Internal ABC emails show that a skittish senior management was at least as much to blame as the politically stacked ABC Board for the decision not to publish Chris Masters’s Jonestown.

The emails have been released in response to a Freedom of Information request I sent last July, shortly after the controversy over Jonestown broke. The ABC has refused access to a great deal, of which more later, but has released extracts of email exchanges.

The ABC’s chief operating officer, David Pendleton, was sending emails about “Chris Masters’ book and future legal costs” two weeks before the crucial Board meeting at which the decision not to publish was made. This was after the ABC’s head of legal, Stephen Collins, had, (in time honoured public service fashion), “referred it upwards”.

I am reliably informed that neither Pendleton nor Collins had actually read the book. Just to remind readers, Chris Masters’s Jonestown is an investigative biography of broadcaster Alan Jones. It was to be published by the ABC, but on 29 June this year, Robyn Watts suddenly announced immediately following an ABC Board meeting that for “commercial reasons” the book would not be published. The next Monday Media Watch firmly pointed the finger at the Board.

Masters, initially devastated, was soon besieged by publishers, and has now signed a deal with Allen and Unwin, who have said they will publish before the end of year. Bookshops are saying they expect to see the book as soon as next month, and it is widely anticipated as “the book of the year”.

Thanks to blanked out sections, the story revealed by the emails remains cryptic. The trail begins in September 2004, when Robyn Watts tells the head of ABC books Stuart Neal that legal costs on the book – a bill from Clayton Utz — are already higher than indicated.

In April 2005 Neal tells Watts that the final draft would be complete “for the last stage of legal scrutiny” in mid to late June, with publication expected in the second half of the year. It wasn’t to be. In December Neal is still waiting on a report from the ABC in-house lawyers, including Stephen Collins. He draws Watts’s attention to the fact that defamation laws are about to change.

“This change effectively removes the current requirement of public interest or public benefit and this has direct bearing on this project.”

On 20 December, Neal tells Watts that he has the advice from ABC legal, and he wants to discuss it. It obviously wasn’t a clean bill of health, because the next email informs her that Terry Tobin QC has been engaged to provide advice.

Nothing moves fast. In March 2006 there is an alarmed email from Watts in which she says: “Stuart I understand from Stephen Collins today that one of his lawyers has advised him that the printing and production process has begun on this book…Please confirm that the printing and production process has not begun”

The next day Watts tells Neal she is reading the book – apparently for the first time. I understand she never completed it. Then on 19 March there is a cryptic and largely blacked out exchange between Watts and Neal, which includes Watts writing on a Sunday afternoon “Stuart, thanks for this. I understand where you are coming from here. Stephen also referred it upwards as well so there is chatter all round.” Watts also asks Neal for the costs that have been incurred to date on the book.

“Referring upwards” for Stephen Collins can only have meant involving either Pendleton or Balding. Sure enough, David Pendleton becomes involved. On 10 June he asks Watts for advice on “the status of the Masters book”. She replies, in part, “Enterprises cannot publish the book without the book being appropriately legalled, and a view then taken on whether or not it is publishable.”

By 15 June – two weeks before the crucial board meeting – the subject of the email messages from Pendleton to Watts has become “Chris Masters’ book and future legal costs”.

On 23 June, Watts tells Pendleton that she is “working through the business case” – this is obviously in preparation for a report to the board.

I understand that that report argued a strong business case for publishing the book, but deferred the final decision because the report from Terry Tobin QC had not yet been received. At this stage ABC Enterprises had a verbal opinion from Tobin that the book was publishable. The written report was never received, because the Board effectively kyboshed the whole thing.

The ABC has claimed a range of exemptions for other material included in my FoI request, including a board information paper and a memorandum outlining reasons for the decision and a suggested press release, as well as much of the email exchanges.

The exemptions claimed include assertions that release would adversely affect ABC’s operations by breaching confidentiality with “creative talent, such as writers”, and that release would found an action by breach of confidence.

But I understand that Masters, who was consulted about the release, did not object and that other key players have not been consulted at all, but would not object to release.

Crikey will be appealing.

Peter Fray

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