The high-profile ABC journalist whose Four Corners documentary about Fox News was found to have breached the public broadcasters editorial code, has hit back at adverse findings by Australia’s media watchdog.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) found on Wednesday that reporter Sarah Ferguson’s two-part documentary Fox and the Big Lie breached the accuracy and fair dealing requirements of the ABC’s editorial code, but did not violate impartiality standards.
The program focused on the Murdoch empire’s Fox News and the 2020 US election.
Ferguson responded to Acma’s report in a 1,200-word piece published by the ABC on Thursday, saying that she “expected the Fox Corporation to complain loudly about our coverage. I did not expect ACMA to respond in the terms it did”.
Ferguson, who was based in the US bureau at the time of the documentary but is now the host of ABC current affairs program 7.30, said that understanding how one of the world’s most powerful media companies supported a damaging conspiracy that the election was stolen was “a compelling story in the best traditions of public interest journalism”.
“The overwhelming majority of issues raised by Fox were rejected by the regulator.
“However, ACMA’s final report and its inflammatory press release raise questions about the regulator’s understanding of journalism.”
Ferguson said that among the “simplest and silliest” assertions made by the regulator were that using the word “mob” to describe the 6 January rioters was emotive and strident language, that it was wrong to stop a Fox presenter who was a “cheerleader” for the “Big Lie” on a public street and ask her questions, and that the ABC should have included a Fox press release that was almost three years old in its story.
“In its report, responding to extensive complaints by Fox, ACMA says 19 times the ABC did not breach impartiality or mislead the audience. It identified three minor subjective breaches within our coverage,” Ferguson wrote.
“Yet the press release issued by ACMA chairperson Nerida O’Loughlin and the language of the report create an overall impression that our programs were misleading and not honest.
“I take their words extremely seriously.”
Under the sub-heading “huge implications for journalism”, Ferguson said a finding by Acma that the ABC misled the audience by failing to cover the role of social media in relation to the 6 January insurrection “most challenges the ABC’s freedom to pursue public interest journalism fearlessly”.
“It appears simple on the face of it, but its ramifications are not … ACMA found in an oddly subjective decision that we misled the audience by omitting to also cover the role of social media in relation to January 6.
“This is despite the fact that Four Corners had already produced a comprehensive episode about the insurrection months earlier.
“Consider the implications of this for journalism. According to ACMA’s interpretation of the code, the ABC is not free to choose the editorial focus it determines the most relevant.”
In August last year, 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.
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 the documentary 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”.
In a statement after the publication of Acma’s findings, Fox News said it was pleased with the ruling over breaches of the editorial code.