Four Corners Adele Ferguson Investigation

Public companies should be a shaking in their boots after learning through Crikey today that multi-award-winning Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson has signed up with Four Corners to do another story on an ASX200 company. It is scheduled to go to air mid-year.

Ferguson is being coy about the identity of the company, only telling Crikey yesterday it is not one of the big four banks.

Whilst conservative politicians such as Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce are banging on about the harmless Facebook musings of part-time ABC presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied (see last night’s strong Media Watch critique of that), they’d do better pushing a line that Aunty was “anti-business”.

For instance, Four Corners has intensified its focus on corporate Australia in recent times with these nine stories over the past year all putting business practices under the microscope:

  • “Cracking the code — what Facebook really knows about you” — April 2017
  • “Crown Confidential – Packer’s Losing Hand” — March 2017
  • “Swallowing it” — Feb 2017
  • “Big Fish” — October 2016
  • “Milked dry” — August 2016
  • “The baby business” — May 2016
  • “Money and influence” — May 2016
  • “Supplements and safety” — May 2016
  • “The Panama Papers” — April 2016

But it has been these three potent Adele Ferguson pieces for Four Corners that have had the biggest impact:

The CBA piece in 2014 deservedly collected the Gold Walkley and has triggered persistent calls for a banking royal commission, an increase in ASIC’s budget and strong interventions from senators, including a specific Senate inquiry that called bank bosses as witnesses.

In terms of financial impact, you could argue that Ferguson’s 7-Eleven expose was even more potent.

Only yesterday, Caltex announced to the ASX that it had axed 19 franchisees and was investing $20 million in providing back pay to current and former staff.

This was triggered by a Ferguson investigation for Fairfax that followed her earlier award winning Four Corners hit on 7-Eleven, which has so far triggered a staggering $90 million in wage compensation payments.

So how did Ferguson come to be the go-to journalist for corporate whistleblowers? One explanation might be her 2012 unauthorised biography of Gina Rinehart, which sold about 35,000 copies and triggered a legal assault from Rinehart, who wanted to know who her sources were.

Fairfax, Ferguson and publisher Pan Macmillan were all resolute in resisting Rinehart’s legal assault and the mining heiress eventually lost badly in court when ordered to fork out substantially for the costs of all parties.

This experience in taking on a litigious billionaire and resolutely protecting the identity of sources had the effect of encouraging other sources to come forward. It sent a message that Ferguson could be trusted and would tell the whistleblower’s story with credibility and power.

Then, once you win a Gold Walkley for Four Corners, the halo effect really kicks in, and you even find yourself beating back whistleblowers, despite Australia’s woeful whistleblower protection regime, which doesn’t provide any protection to former staff, contractors or service providers such as auditors.

It will be interesting to see whether Ferguson can maintain the extremely lofty standard she has set when her fourth Four Corners story goes to air in a few weeks.  No doubt, insider whistleblowers will be a key part of the equation.

Stephen Mayne will interview Adele Ferguson at the monthly Australian Shareholders’ Association investor hour from noon tomorrow at the Telstra Conference Centre, 242 Exhibition Street, Melbourne. Entry is $15 for non-members. ASX200 lawyers, dodgy financial planners, ASIC staffers, whistleblowers, Gina Rinehart and anyone else are all welcome to attend.