Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope interview with Mark Latham finally got to air at 10.30pm last night in place of the scheduled Lateline program,
which was planning to air its own “exclusive” Latham interview. And
therein hangs an interesting tale – of an ambush interview by an ABC
News and Current Affairs heavyweight, and of duplicity by the former
Opposition Leader.

While News Ltd was trying to secure an injunction to prevent Enough Rope and then Lateline from going to air, the real story was that Latham himself had done the dirty on Enough Rope and recorded an interview with Lateline’s Tony Jones, without telling either the Denton program or his publisher, Melbourne University Press.

The
stitch-up has also exposed the gulf between the dominant News and
Current Affairs division of the ABC – its single biggest consumer of
funds each year – and the rest of ABC TV. Lateline is a NewsCaf program, Enough Rope is an program commissioned by the now departed head of TV Sandra Levy, who stood up to the NewsCaf division.

Lateline and NewsCaf people are naturally furious that Enough Rope’s interview supplanted Lateline, and claim they weren’t bound by any agreement with MUP.

On
ABC Radio in Sydney this morning, ABC managing director Russell Balding
explained the background to last night’s legal stoush with the precious
folk at News Ltd, and said that the Denton interview would be repeated
on Monday night when it was due to go to air at 9.30pm. He was
non-committal when asked about when the Lateline program would go to air, but AM this morning ran excerpts from the Tony Jones interview and stated that the Lateline interview would go to air tonight.

So what happened? Around the 3pm yesterday ABC News and Current Affairs and other parts of the broadcaster became aware that Lateline intended to broadcast an interview last night recorded with Tony Jones at Latham’s South Western Sydney home.

Denton’s
program heard about this, contacted ABC programming and were given
permission to broadcast their program at 8.30pm last night. Audio grabs
from the interview were offered and distributed to ABC News and rival
TV networks and radio stations. Tony Jones appeared in a panel
discussion on ABC 702 in Sydney at 5.30pm discussing what he had
recorded with Latham. He indicated in comments with Richard Glover that
he had been talking to Latham for some time and had visited his home in
southwest Sydney.

Jones never referred to the exclusive
arrangement Latham’s publisher had with Denton’s program, or to Latham
doing a deal with him which breached his agreement with MUP, Denton and
News Ltd. To do so would have confirmed that Latham broke his word,
thereby undermining the credibility of the interview and the book. The
irony is that Latham’s deal with Lateline was the sort of untrustworthy action that he spends time in his diaries attacking the media for.

After the Glover segment and PM which
followed it, News Ltd became concerned that its exclusive publication
of excerpts from the diaries and a major interview with Latham
scheduled for publication today would be jeopardised. So at around 7pm
News went to the NSW Supreme Court, which granted an ex parte
injunction at about 8.15pm that prevented Enough Rope’s interview going to air. News Ltd also added Lateline to the action.

But
the ABC’s general legal counsel, Stephen Collins, who had sat in on the
Denton interview with Latham, was also in court arguing for Enough Rope, and
he continued to make submissions to Justice Harry Palmer, pointing out
that what was discussed in the interview was little different to the
many stories that appeared in the News Ltd papers around Australia
yesterday: stories that flowed from competition between News Ltd papers
and editors who sought to gazump The Australian’s exclusive deal with MUP and the Denton program.

After considering these submissions, Justice Palmer dissolved the injunction just after 10pm, allowing Enough Rope to go to air in place of Lateline. That decision by ABC management further upset Lateline,
Tony Jones and NewsCaf figures, who naturally wanted their interview to
go first. Andrew Denton is understood to have argued strongly in favour
of his interview being put to air – and he prevailed.

What’s
interesting in all this is the role of News Ltd in obtaining an
ex-parte injunction. After all, the media doesn’t like it when someone
tries to injunct them and News Ltd has resisted these sorts of legal
actions in the past. And because it couldn’t do anything about the
actions of the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, The Australian and its boss, editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, decided to try and stop the broadcast of the two ABC interviews.

And
perhaps it does confirm the comment Latham quotes in his book from News
Ltd heavyweight Paul Kelly – that News Ltd executive chairman John
Hartigan and former boss Lachlan Murdoch were unimpressive operators.
And while the News Ltd website reported the news of the ABC’s victory
in a report from ABC, it didn’t mention this statement issued earlier in the evening by Paul Whittaker, The Australian’s chief of staff. On the ABC website, the night’s events were explained a bit differently:

Justice Harry Palmer initially granted the application, forcing Enough Rope to abandon its planned airing at 8:30pm AEST.

After a further hearing, the judge dissolved the injunction against Enough Rope and Lateline.

The
judge said the publication of large parts of the book in News Limited
newspapers largely destroyed the value of the material.

News Limited is still planning to publish large parts of the book.

In
a brief statement released earlier tonight, News Ltd said Justice
Palmer handed down the ex parte interim injunction in the equity
division of the NSW Supreme Court.

Justice Palmer’s ruling
prohibits the ABC from broadcasting any program featuring an interview
with Mark Latham or any extract therefrom the subject of the Latham
diaries until 4pm on Monday, the 19th of September,” the statement said.

It was authorised by Paul Whittaker, the national chief of staff of The Australian newspaper.

Peter Fray

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