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The 1980s: A Golden Era

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By Peter Manning / 11 August 2021

It says something about the state of Four Corners in 1981 that when I was offered a job there late in the year I thought I was being punished by management for misdeeds on the daily current affairs program. 

The old battleship was a standing joke. We at Nationwide thought reporters decided their next overseas trips by throwing darts at maps. Jonathan Holmes arrived to take up leadership and found the television style “at least 10 years out of date”. Plummy accents were so prolific it was dubbed “The House of Lords”.

Seven years later Four Corners had won not just a pile of Walkley and Penguin Awards but beaten 60 Minutes and others to the commercial Logie for Outstanding Achievement in Current Affairs. The program had undergone a total transformation.


I have written elsewhere describing in detail the step-by-step rebuilding that happened (The Stories That Changed Australia: 50 years of Four Corners,ABC Books, 2011). With the program still doing well under Sally Neighbour 10 years later, it must be one of the few such highly successful public broadcasting programs on the planet. Well done ABC!

Now with quite some distance from the golden days of plentiful funding, supportive boards, no pandemics, and high ratings, it would be easy to exaggerate the “good old days”. But the truth is, behind the scenes, the era took its toll on many. The work/life balance was not good. Wages and salaries should have been higher given the hours worked. The multicultural aspect was ignored and diversity in staffing could have been better.

At the end of every year, just as the party round began, I’d take a break as Executive Producer and look back over the previous year and see if we had covered the big issues and events of the year. Did we cover the boat people crisis? Were we up with the latest rise in industrial accidents? Were the aged being treated properly? Where did all the workers go from the collapse of manufacturing? Had we missed a trend? The last thing I wanted was to have an agenda that was predictable and boring.

But I had my own markers: Four Corners was to be populist in style but serious in content. If possible, each program would have “currency”. Each program would have context or background. And the program would be very Australian.

Its difference in the marketplace was its investigative nature. A long-form 50-minute ship would enable it to amass evidence of its main thesis and adopt a form of the scientific method: so much data would prove the point that led to a sole conclusion. Throughout, all points of view would be aired. But by the end of the program you knew what it was saying! However, the person or persons responsible for any malfeasance would be interviewed to defend his or her conduct. End of story.

I was lucky enough to work with the best in the business in Australia. Whether crews, editors, researchers, reporters, producers or executive producers like Jonathan Holmes, we worked for nearly a decade together. When I was kicked upstairs to be Head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs I remember clearly thinking as I walked to my new office: “If I do nothing else for Australia in my life, I’ll be satisfied.

Apart from Jonathan and my secretary Nadine Connor, the three people I worked most closely with were the fabulous (now retired) editor Alec Cullen, the never-say-die researcher Sue Spencer (who became EP some years later) and my friend and reporter Chris Masters (seven blockbusters*). The five of them are no longer with the ABC. All are gold!

*Chris Masters’ seven blockbusters are: “The Big League” (rugby league expose); “After the Apocalypse” (Vietnam); “The Poisoned Army” (Agent Orange); “Costigan’s Commission” (Royal Commission into the Ship, Painters and Dockers Union); “French Connection” (Rainbow Warrior bombing); “The Moonlight State” (Corruption in Queensland) and “Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore”.

Peter Manning is currently Adjunct Professor in Journalism at the School of Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He’s the author of several books: “Representing Palestine: Media and Journalism in Australia since World War 1”; “Janet Venn-Brown: A life in art”; “Us and Them: Media, Muslims and the Middle East” and “Green Bans”.

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