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Australian Story‘s sainthood problem: inside the ABC ‘cult’

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 Story told 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.”

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  • 1
    Cuppa
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    “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.

    Many of us are still waiting for Four Corners to investigate the Ashbygate affair - the conspiracy to bring down the Federal government. 4C has received many requests to investigate this scandal, but for reasons they have not made public, still refuse.

    Independent Australia has done a sterling series of articles. If IA can do it on funding from mostly volunteers, why cannot our publicly-funded supposedly independent national broadcaster?

    http://www.independentaustralia.net/ashbygate/

  • 2
    Peter Wildblood
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I agree with much of what Matthew says: Australian Story is substantially “soft” on its subject matter though this is only of real significance when the subject is controversial in some way; in other words when “both sides of the story need to be shown. With JH’s caveat this appears to be the the basis of Carlton angry response.

    That said, though a regular viewer, I have long been critical of some of the AS’s coverage. Some years ago I was incensed at the way they dealt with GG Hollingsworth. This was far from a soft piece. In fact it was I suspect the “straw that broke the polity’s back” as it showed what a bumbling dissembling idiot he was.

    I was cranky about it not because I disagreed with its political impact (far from it, Hollingsworth was well past his used by date at that point if he ever had one), but because I thought it was far too “political” a piece in the context of the Australian Story.

  • 3
    JosieK
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    If that’s the purpose of Australian Story program, then so be it. But then why interview Mike Carlton in the first place? Or, if the producers did not anticipate his strongly negative views about Hadley, they should (a) get better researchers and (b) take into account the content of the interview and ditch it in total rather than include parts of it in a manner that they must have realised was not reflective of the Carlton’s intent.

  • 4
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with a lot of this. I just don’t watch it anymore as it really is little more than a PR job most of the time. I haven’t seen a program lately on anyone who hasn’t ever been in media in some capacity. It seems like if there isn’t footage to show the story isn’t worth telling. It’s like spending an hour staring at a motivational poster. Even Dolphins in sunsets can make you gag after prolonged exposure.

  • 5
    Aphra
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Although I don’t often watch Australian Story these days I wonder why Carlton agreed to participate in the program - surely he knew, as did I, that it would present Hadley as a ‘hail fellow, well met’ sort of guy. He’s a deliberate troublemaker and a divisive loudmouth and I’m blowed if I know why he was a subject and his program needed promoting, anyway. Was it to show us how low,as a community, we’ve sunk?

    And Australian Story was unfair to Black Caviar!

  • 6
    Pusscat
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely 100% agree with Cuppa and IA re Ashbygate. Finding out that Carlton agrees with everybody else about Hadley is for me a somewhat less urgent information need.

    But of course, in fact, we all now know about his compelling and original critique because Carlton, just ilke Hadley, is a Media Personality.
    Wow, temple of hate, that’s SO marvellous! Never hear anything remotely as stunning as that from anyone on internet threads!
    Poor Mike! How outraged he must have felt, to have to go to the trouble of picking up a phone so that we all wouldn’t miss this groundbreaking verbal virtuosity.

    Personally, wouldn’t be fazed if all of AS joined Mike on the cutting-room floor.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    FULSOME, in the original meaning.

  • 8
    Jendy
    Posted Thursday, 23 May 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I decided to watch the Hadley episode with an open mind, but soon felt that he was manipulating the audience to get a warm fuzzy feel for him. When he started shedding tears about his father’s sudden death many years ago I thought he was using his father’s early death to win sympathy.

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