FOUR CORNERS

Australian Current Affairs Program

Four Corners is Australia's longest running current affairs program, and is often referred to as the "flagship" of the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Four Corners has gone to air continuously on the ABC since 1961 and has established itself not only as an institution of Australian television but more widely of Australian political life. The program has frequently initiated public debate on important issues as well as precipitated governmental or judicial inquiries and processes of political reform.

Four Corners was originally conceived as a program with a magazine format offering an informed commentary on the week's events, filling a space on Australian television roughly comparable to the British Broadcasting Commission's Panorama (from which it often borrowed material in the 1960s) or the early current affairs programming developed by Edward R. Murrow for the Columbia Broadcasting System in the United States. It was also notable for providing the first truly national orientation on news and current affairs in Australia, either on television or in print.

Stylistically, Four Corners has been an innovator in documentary strategies for Australian television and film. The program frequently presents itself as frankly personalised and argumentative. The narrator has generally appeared on-screen, a significant break with the off-screen "voice-of-God" narration which was the dominant convention in 1950s documentary. The involvement of the narrators/reporters with their subject, usually at on-site locations, gives the program an immediacy and realism, while also opening up subjective points of view. As Albert Moran argues in "Constructing a Nation--Institutional Documentary Since 1945," these developments paralleled the emergence in the 1960s of direct cinema and cinéma verité as well as an increasing cultural pluralism reflected in documentary subject matter.

Since the mid-1970s, the program has developed the format of a 45-minute topical documentary introduced by a studio host, occasionally varied with studio debate. The most frequently cited examples are investigative reports which have had a direct impact on political institutions, such as a 1983 program "The Big League" which disclosed interference in court hearings of charges laid against prominent figures in the New South Wales Rugby League, or the 1988 program "The Moonlight State" which revealed corruption at high levels in the Queensland police force. However, the program has also been important for its "slice of life" portrayals of the everyday worlds of social relations, work, health and leisure, which have increased awareness of social and cultural diversity. It was very early to represent Australia as a multicultural society, with a report, for example, in 1961 on the German speaking community in South Australia.

Four Corners made an early reputation for testing the boundaries of expectations of television as a medium as well as of political acceptability. At a time when television current affairs genres were still unfamiliar, this sometimes involved little more than taking the camera outside the controlled space of the studio or the inclusion of unscripted material. A 1963 program on the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL), for example, stirred controversy for showing members of the organisation in casual dress drinking at a bar rather than exclusively in the context of formally structured studio debate. But controversy extended also to the kinds of political questions which were raised. The story on the RSL directly challenged the organisation on its claim to political neutrality. Another of the same period drew attention to the appalling living conditions and political disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people living on a reserve near Casino in rural New South Wales, an issue which had almost no public exposure at the time.

Four Corners has consistently been accused of political bias, particularly of a left-wing orientation, and for failing to abide by the ABC's charter which requires "balance" in the coverage of news and current affairs.

The program is generally defended by its makers, ABC management and supporters on the grounds that the importance of open public debate outweighs the damage that might be caused to interested parties and that while the program may be argumentative it is not unfair. The program is also a frequent point of reference in debates over government funded broadcasting. Four Corners has never achieved high ratings by the standards of the commercial networks and is often contrasted in content and style to commercial rivals such as the Nine Network's Sixty Minutes which is able to claim much wider popular appeal. Despite increasing pressure on the ABC to become more commercially oriented, however, the program has continued to articulate values which are distinct from considerations of popularity--the importance of representing the positions and points of view of minorities, the necessity of forcing public institutions to accountability, and a place for television current affairs which performs an educative role. In doing so it is often taken as representative of the position and identity of publicly funded broadcasting as a whole.

-Mark Gibson


Liz Jackson, host of Four Corners
Photo courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

PRESENTERS/COMPERES/REPORTERS

Michael Charlton, 1961
Gerald Lyons, 1962-63
Frank Bennett, 1964
Robert Moore, 1964
John Penlington, 1964
Robert Moore, 1965-67
John Temple, 1978
Michael Willesee, 1969-71
David Flatman, 1971-72
Caroline Jones, 1973-81
Andrew Olle, 1985-94
Liz Jackson, 1995

PRODUCERS Bob Raymond (1961-62); Allan Ashbolt (1963); Gerald Lyons (1963); John Power (1964); Robert Moore (1965-67); Sam Lipski (1968); Allan Martin (1968-72); Tony Ferguson (1973); Peter Reid (1973-80); Paul Davies (1980-81); Paul Lyneham (1980-81); John Penlington (1980-81); John Temple (1980-81); Jonathon Holmes (1982-84); Peter Manning (1985-88); Ian Macintosh (1989-90); Marian Wilkinson (1991-92); Ian Carroll (1992-95); Harry Bardwell (1995); Paul Williams (1995); John Budd (1995-96)

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

August 1961-November 1981         Saturday 8:30-9:20 March 1982-December 1984          Saturday 7:30-8:20 March 1985-June 1985                   Tuesday 8:30-9:20 July 1985-                                     Monday 8:30-9:20

FURTHER READING

King, Noel. "Current Affairs TV." Australian Journal of Screen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales, Australia), 1983.

Moran, Albert. "Constructing the Nation: Institutional Documentary Since 1945." In, Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan, editors. The Australian Screen. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin, 1989.

Pullan, Robert. Four Corners--Twenty-Five Years. Sydney, Australia: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1986.

 

See also Australian Programming