A Four Corners two-part documentary on Fox News and the 2020 US election breached the accuracy and fair dealing requirements of the ABC’s editorial code, but did not violate impartiality standards, the media watchdog has found.
In August last year, journalist Sarah Ferguson spoke to former Fox News insiders who claimed the rightwing channel became a propaganda outlet for the former president under the watch of Rupert Murdoch himself.
In Fox and the Big Lie, Ferguson said Fox’s ratings plunged after the network called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, and Trump loyalists turned off in disgust and switched to rival far-right networks.
The program sparked an unprecedented backlash against the ABC by the Murdoch empire, both in Australia and the US, and a complaint was pursued first with the ABC, which rejected any breaches, and then with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma).
In a 60-page report, Acma rejected six of Fox’s allegations of editorial breaches and upheld two. The authority found Fox and the Big Lie “came close to, but did not breach, the high bar set by the impartiality standards in the ABC’s code”.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
“The episodes focussed on newsworthy allegations, presented evidence to support these allegations, and demonstrated open-mindedness by seeking and, where available, including relevant perspectives,” the report said. “Accordingly, the Acma finds that the ABC did not unduly favour one perspective over another and, therefore, did not breach Standard 4.5 of the Code.”
Acma said the ABC omitted relevant contextual information in the program in a way that materially misled the audience in its reporting on the appearance of Fox News presenters at a Trump rally and by failing to report on the role social media played in inciting the Capitol Hill riots.
The ABC issued a strong rebuke to the report on Wednesday, saying Acma’s conclusion is “inconsistent with the established approach to accuracy and fairness under the code” and will have negative consequences for public interest journalism.
The ABC’s news director, Justin Stevens, took aim at a claim that “the program came close to, but did not breach” impartiality standards.
“The ABC strongly disagrees that the program is not impartial,” Stevens said.
“Fox and the Big Lie was a strong and measured piece of public interest journalism and a world class report by Sarah Ferguson and the team.
“This was a comprehensive investigation analysing the role Fox News played in helping promulgate the ‘big lie’ – that the 2020 US Presidential election was stolen.”
In the program, Ferguson said two Fox presenters, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity, had appeared at a 2018 Trump rally without disclosing that Fox had issued a public statement censuring the two presenters.
“This omission left it open to viewers to conclude that Fox News had either endorsed or at least did not object to the appearances,” the Acma said.
The chair of Acma, Nerida O’Loughlin, said the ABC had an obligation to present facts accurately and in context.
“By omitting key information, the ABC did not give its audience the opportunity to make up their own minds about Fox News,” O’Loughlin said.
A further breach was found in the approach by Ferguson, then the ABC’s Washington correspondent, to Pirro outside Fox News headquarters. Acma said the ABC did not appropriately inform her about the nature of her participation in the program. The ABC submitted Pirro never agreed to participate in the program so was never informed.
“Both audiences and participants are entitled to the full picture. In this case, by omitting information the ABC did not do justice to the story or provide all relevant facts to its audience,” O’Loughlin said.
Although current affairs programs are permitted to contain strong opinions, the watchdog found the ABC “could have taken greater care in striking that balance in this program to avoid perceptions of partiality”.
The report said: “The two breaches are due to the ABC materially misleading the audience by omitting relevant contextual information when presenting factual material about the appearance of two Fox News presenters at a campaign rally for former president Trump, and the January 6 riots at the US Capitol.”
Last year Fox News headquarters in New York sent a legal threat, saying the ABC had “clearly violated” its own standards by “exhibiting bias and a failure to maintain any level of impartiality in the presentation of news and information”.
In a statement, Fox News Media said it was “pleased with the findings of the Australian Communications and Media Authority that the ABC engaged in multiple breaches of its own Code of Practice relating to accuracy and fair and honest dealing”.
“Today’s ruling confirms Fox News Media’s view that the central premise of the Four Corners two-part program was built on a foundation of patent bias and lack of impartiality and was then laden with basic factual errors, uncorrected even after Fox News Media presented contradictory evidence,” the statement said.
Murdoch’s Australian outlets published 45 pieces of criticism on Fox and the Big Lie.
The Australian called it a “full-frontal hit job on Rupert Murdoch, News Corp and the US Fox News channel”.
The two-part program “Fox and the Big Lie” remains available to view on ABC iview.