Senior ABC management was moving to kill off Chris Masters’ Jonestown book as early as 2004, even before the text was finalised, documents released to Crikey under Freedom of Information have revealed.

The documents suggest that the push to kill the book was initiated not by the politically-stacked ABC Board, but by the Chief Operating Officer, David Pendleton. He was putting pressure on the head of ABC Enterprises, Robyn Watts, as early as mid 2004.

When the Board made the decision not to publish in June this year it seemed to come in a hurry. Conspiracy theorists suggested the rush was due to the Board wanting to take advantage of the fact that the organisation lacked a Managing Director who might have resisted political interference.

But the picture that emerges from the documents is of a Board prodded into action by a conservative management more worried about the bottom line than whether or not the book deserved to be published by the ABC.

The Masters book, now published by Allen and Unwin, was the subject of a fierce bidding war by commercial publishers after the ABC dumped it, and is now rivalling Harry Potter on the best-seller lists.

Nevertheless the ABC was thinking of dumping the book late last year. On 6 December Watts asked the head of ABC Books, Stuart Neal, whether an agreement was in place to allow Masters to seek another publisher. Neal, obviously surprised, replied: “I am not sure I understand what this means.”

Watts responded: “I thought there had already begun discussions with him to put in place a mechanism in case they (sic) ABC did not want to publish. I am not wanting to pre-empt any outcome of the legalling process but I do want to prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario. I do not expect you to start up discussions again with Chris at this point on this issue. I wanted to see if you had reached some agreement some time back.”

Neal replied the subject had been “canvassed in general terms with Chris” but that no agreement was in place.

Last Friday, Masters told Crikey that he thought this was wrong: the decision by the ABC not to publish had come as a complete shock to him. He had never contemplated publishing elsewhere until the ABC kyboshed the book.

By the stage Watts wrote this e-mail to Neal she had been under pressure from Pendleton for at least six months. On 10 June 2004 David Pendleton wrote to her asking for a report on the status of the Masters book. “Is Enterprises of the view that this publication is commercially viable and do you wish to incur further legal cost on the book at this stage?…Your urgent advice is required on this matter.”

A few days later he wrote to Watts: “This is a commercial decision for Enterprises to make. You must look at this from a whole of ABC point of view forgetting about whose budget pays for what. Is this book commercially viable for the ABC?”

There was further discussion about the “business case” for the book, and which section of the ABC would pay legal costs. At this stage, the legalling was said to be “on hold” because of the high costs. There was also concern about who owned the copyright in the book – Masters or the ABC.

Nevertheless, legalling proceeded with outside counsel being brought in.

In March 2006, there was a flurry of panic because the head ABC lawyer, Stephen Collins, had apparently been told the book was being printed, although it hadn’t yet been approved. Neal assured Watts that the printing had not begun, but Watts wrote back, perhaps gloomily, that Collins had already “referred it upwards as well, so there is chatter all round.”

Referring upwards, for Collins, could only mean the Board or the Managing Director, Russell Balding.

Sure enough, the Board apparently discussed the book together with a legal report at its meeting on 25 May, and the day after this Watts asked Neal to draft an Information Paper covering a list of topics.

The ABC has refused to release this list, but it seems it covered everything except what the book was about. As an afterthought Watts asked that the report should also address “what the book is about: themes etc”.

The resulting information paper, leaked to Media Watch last July, supported publication. It was presented to the Board on 29 June, after which the decision was made not to publish. The final written legal opinion on the book – understood to be favourable – had not been received at the time.

The e-mails between members of senior ABC management were released last week after an internal review of an earlier decision in relation to Crikey’s Freedom of Information request.

Crikey has still been refused access to some documents and parts of e-mails, and is considering a further appeal.