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The 70s - Trail-blazing on a shoestring

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Kerry O'Brien is one of Australia's most respected journalists, with six Walkley awards including the Gold Walkley and the Walkley for outstanding leadership in journalism. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has worked for newspapers, television and a wire service, and as a foreign correspondent. Thirty-three of those years were at the ABC where he cut his teeth on the trail-blazing current affairs programs This Day Tonight and Four Corners. He was the inaugural presenter of Lateline for six years, the editor and presenter of 7.30 for fifteen years, and the presenter of Four Corners for five. Here he recalls his early days at 4Cs as it transitioned towards the program we know today. 

4Cs IN THE ’70s

By Kerry O’Brien / 10 August 2021

From when I first went to the ABC as a young reporter on This Day Tonight in 1972 my sights were set on Four Corners. It was the undisputed pinnacle of long form current affairs and a great opportunity to further develop story-telling and film-making skills as well as having the time to investigate that we were rarely afforded in daily current affairs. 

Peter Reid was the executive producer, and had already established his journalistic credibility with trail-blazing investigative stories, and program veterans Jim Downes, John Temple and Gordon Bick were great mentors. Caroline Jones, Allan Hogan, Peter Luck and Jeffrey Watson had all come from TDT and were great examples of how I could shape my own transition. The film crews and editors were the cream of the current affairs crop, and probably the people from whom I learned the most.

Yet, for all its trail-blazing qualities – stirring the political pot, challenging society’s sacred cows and paving the way for its cheeky young sibling, TDT – by the time I arrived in 1975 Four Corners was struggling to meet expectations with any consistency. There wasn’t the clear template we see today of high-impact 45-minute stories reflecting weeks of intense research and high-quality production values. 

Audiences from week to week wouldn’t have known whether to expect a single story or two separate stories, or a story and a studio interview. Often the second story or interview was an afterthought to cover for a 45-minute story that had shrunk for lack of material. And on a regular basis Peter Luck, the most talented film-maker of our time but not a hard-edged reporter, produced the television equivalent of a newspaper column called Corner Five.

By today’s standards the program was hopelessly under-resourced. There was one researcher for seven reporters so reporters researched their own stories from the ground up. There were no field producers so we also organised pretty much all the logistics on the road, lined up all the interviewees and tried to structure the story as we went. 

Even with what then seemed like the luxury of a four-week story turn-around (these days it’s around six weeks) we almost invariably ended up flying by the seats of our pants. I remember John Temple, as acting executive producer, one day taking me off a story to send me to the Philippines with cameraman Les Wasley to cover the aftermath of an earthquake and tidal wave on the island of Mindanao, to fill a 15-minute hole in the following week’s program. I stayed on an extra week and shot a longer story on the brutality of the Marcos regime there. It was quite impactive and sparked a protest from the Philippines ambassador, but the same exercise today would have been planned, executed and produced to a much higher standard.

Nonetheless there were many great stories through that decade — Paul Lyneham’s extraordinarily detailed expose of the American Utah coal mining company’s uncomfortably close relationship with the Queensland Government and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s mining shares, and Allan Hogan’s powerful coverage with Les Wasley of America’s last days in Vietnam were just two examples

I left in 1977 to work for Gough Whitlam, and the following year the program suffered a real program drain as some of the best and brightest were seduced across to the Nine network by their former colleague Gerry Stone to produce what was to become Kerry Packer’s crown jewel of commercial television current affairs, Sixty Minutes.

By the time I returned to 4Cs in 1985 after two years as a correspondent in America, the program had been saved from a near-death experience by a (relatively) young executive producer named Jonathan Holmes recruited from the BBC’s Panorama program, and his dynamic Australian supervising producer, Peter Manning. They suited each other like a hand in a glove, had put together a talented team of researchers, field producers and reporters with significantly longer turnaround times and were blazing a whole new trail of investigative journalism that with few interruptions, continues today.

To see stories and footage from Four Corners in the 1970s click here. A compile of Kerry O’Brien’s farewell from Four Corners can be seen here.

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