"As we go to air tonight, Australian animals are being lined up in raceways across Indonesia for the slaughter to begin in a few hours. The question now in the Government's hands is whether they - and whether the Australian public - will allow this trade to continue."
So ended the lengthy assassination of Australia's live cattle trade with Indonesia by the ABC's Four Corners program. It was "A Bloody Business", both in name and in execution.
The target, an industry that earned $319 million in 2010 and supports thousands of jobs in Australia and Indonesia, remains on its deathbed. The ban sought by the ABC is in place. Prime Minister Gillard says it will not last but a large number of Labor backbenchers say otherwise. Across northern Australia there is shock and dismay. Almost three weeks after the ABC put its program to air it remains unknown how much more families, farming enterprises and communities will suffer because of the loss of the Indonesian market.
ABC Four Corners 31 May 2011:
"…without doubt very large numbers of Australian cattle exported there have been subjected to gross, horrible abuse."
From Kerry O'Brien's introduction to its closing credits the Four Corners story painted a dark and unambiguous picture of Indonesian abattoirs and what it said was the typically ugly fate of stock assigned to them.
"Some of the cattle shipped to Indonesia will die humanely, stunned before slaughter in conditions similar to those in Australia. Most will not."
Accompanied by bloody footage of the atrocious mistreatment of Australian cattle in 12 abattoirs, Four Corners was specific in its characterisation of the industry. It proclaimed that the evil uncovered by Lyn White of Animals Australia was truly representative of Indonesian slaughter practices. When feedlot operator Greg Pankhurst referred to more humane practices, the program switched quickly back to its own agenda: more bloody business.
Greg Pankhurst (interview):
"The biggest thing that I have changed, have seen over the last 19 years that I have here, is the way that the animal is restrained and that is a very big welfare issue, the restraint of the animal. The animal is not, is not forced or pressured. Previously it was forced or pressured, now it's not forced or pressured."
"But just a few kilometres away in Bandar Lampung, at the end of narrow road in a backyard, is the Kaliawi abattoir. Here there is little sign of progress."
There were facts behind Mr Pankhurst's words, but they were not explored on the program. There was another side to the trade declared abhorrent by the ABC, but it was not broadcast.
Since May 31, evidence has shown that cruel mistreatment of cattle is actually not typical of Indonesian abattoirs. The real situation in Indonesia - that a small minority of Australian cattle were subject to unacceptable cruelty - was why Australia's Agriculture Minister Senator Joe Ludwig confined initial bans to just a dozen meatworks.
Wellard Rural Exports Marketing Manager Scot Braithwaite:
"I have watched literally thousands of cattle slaughtered in the boxes in Indonesia. Yes there are problems, as there are at every point of slaughter on every type of animal in the world, but 98% of the cattle I watched killed was quick and without fuss."
Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Vet Sciences professor, Aris Junaidi :
"As shocking and appalling as the footage in the Four Corners expose was, it is in no way representative of the conditions in most abattoirs in Indonesia."
Foreign Affairs Commentator Greg Sheridan:
"The total ban is wildly disproportionate. It is clear that there are abattoirs in Indonesia which have engaged in shocking cruelty to animals. It is also clear that there are abattoirs in Indonesia, including halal abattoirs, which conform with more humane practices."
This reality is now accepted by most stakeholders and media observers - apart from Animals Australia, Four Corners and Labor backbench MPs.
So what drove the accurate and impartial ABC to present such a different story?
ABC Act 1983: 8(1)
"It is the duty of the Board: (c) To ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation" of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism"
Under the ABC's charter, its flagship program Four Corners is well-placed to shine a light on live exports. Given the increasing profile of Animals Australia and other similar groups, programs that scrutinise the treatment of exported stock were to be expected. Others will certainly follow.
But in no way was the program "A Bloody Business" an accurate and impartial depiction of the industry reality.
If it had to be characterised, the Four Corners presentation was simply an account of the industry as portrayed by Animals Australia and the former police woman, Lyn White. Ms White produced the raw footage. It was the ABC that gave her work authority and showcased her views to the world.
Prior to broadcast, Four Corners visited Indonesia but went to extremes to keep Ms White's footage under wraps. Videotape of humane practices at the Santori abattoir was broadcast, but in a context that blurred its Indonesian origin. Back in Australia, livestock industry figures were interviewed without sighting the key subject matter.
At first, Cameron Hall of Livecorp was denied the film and so refused to be interviewed on the subject matter.
Only as the broadcast date approached was Livecorp provided two hours to view the video and only after undertakings that forbade copying and limited viewing to a very small group.
"A Bloody Business" produced a strong reaction across Australia. Most backbench government MPs accepted the ABC's incorrect vision of normalcy in Indonesian abattoirs. Backed by Animals Australia, many Labor MPs now seek to extend the ban so that it applies to all Australian live cattle and sheep exports - at a combined cost of more than $1 billion a year. Permanently.
Of 700 abattoirs in Indonesia, the vast bulk of Australian cattle were sent to 100. With all its taxpayers' dollars the ABC exposed a problem that it documented in just 12 meatworks. That remains a very serious matter but in prosecuting the case for Animals Australia the ABC badly misrepresented Australia's northern cattle industry and damaged its reputation. It created tension in our national relationship with Indonesia. Hundreds of Australian and Indonesian businesses, including 82 cattle properties owned and run by Top End Aboriginal communities have been derailed.
Having disengaged from its governing act, the ABC owes many Australians and Indonesians much more than just an apology.
It is the ABC board that is responsible for ensuring the corporation's accuracy and impartiality. But who is responsible for cleaning up the horrendous consequences that followed once sight of those key attributes was lost?
Disclaimer: The author, Cameron Thompson, is chief of staff at Queensland Country Life and a former Liberal MHR (1998-2007). He was an ABC journalist from 1982-1986, based at Mackay, Brisbane, Longreach and Darwin.
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