Another day hitting the telephones to tap into ABC gossip and strife, and a few more facts emerge.

First fact: It is not true that the ABC indemnified Chris Masters against defamation action, as was suggested by Gerard Henderson on Lateline
on Tuesday night. As many people involved in writing and publishing
will know, the standard publisher’s contract contains a clause
stipulating exactly the reverse: the author indemnifies the publisher.
Most publishers don’t activate these clauses when the writs fly, but
they can cause an author some sleepless nights, as I can testify from
personal experience. In Chris Masters’s case there were apparently some
alterations from the standard contract but he was not indemnified
against defamation action.

Second fact: A ring around a
few people who have been involved in ABC Enterprises in the past and
present confirms that they have never before heard the argument
presented in acting managing director Murray Green’s letter explaining
the Jonestown decision. Green wrote: “ABC Enterprises is quite
different in its means of operation from the publicly funded content in
the rest of the ABC.” This is the first anyone has heard of it. As one
former executive argued, ABC Enterprises is an adjunct of the ABC
rather than a separate business. Its role is to give extra life to ABC
products, as well as earn money. Without the support provided in the
fields of accounting, advertising, content rights and so forth ABC
Enterprises would probably not be viable.

Nevertheless it is
clear that part of the background to the present controversy is the
awkwardness involved in having a commercial arm alongside a publicly
subsidised broadcaster. This puts the ABC in a bit of a cleft stick. No
government in the foreseeable future is likely to fund the ABC at the
level it needs, let alone wants. It must raise money by other means.
But any such attempt is likely to be fraught with conflict and

Nevertheless the public is surely entitled to
believe that a book of investigative journalism by a leading ABC
journalist and carrying the ABC’s brand has been brought out under the
same “means of operation” as any other piece of ABC journalism.

Third fact: In
the opinion of three defamation lawyers, an allegation that someone is
homosexual is probably no longer defamatory, unless other factors are
involved (such as adultery).

Fourth fact: Murray Green’s
claim that “unrecoverable post-publication legal expenses could amount
to several hundred thousand dollars” is regarded as a bit over the
odds, or as one lawyer put it, “a colourful estimate”. But it is not
out of the question if there was a long-running and bitterly fought
defamation action. How likely is that? Nobody knows, because they
haven’t read the book.

Peter Fray

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