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Tuesday, 27 October 1964
Page: 1325


Senator CANT (Western Australia) . - I apologise to the Senate for taking up its time but 1 believe the matter I rise to discuss is of some public importance. It is known in this Parliament that there are several media of information in Australia - the Press, radio and television. 1 want to speak about the medium of television and in particular about the programme entitled "Four Corners ". This programme is used to inform the people of Australia - and I believe it captures quite an audience - on controversial issues that are in the public mind. In particular it deals with topical issues that the Australian Broadcasting Commission considers should be brought to public attention. Over the years it has performed this task reasonably well. I look at " Four Corners " as often as I can. I appreciate some of the programmes; others I do not appreciate. Possibly some people may have just the reverse reaction.

Over a considerable period, we have found that " Four Corners " has been subjected to political pressures. Political pressure has been brought to bear perhaps to have the programme modified or, in other words, to make it rather innocuous. On several occasions, the officers who prepare the programme have been intimidated.

Some have thought fit to resign because they were not prepared to accept the intimidation. Others have been promoted away from that programme. Others have been sent overseas to get them out of the way for a period of time. I mention in this particular context Michael Charlton who was sent overseas on a study tour some 18 months ago. lt was supposed to be for 12 months. We have even been told in this Parliament that political pressure has been brought on the Australian Broadcasting Commission either to suppress a programme or to put a particular programme on at different times. Even the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) has been involved in some of this political pressure. In particular, the previous Postmaster-General, Mr. Davidson, was taken to task in another place for using political pressures in respect of the A.B.C. lt has been said on several occasions by people in the street that this interference with the independence of the A.B.C. to put on programmes has in some cases amounted to a public scandal. The programme " Four Corners " was first sponsored to bring controversial issues before the public mind and that has been done. But because of ministerial interference, the people who are preparing these programmes have to be most careful about the type of programme they bring forward. At the back of their minds in producing this programme is the underlying thought: "Will this programme be acceptable to certain political opinions?" This, of course, tends to prevent them presenting the programme as they would perhaps present it in the spirit of true journalism.


Senator Maher - Or as the Communists directed.


Senator CANT - If Senator Maher thinks there are Communists in the A.B.C, he should stand up and say so. That is all he has to do. The Broadcasting and Television Act gives the A.B.C. a pretty fair amount of independence. It is known that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has not exercised this independence. When the Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television was taking evidence, it was revealed that there were occasions when the Minister took over the functions of the A.B.C. and did certain things by writing letters that were not his responsibility but the responsibility of the A.B.C.

This is an indication of the intrusion of the Minister into the field of control of the A.B.C. If this independent action of the A.B.C. is to be inhibited by political pressures, when can we expect to get a properly informed public? When can the public be expected to see things that are factually and constructively presented to them to create interest and inquiry in their minds? We are constantly reminded of the freedom of the Press in Australia. The free-, dom of the Press, of course, extends somewhat further than the Press itself. It extends to . broadcasting and television. But what freedom can we expect to get when the A.B.C, in respect of its television programme, is constantly . being influenced by political interests? What feeedom have we got when workmen are injured in their employment unless they conform to the policies that are laid down, not by the A.B.C, but by someone outside the A.B.C.? Of course, the A.B.C. will continue to be subject to this political pressure unless it receives some protection. The only protection the A.B.C. can receive is from this Parliament. It is the instrument, not of the Minister, but of this Parliament. If the Commission wants to act independently, it is up to this Parliament to give it the protection that was envisaged when the Broadcasting and Television Act was passed.

The issue that I want to raise concerns a programme that should have been shown last weekend, based on the controversial subject of capital punishment. I express no views now on the merits of capital punishment, because I have forcibly expressed my views on previous occasions. I am opposed to capital punishment, but I am not raising that matter tonight. The only issue is interference with the A.B.C. in the presentation of the programme I have mentioned. The programme was prepared at about the time when a hanging was to take place in Western Australia. The " Four Corners " programme was to be presented in Western Australia on Saturday and Sunday of last weekend and the Government of Western Australia intended to carry out the hanging on Monday morning. The " Four Corners " reporters went to Western Australia and prepared the programme.


Senator Maher - A grisly programme, loo.


Senator CANT - That may be so. Questions were raised in the State Parliament and the Premier of Western Australia said he would have inquiries made about the programme. I have only Press reports to go on, but it was stated that he said he would make inquiries. In any event, the programme that was prepared was not shown to the public.

This is something more than a Federal Minister in charge of the Australian Broadcasting Commission using pressure to suppress a programme. We find a State Premier using pressure, either himself or through someone else, to have a programme suppressed. I am wondering just how far this matter really goes. Was the Conservative Premier of Western Australia so ashamed of the policy his Government was carrying out that he was afraid to have the spotlight of public opinion focused upon that policy by independent reporters? That is the type of thing that this Parliament should be examining. I want to know when this Government will realise - it has not realised it during the 15 years it has been in office - that a well informed public creates a well informed democracy. If the Government keeps on suppressing information, very shortly we will have a dictatorship.

1.   go further and ask: When will political pressure on the Australian Broadcasting Commission cease? I say frankly to the Government that it is time it ceased this interference, and I say frankly to the A.B.C. that it is time it asserted the independence for which the Act provides. 1 enter my protest about this interference. This is not the first instance of it. There have been several instances over a period of only a few years. Political pressures have been used, f enter a firm protest about the suppression of programmes designed to educate and inform the people. I express the hope that the Minister will give heed to the public reaction to the suppression of this programme, and that, in the interests of the public, he will allow factual and truthful reporting in television programmes.







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