The minister for communications Paul Fletcher has asked ABC chair Ita Buttrose if the Four Corners program which alleged inappropriate conduct by two ministers met the standards of accurate and impartial journalism.
In a lengthy letter Fletcher posed 15 detailed questions and asked the board to explain why a “consensual relationship” between a politician and a staff member which took place before the so-called bonk ban was imposed in 2018 was considered newsworthy in the Four Corners program Inside the Canberra Bubble.
In 2018 the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull made sexual relationships between ministers and their staff a breach of the ministerial code.
Fletcher made the letter public by posting it on Twitter, but avoided receiving responses by disabling replies to the tweet.
Today I have written to ABC Chair Ita Buttrose with questions concerning the Four Corners program “Inside the Canberra Bubble” that was broadcast on 9 November 2020. pic.twitter.com/7acqFpdAL4
— Paul Fletcher (@PaulFletcherMP) November 30, 2020
Referring to the ABC’s editorial policies, Fletcher asked why the personal lives of politicians are newsworthy and if it was justified to breach the privacy of the attorney general Christian Porter and frontbencher Alan Tudge.
“Why does the board consider it is appropriate that the privacy of the Attorney General and Minister Tudge (the Ministers) should be compromised by the way in which the program deals extensively with aspects of their personal lives?” Fletcher wrote.
“How is this consistent with the stated importance of respect for privacy in the code of practice, including whether intrusion into private lives was proportionate in the circumstances?”
The ABC had been under attack from the government over Inside the Canberra Bubble even before it aired in early October.
The executive producer of Four Corners, Sally Neighbour, said “extreme and unrelenting” political pressure had been applied before the screening, and reporter Louise Milligan said pressure had been “applied by multiple representatives of government to ABC management”.
Three weeks after the program aired the government has come back with a comprehensive attack, aiming the criticism at the board because managing director David Anderson told Senate estimates the program had been viewed by Buttrose.
Fletcher repeated an earlier criticism that the program investigated only one political party.
“Why should an objective observer not conclude that the program evidenced clear bias against the Liberal party, with this bias evident in the choice of persons interviewed, the making of specific allegations in the face of clear factual denials, and the fact that the program failed to investigate or report on conduct engaged in by Labor, Greens or independent politicians?” he asked.
The program revealed that Turnbull confronted Porter in 2017 over allegations of inappropriate conduct with a young woman in a bar and warned him “the risk of compromise is very real”.
The then prime minister went on to appoint Porter his attorney general a fortnight later. Porter has said the “depiction of interactions in the bar are categorically rejected”.
Fletcher also asked why Porter’s antics while at university were relevant to the program or in the public interest.
“How is it consistent with the code of practice’s reference to fair treatment and impartiality for the ABC to include in the program extensive materials regarding conduct over a quarter of a century ago by someone who was then a university student and even a school student?” he said.
Fletcher said the woman referred to by Four Corners as being in the bar with the attorney general had “directly rebutted the allegation to Four Corners yet the program failed to report that”.
The program also detailed allegations by a female staffer who said she had an affair in 2017 with the then-human services minister Tudge.
Fletcher has given the ABC board 14 days to respond.
The ABC has been approached for comment.