KERRY O’BRIEN. We can’t let ourselves off the hook (Part 1)

Apr 10, 2019

Part 1 of a speech delivered at The Walkley Fund for Journalism Dinner in Sydney on Friday April 5, 2019.

Forty-three years ago I went to the Philippines for the ABC’s Four Corners, to cover a disaster story—a tsunami that hit the island of Mindanao, killing 8,000 people. After witnessing close up the nature of President Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal despotism, I stayed on to tell another story, of how Marcos had used martial law, which he’d introduced ostensibly to deal with the threat of communist insurrection, to establish a dictatorship under which a powerful oligarchy of obscenely wealthy families—the so-called Marcos cronies—dominated the country. Marcos was well on the way to becoming the richest of them all.  

In the four years since he had declared the state of emergency, 50,000 people had been arrested, 6,000 of them were still imprisoned across 13 detention centres under the very broadly defined charge of subversion. Others simply disappeared without trace. The judicial system’s credibility was gone. The Congress, devoid of debate, was being converted into a museum. Once critical newspapers were now propaganda sheets for a corrupt President.

Given that we’d been warned about the President’s army of nondescript spies and informers through the streets, cafes and hotels of Manila and driving its taxis, I felt exposed as I stood in front of our camera in the square of the city’s Catholic cathedral, reading a litany of torture techniques from the only remaining news publication in the country that still called the government to account, a weekly Catholic journal called Signs of the Times. That litany included:

‘Application of lighted cigarettes to various parts of the body including the ear and the genital area. Electric shocks on different parts of the body including the genital area. Stripping and sexual abuse and sometimes rape of female detainees. Beating with fists and/or gun butts and rubber hoses. Forcing the head into faeces-contaminated toilet bowls. Holding the victim’s head under water until he inhales water or loses consciousness. Squeezing fingers with bullets inserted between them. Pressing hot irons against the sole of the foot.’ I spoke with some of those who were tortured.

Ten years later I was back with another Four Corners crew to record the army coup that finally deposed Marcos and paved the way for a democratically elected government. With cameraman Chris Doig and sound recordist Tim Parrot, I stood in the dark side street running alongside Malacanang Palace, listening to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos take off on the other side of the palace wall, in a US-supplied helicopter for exile in America and access to his billions in looted gold held in Swiss accounts. As he flew off, and the rebel forces marched on the palace, a pathetically deluded rag tag bunch of Marcos loyalists stood at the palace gates armed with bricks and knives, thinking they were still defending their president. The Marcoses of the world—some of them cloaked in the trappings of democracy—are very good at enlisting the ignorant, the fearful and the prejudiced—as we know.

Those two experiences were an important part of the understanding I’ve built up over decades of how power corrupts, and how absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. I also came to understand the fundamental importance of journalism. That arguably, strong and well-resourced journalism is the primary bulwark against abuse of power, and without being melodramatic about it, the primary bulwark against authoritarianism that can so easily lead to fascism.

I saw the corruption within the Askin government in New South Wales close up in the sixties and early 70s, the corruption of police in NSW, Victoria and Queensland in that same period, the institutionalised corruption that flourished in Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen era.

The press in Queensland, with a few notable exceptions was largely ineffectual in the face of Bjelke-Petersen’s abuses—he’d introduced an outrageous gerrymander—and it wasn’t until his 18th year that Chris Masters’ Moonlight State program on the ABC’s Four Corners comprehensively exposed the rot within, leading to the Fitzgerald Royal Commission, and the whole house of cards came tumbling down.

There are four fundamental pillars that provide the foundation of democracy. A strong, genuinely representative parliamentary system, an independent judiciary, an apolitical police force upholding the law with integrity, and a strong media.

In Queensland in the Joh era, the parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp, the independence of the judiciary was sadly weakened in the way judges were appointed, the police became a willing partner in the corrupting process, and only the media, belatedly, stood up.

There’s nothing perfect about a democracy. And its imperfections are not only a reflection of the politicians we elect. They’re a reflection of all of us and as every person in this room knows, we humans are all imperfect—we’re imperfect in the way we run our big corporations and our small businesses, our trade unions and our regulators, even our churches. Certainly our churches. The institutions we’ve trusted the most. And of course, we’re imperfect in the way we practice our journalism.

In 2011, the year I rejoined Four Corners as anchor after stepping down from 7.30, the program celebrated its 50th anniversary and the new ABC Chairman, Jim Spigelman was there. He looked on as we reflected on our own glory, and liberally congratulated ourselves, then he gently suggested that we might also reflect on our failures.

I was stung by that in the moment, as were others, but whatever had provoked him to say so, he was right. Four Corners had an enormous legacy to be proud of, half a century in the making; even more so now as royal commission after royal commission is forced on largely reluctant governments, in an age where that brand of journalism is becoming increasingly difficult to practice. But, without whipping ourselves, we should never lose sight of our inadequacies at the same time we celebrate our successes.

Part 1 of a speech delivered at The Walkley Fund for Journalism Dinner in Sydney on Friday April 5, 2019.

Kerry O’Brien is Chair of The Walkley Foundation. He is former editor and host of the 7.30 Report and former host of Four Corners and Lateline, all on the ABC.

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