ABC facing internal pressure to withhold Four Corners material

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The ABC is facing internal pressure to defy an order from Western Australian Police to hand over footage filmed for a Four Corners investigation into climate protesting and police tactics set to air on Monday.

Staff on the public broadcaster’s media union house committee met on Friday to demand their bosses not to hand over the footage, warning that it would damage the organisation’s reputation as a producer of public interest journalism.

The Four Corners episode has caused a stir in Western Australia after ABC employees were present at a protest outside the Woodside CEO’s house.

“To be seen to be cooperating with the release of footage would not only be morally and ethically wrong; it would seriously damage the ABC’s reputation for creating valuable, public interest journalism and make the position of ABC journalists much more difficult,” the committee said in an endorsed statement.

“Journalism has a long and storied history of resisting legal compulsion when it is against the public interest.

“We demand immediate assurances that the ABC executive will not hand the vision to WA Police.”

ABC managing director David Anderson said the broadcaster does not reveal its sources. “We never have and never will.”

ABC managing director David Anderson is under pressure from staff over the decision.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

A promotional video released this week for the episode, “Escalation: Climate, protest and the fight for the future”, features footage of Disrupt Burrup Hub activists being arrested outside Woodside chief executive Meg O’Neill’s Perth home during an attempted protest in August.

Under powers prescribed in the state’s Criminal Investigations Act, WA Police regularly send “orders to produce” to media outlets, including for footage of crime scenes captured by news cameras or CCTV and mobile phone footage obtained by journalists.

Disrupt Burrup Hub media advisor Jesse Noakes, who was also arrested outside O’Neill’s house for his alleged role in the protest, said that if the ABC provided footage to the police it would breach Four Corners journalists’ commitment to keep some activists’ identities anonymous.

“Multiple people attended Disrupt Burrup Hub campaign events that were filmed by Four Corners on the explicit proviso that they not be identified or featured on camera in the program,” he said.

“Four Corners has thus far stuck to this commitment, of course, but if the ABC surrenders all its footage to WA authorities they will breach these guarantees and betray sensitive sources, in spite of undertakings.”

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) federal president Karen Percy said the order was a direct threat to press freedom in a story that was scrutinising police overreach. “We urge the ABC to stand firm and not hand over the footage,” Percy said.

“Protecting sources is sacrosanct for journalists. To reveal sources is contrary to the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics.

“This law is an outrageous overreach and the WA Police should not proceed with this action. It’s ironic that a story looking at the extreme measures being used by the powerful to shut down climate activism, is itself under threat by extreme measures.”

But WA Police Minister Paul Papalia said he was comfortable with the order from police.

“If Four Corners knew about these events in advance it’s actually really irresponsible and pretty disgraceful behaviour that they didn’t notify the police,” he said.

WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch said the force had an obligation to collect the best evidence for any alleged crime. He said orders to produce were made with the approval of the courts and most orders made to corporations were done with the consent of both parties.

When asked why police had ordered the ABC to produce the entire suite of footage collected for the episode he said police didn’t have discretion when it came to producing evidence.

“Much of that evidence might be something that supports the defence case. We have an obligation to present all evidence to the court and let the court decide if they’re guilty or innocent. That’s not our job,” he said.

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