And so it has come to this. A
commercial loss is considered “irresponsible” for the national
broadcaster, but failing to publish important journalism is not.

Chris
Masters sounded completely gutted when I rang him last night a few
hours after the announcement that the ABC will not be publishing his
unauthorised biography of Alan Jones. Masters has been working on the
book for the last four years, and it was widely expected to be
earth-shattering.

Look here for what Masters has had to say on the correspondence between David Flint and Alan Jones. And here
for his earlier tangles with then ABC board member Michael Kroger over
Jones. None of this, I gather, came close to being the most
controversial material.

Masters has been roughly dealt with by
the ABC. He was told that the book wouldn’t be published only hours
before the head of ABC Enterprises, Robyn Watts, issued a press release
announcing it to the world. Watts said
the decision had been made on “purely commercial grounds”. ABC
Enterprises has a “clear responsibility to deliver a commercial return
to the ABC. To proceed with publication will almost certainly result in
a commercial loss which would be irresponsible.”

It is clear
that the commercial grounds are really fear of the money that would be
spent if Jones sued. Masters said he believed a threatening legal
letter sent by Alan Jones in the last two weeks had helped to sway the
decision. This was even though the ABC lawyers had described the letter
as “puerile”. Masters said there was nothing in the letter that rattled
him, but ABC Enterprises is obviously more easily spooked.

Masters
said his understanding of the ABC’s legal advice was that the book was
“defensible”. As well, an editor’s report had described it as a
potentially award-winning book, and an important work. “They are not so
worried about losing in court. They are just worried Jones would make
them spend a lot of money on lawyers,” he said.

He said the ABC
had asked a great deal of him, and he had been working hard answering
lawyers’ questions for months on end. “It was ABC Enterprises who first
asked me to write the book,” he said “There were layers and layers of
very very hard work, and I answered every question that was put to me,”
he said.

And so the task of publishing important investigative
journalism is left to the private sector. Masters said Watts told him
he was free to offer the manuscript to other publishers. Let us hope
that one snatches the book up so that we can all see what it is that
Alan Jones doesn’t want us to know. Let us also hope that it becomes a
bestseller, so that Masters gets at least some reward for his efforts.

We
can only hope and pray that at the heart of Aunty there are still
people who are willing and able to run the gauntlet of legal threats to
make sure important journalism is broadcast.

But this decision
shakes my faith, and must also damage the ABC’s self image. Chris
Masters is one of the most respected, and was once one of the most
feared, investigative journalists in the country. Where does such a man
go to work if the ABC can’t publish him?

Peter Fray

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