Former NSW premier Neville Wran and ABC journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna (Images: Wikimedia, Supplied)

It’s been framed as a debate around the accuracy of a story.

But at the heart of the war over the ABC’s Luna Park doco is also a battle over the legacy of former NSW premier Neville Wran, one of Australia’s most controversial and larger-than-life politicians.

Leading the criticism is The Australian columnist Troy Bramston, who has written a series of stories picking apart the Exposed investigation by ABC journo Caro Meldrum-Hanna.

Bramston has armed himself with some powerful voices, including a former PM (Malcolm Turnbull), two former NSW premiers (Bob Carr and Barrie Unsworth) and a former ABC chairman (David Hill), all who claim the show made several allegations it can’t back up, and in the process breached the ABC’s editorial policies and guidelines.

Chief among those claims, they say, is an allegation that Wran was involved in a cover-up of an arson attack on Sydney’s Luna Park in 1979 that left six children and one adult dead.

They say the story’s claim that the cover-up went “all the way to the top” implies that Wran was behind a conspiracy involving notorious Sydney crime boss Abe Saffron and an attempt to burn down the park and take control of the land.

Hill, a former Wran staffer, has called the claims “preposterous” and a work of “sloppy journalism”. Turnbull, a friend and business partner of Wran’s, has rejected any idea that Wran was corrupt.

The ABC stands by the story and says many of the claims made in the program about Wran were presented “as allegations, not proven facts”.

Allies and supporters

Wran died in 2014 and therefore cannot be defamed, meaning the ABC is able to make claims about him without the risk of being sued. But in his corner are an army of allies and supporters, all with their own reputations and legacies to defend.

Milton Cockburn, a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, is one such ally. The former Wran staffer and biographer has lodged a formal complaint with the ABC over the story on behalf of four other former Wran staffers, including Hill.

Cockburn told Crikey that he was compelled to make the complaint not just because of the impact on Wran’s legacy, but the impact on his own.

“None of us want his legacy to be smeared in the way that the ABC has smeared it,” he said.

“The last thing I want is for my son to be under any belief that his old man worked for a crook. I make no bones about that. But the reality is none of us believe Wran was a crook.”

Allegations not facts

Meldrum-Hanna declined to speak to Crikey about the stories in the Oz, deferring instead to ABC flack (and Bramston’s former colleague at the Oz) Sally Jackson, who said the story went through all the normal processes to ensure it met ABC editorial standards.

Jackson said the program “in no way” suggested that Wran had any involvement in or knowledge of the fire at Luna Park.

“It did not say Mr Wran was involved or implicated in a cover-up of the cause of the fire,” she said.

“The program investigated the allegation that Neville Wran may have influenced the decision to grant the Luna Park licence to entities associated with Abe Saffron well after the fire.

“Those allegations were presented as allegations, not proven facts.”

Jackson said the ABC believed there was sufficient evidence supporting those allegations to justify publishing them and to raise questions about whether a further inquiry into the fire and the granting of the lease should be undertaken.

“The program wasn’t assigning guilt, the point the program made was that this was certainly a matter that should have been pursued at the time,” she said.

But Bramston is refusing to back down, saying multiple allegations in the show were not backed up by credible evidence, including the claim that Wran organised for the Luna Park lease to go to a Saffron front company after the fire.

“It is a shameful piece of journalism,” he said. “You should not be able to defame somebody just because they are dead. It has breached several ABC editorial guidelines.”

A predictable adversary

The ABC may not have predicted such a backlash given the story details many claims that have been chewed over before, including by the SMH’s Kate McClymont in 2007.

But the stoush highlights what can happen when a once-powerful figure is the subject of a damning accusation after they die, when they are unable to defend themselves.

Complicating matters is the fact that the criticism is coming from a predictable adversary of the ABC, The Australian.

Bramston told Crikey he rejected any suggestion that the stories have been motivated by any sort of culture war.

“I am not a regular ABC critic,” he said. “I am not a warrior in the culture wars. No editor at The Australian asked [me] to write about the Luna Park documentary but they have supported my reporting and commentary 100%.”

He also rejected any suggestion that he has a conflict of interest as a former Labor speech writer for Kevin Rudd and someone who has written about Wran extensively.

“I don’t feel any need to protect Wran’s legacy. I wrote in The Wran Era that his government was ‘damaged’ by allegations of corruption and were ‘slow to act, reactive, and did not go far enough in their reforms to stymie corruption in the prisons, police and the lower courts’. So I have been a Wran critic. But this does not fit with the ABC’s narrative.”

With the ABC’s internal complaints process clicking into gear, there will eventually be a response from the broadcaster to Cockburn and other Wran supporters. In the meantime the fight is likely to keep playing out in the pages of the Oz.