harder-hitting current affairs programs, have long disdained the program for the way it surrenders itself to its subjects. An axe-murder, so the joke goes, could emerge from an Australian Story profile looking like a saint.
Some ABC journos even describe the program as a “cult” — a characterisation emphasised by its traditional distance from the ABC’s Sydney and Melbourne HQs, the lack of staff turnover and its sensitivity to criticism. Deborah Fleming, the show’s executive producer, has been in charge since day one (but is now based in Sydney). Despite ongoing debate about shifting it elsewhere, the program remains part of Aunty’s news and current affairs division.
“There’s always been debate about the Australian Story methodology,” said one experienced ABC current affairs journalist. “There are people who mutter, ‘There goes Australian Story again — it’s all violins.”
“When it ventures into contentious territory,” said another Aunty veteran, “it becomes a program of advocacy.”
Australian Story’s modus operandi is again under the microscope because of Monday night’s profile on 2GB radio star Ray Hadley. The program — which featured extensive interviews with Hadley and his wife, Suzanne — charted Hadley’s rise from a Sydney housing commission estate to become one of the most influential broadcasters in the country. Fairfax columnist Mike Carlton, a former colleague of Hadley’s at Sydney station 2UE, was interviewed for the program and is outraged by the result.
As Crikey reported yesterday, Carlton plans to lodge a formal complaint with the ABC on the grounds the program was biased and that his interviews were taken out of context. “By selectively and deceptively editing me, they recruited me into his fan club,” Carlton said. Among the harsh comments that never made it onto air was a Carlton broadside that Hadley’s program is a “temple of hatred” and that he regurgitates The Daily Telegraph each day.
Carlton says there is no doubt the Australian Story team “do some terrific shows, but at times, and increasingly, they descend into hagiography. They get the access they do — and sometimes it’s remarkable access — by not going in hard … What I said was cut out because it didn’t fit the predetermined view of the show.”
“The job of an Australian Story producer is to eliminate distance, to get as close as possible to the subject, and to help them tell their story, from their perspective.”
It wasn’t only Carlton who was peeved by Monday night’s episode. The Australian Story Twitter feed was full of complaints, with one wag joking:
“Next week on Australian Story: At home with Radovan Karadzic. He seems much less a war criminal when you share a meat pie with him.”
Past programs on Pauline Hanson, Mark “Chopper” Read and former state Queensland MP Merri Rose, who was jailed for attempted blackmail, have attracted similar accusations of sugar-coating. It’s worth noting the Australian Story treatment tends to attract more criticism when divisive and politically-contentious figures such as Hadley are profiled.
A spokesperson for Australian Storytold Crikey yesterday the program rejects Carlton’s claims of selective editing and says the program team stands by Monday’s episode:
“Australian Story seeks to shed light on complex individuals. The program’s style and approach has always been confessional not adversarial. Its remit has never been ‘hang em high’ journalism.”
Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says one could only judge whether Carlton’s interview was misused by examining the full tape. But he won’t bag Australian Story of being too friendly to Hadley.
“I don’t think anyone expects antagonistic or critical profiles from Australian Story — it’s not what they do,” Holmes told Crikey. “It gets its access because it doesn’t do an adversarial job, it offers the subject the chance to tell their side of the story. And they get things out of people that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.”
The program certainly has an enviable record of breaking stories. And they’re not always flattering to its subject — despite jibes that every ambitious politician’s dream phone call is an offer of an Australian Story profile. Then governor-general Peter Hollingworth sparked outrage when, in a 2002 profile, he disputed whether a priest having s-x with a 14-year-old girl counted as abuse. And Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to let Australian Story follow him around Canberra in 2009 backfired when filming coincided with the “utegate” scandal. Turnbull’s media adviser quit after Australian Story showed him googling the word “concocted”.
Holmes, however, criticises Australian Story for venturing beyond human interest stories into trickier terrain, such as challenging jury verdicts. Media Watch — under different hosts — has attacked the program for giving convicted criminals and their supporters a platform to campaign for retrials. A profile of Robert Farquharson — who was convicted of murdering his three sons by driving them into a dam — came in for especially harsh criticism.
“I get wary when they dress themselves up as investigative journalists,” Holmes said. “Where a more forensic approach is needed, where you have a mass of evidence, or two very clear sides to a complex debate (like a court case), I don’t think the Australian Story format is a suitable vehicle.”
Despite Carlton’s belief the program has “lost its mojo”, Australian Story seems destined to remain one of the most cherished — and controversial — jewels in the ABC’s crown.
“The job of a Four Corners reporter is to interrogate a story, to keep his or her distance from the players, to get as near as possible to the objective truth,” Holmes said. “The job of an Australian Story producer is to eliminate distance, to get as close as possible to the subject, and to help them tell their story, from their perspective. The two approaches are fundamentally different. As long as the viewer, and the program makers, realise that, there is value in both approaches.”