Four Corners is one of the longest-running television current affairs programs anywhere, and an important flagship of the ABC. It has aired continuously since 1961, making it an Australian television institution and putting it second only internationally to the BBC’s Panorama (est. 1953), with which it has often been compared.
It was significant in its early period for developing a national audience for news and current affairs. It also played an important role in the cultural and political transformations of the 1960s and 1970s, bringing to light social issues with a sometimes shocking directness that had not been seen before. But it has become best known for a string of high-profile investigative journalism reports, which have precipitated governmental or judicial inquiries and processes of political reform. The best-known example is ‘The Moonlight State’ (1987), investigating high-level corruption in the Queensland police force.
Four Corners was originally conceived out of conversations between the ABC’s assistant general manager (programs), Clement Semmler, presenter Michael Charlton and producer Robert Raymond. The name was chosen with reference to a line from Shakespeare’s King John: ‘Come the three corners of the world / And we shall shock them.’ By Charlton’s account, it was thought that an Australian current affairs program might offer a ‘fourth corner’.
The program has had a number of formats. For its first two years, it was closely identified with Charlton, whose background was as a vaudeville host, celebrity interviewer and cricket commentator. The program had a magazine format, and the emphasis was, as director of talks Alan Carmichael put it, on ‘topicality, informality and immediacy’. It drew a sizeable audience, and Charlton was voted TV Week’s most popular personality of 1962.
The directness and immediacy of television always gave the program the potential for controversy. A minor storm occurred over a 1964 episode that showed heavy drinking in an episode about the RSL. Middle-class norms of gentility were challenged through a new mobility of the camera and documentary crew, shining a light on social areas that previously had been relatively concealed. Notable topics included living conditions in remote Aboriginal communities, the Vietnam War, gender inequalities and drug-taking.
Four Corners’ alumni include some of Australia’s most respected television journalists and presenters, including Paul Barry, Jenny Brockie, Richard Carleton, Liz Jackson, Caroline Jones, Tony Jones, Paul Lyneham, Ray Martin, Chris Masters, Jeff McMullen, Sally Neighbour, Kerry O’Brien, Andrew Olle, Bill Peach, Marian Wilkinson and Mike Willesee. The program has won more than 30 Walkley Awards. Three programs have won Gold Walkleys: ‘Aiding and Abetting’ (1983, reporter Mary Delahunty, producer Alan Hall); ‘French Connections’ (1985, reporter Chris Masters, producer Bruce Belsham); and ‘Stoking the Fires’ (2006, reporter Liz Jackson, producer Lin Buckfield, researcher Peter Cronau).
Four Corners’ formula has sometimes hardened, threatening its continued relevance. A significant reform occurred in the 1980s, first under executive producer Jonathan Holmes, who introduced a ‘filmmaking’ aesthetic from British television and documentary, and later under Peter Manning, who introduced a harder investigative focus brought from experience in newspaper journalism at John Fairfax & Sons.
The later Four Corners has been remarkable—even internationally—for its continuing commitment to long-form reporting and investigation of institutional processes. While it has retained a prime position in the schedule on Mondays at 8.30 p.m., it has also been prepared to pursue stories without an obvious visual ‘angle’ or easy narrative focus around personality, sharply differentiating itself from the direction of commercial current affairs.
The 50th anniversary of Four Corners was marked with a travelling exhibition, a commemorative episode, a book and an anniversary website.
REFs: S. Neighbour (ed.), The Stories That Changed Australia (2012); R. Pullan, Four Corners (1986); http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/50years/.