Chris Masters’s book on Alan Jones
will be published, and probably very soon. Today the ABC’s leading
investigative journalist will be sitting down to consider the several
firm offers and many expressions of interest he has had from
Australia’s publishers.

One of the several publishers who have
seen the manuscript describes it as “a not hostile, but very damaging
portrait” of Jones and a “very important book about the intersection of
media, business and government, with a tragic human story in the
middle.” The feeling from publishers is that one ends the 170,000 word
manuscript feeling almost sorry for Alan Jones. They are unanimous in
their praise for the book.

So Masters’s book will be published,
and sell well, and Alan Jones will have to consider whether he really
wants its central allegations aired in open court with the nation’s
media reporting.

But just as significant as the book is what recent events say about the ABC.

Who
made the decision not to publish? I can confidently say that it was not
the head of ABC Books, Stuart Neal, who is said by several of his
publisher mates to be despondent and disillusioned by what has happened.

Suspicion
obviously circulates around the ABC Board, given its newly stacked
political complexion, and the fact that it called for a report on the
book shortly before the decision was made. My sources suggest suspicion
about the ABC Board is misplaced. Senior ABC management, and
particularly the bean counters, seem to have stuffed this one up all by
themselves.

On any measure it has been a stupid decision. Not
only is it incredibly damaging to the ABC’s reputation and self image,
but it has also wasted the most difficult and expensive part of
bringing a controversial book to print, and thrown an important
property to the commercial world.

Certainly if there was
political interference it has been incredibly cack-handed, since it has
only served to publicise and boost the book.

Nevertheless the
decision-making process must be checked out, and today Crikey will
lodge a Freedom of information request for the report on the book that
went to the Board, and other documents relating to the decision-making
process. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile more details have
emerged about the events leading up to the ABC’s decision. Alan Jones
first sent a threatening letter last December, in response to an
approach by Masters to him for comment. That wasn’t enough, apparently,
to put the kybosh on the project at that stage.

The second
letter followed a series of events which cries out for further
explanation. The external QC employed by the ABC to review the
manuscript had asked Masters to obtain a number of witness statements
from his key sources. Somehow Alan Jones got a copy of one of those
witness statements. This prompted the second threatening letter from
Jones that immediately preceded the decision not to publish.

Masters says the threatening letter was nothing unusual, and nothing to worry about. The witness concerned has not recanted.

Masters
says: “I am not a bit scared of Alan Jones because through writing this
book I have actually come to know him quite well, and he’s just a
bully. You can quote me on that.”

One publisher described ABC
Enterprises’ claim that the book was not commercial as “risible”, but
others made the point that probably only the ABC could have done the
work necessary to get the book to this point. The way the national
broadcaster structures its legal budgeting is different to that of
commercial publishers, who have to set legal costs against the bottom
line title by title rather than spreading them over the organisation as
a whole. Now commercial publishers will benefit from all that legal
work done at taxpayers’ expense.

Meanwhile Masters says: “I have
to thank God for publishers. My problem is I can only publish with one
publisher. I am going to have to disappoint a few very good people.”

Peter Fray

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