The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) — the country’s media regulator — spent a year investigating Four Corners’ coverage of Fox News and its role in legitimising Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen.
The overwhelming majority of issues raised by Fox were rejected by the regulator.
In August 2021, Four Corners broadcast a two-part special called Fox and the Big Lie. The stakes for the programs could not have been higher. Donald Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election and stage a coup, provoking not only the scarring violence of January 6 but deep enduring divisions in America.
Immediately after the election, some high-profile Fox News presenters pushed the crazy claims put forward by Trump’s team that the election had been stolen, including via a communist plot to rig voting machines. Understanding the role of one of the world’s most powerful media companies in supporting this damaging conspiracy was a compelling story in the best traditions of public interest journalism.
At the time of the January 6 insurrection, James Murdoch, who had left his father’s company, said this:
“Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”
This was an important media story.
The programs’ analysis was powerful because it came from interviews with Fox News insiders and Trump lawyers who had aggressively pushed the big lie. One of those lawyers explained how important Fox News was for getting the stolen election narrative out. Recent former Fox employees said the behaviour of the network distressed them or made them ashamed to be associated with it.
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, a Fox military analyst for 10 years, said this:
“What you saw Fox becoming was an ethically and morally corrupt enterprise. The United States gave Murdoch a great deal and he repaid it by doing a great deal of harm.”
We spent a month asking Fox management and presenters to give interviews. They declined.
I expected the Fox Corporation to complain loudly about our coverage. I did not expect ACMA to respond in the terms it did.
What’s in the report?
In its report, responding to extensive complaints by Fox, ACMA says 19 times the ABC did not breach impartiality or mislead the audience. It identified three minor subjective breaches within our coverage. Yet the press release issued by ACMA chairperson Nerida O’Loughlin and the language of the report create an overall impression that our programs were misleading and not honest. I take their words extremely seriously.
Let’s look at the simplest and silliest of the report’s assertions.
ACMA criticises me for what it calls “emotive and strident” language, including describing the January 6 rioters as a “mob”. Mob is the word used repeatedly by the chairman of the January 6 committee: “Donald Trump summoned a mob to Washington, DC … .”
It has been repeated multiple times by bipartisan members of the committee, law enforcement and almost every media outlet in the world. It is the dictionary definition of what the world saw that day.
The next criticism is a formal finding against the ABC and misunderstands how broadcast journalism works. Filming in a public street in New York, near Fox HQ, Fox presenter Jeanine Pirro, one of the cheerleaders of the Big Lie, walked past us.
Pirro was named in the multi-billion-dollar cases against Fox Corporation by voting machine companies Smartmatic and Dominion and we had studied her program and its promotion of the stolen election theory.
I waited for a pause as her fans approached for selfies. Then, with the camera at my shoulder, explained we were from Australia and asked politely if she still believed the voting machine companies had rigged the election for Trump. Pirro smiled, did not speak and walked away. Because I did not explain to Pirro — a veteran media presenter — in the few seconds before she walked off the exact nature of the program and Four Corners, ACMA found me at fault.
“Both audiences and participants are entitled to the full picture. In this case, by omitting information the ABC did not do justice to the story or provide all relevant facts to its audience,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
After Pirro had gone, a burly Fox security guard tried to make me leave the public place I was standing in, and I politely refused, as you see on screen. In its ACMA submission, Fox said I was “argumentative”.
It is not my job to slink away when ordered from a public place by an aggressive security guard. It is the job of Australian journalists to ask questions of powerful figures in the public interest, wherever the moment arises, as long as we are clear and reasonable. It is the least the audience expects.
ACMA again finds in favour of Fox for our decision not to feature a historical Fox press release about its presenters Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro appearing on stage with Donald Trump at a rally.
This was a considered editorial decision. The almost three-year-old press release did not name the presenters. We asked Fox in written questions prior to broadcast what the actual repercussions were for those presenters; Fox did not answer. Despite that, ACMA argues a press release that named no-one and gave no mention of any repercussions must be included.
Australian journalism deserves a higher standard, meaningful communication on important topics, not empty PR gestures.
Huge implications for journalism
ACMA’s third finding is the one that most challenges the ABC’s freedom to pursue public interest journalism fearlessly. It appears simple on the face of it, but its ramifications are not.
The program, as we said earlier, was about the role of one of the world’s most powerful media companies, one with an Australian boss and Australian origins. Its presenters were pushing the stolen election narrative at a precarious time for US democracy, doing Trump’s bidding and currying favour with the most powerful figure in the country. That was our focus.
Nonetheless, ACMA found in an oddly subjective decision that we misled the audience by omitting to also cover the role of social media in relation to January 6. This is despite the fact that Four Corners had already produced a comprehensive episode about the insurrection months earlier.
Consider the implications of this for journalism. According to ACMA’s interpretation of the code, the ABC is not free to choose the editorial focus it determines the most relevant. In a complex world overloaded with information, focus is central to the success of programs like Four Corners and journalism at the ABC and beyond.
This week the January 6 committee referred Donald Trump and associates for criminal prosecution for their role in conspiring to overturn the election.
It’s a potent reminder of what was at stake in this reporting: the dire consequences for a safe functioning democracy of attacks on the truth.
If anyone thinks the ABC — which has strongly defended its reporting — should choose this moment to dilute the sharp focus of its investigations and the fearless nature of its reporting, they are seriously adrift from the values of public interest journalism.
Sarah Ferguson is the host of 7.30 and a former Four Corners reporter. The two-part Four Corners investigation Fox and the Big Lie remains available to view on ABC iview.
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