Tuncurry local, Wendy Borchers, archivist at ABC TV for many years, looks back.
The road leading to the birth of the ABC’s flagship program, ‘Four Corners’ was a rocky one. But I’m proud to have been part of this television institution.
In his book ‘Out of the Box’ (Seaview Press, 1999), original producer Robert Raymond explains that the idea was conceived, along with presenter, Michael Charlton, over many plates of spaghetti bolognaise, accompanied by bottles of house red, in a restaurant not far from their office at 171 William Street, Kings Cross.
Management seemed to be lined up against them and one TV executive even snarled as he brushed past in a corridor of the television studios (at Gore Hill just over the Harbour Bridge on the north side), that ‘this program will go to air over my dead body’. It seems that the News Department came up with a proposal of its own and the powers-that-be were learning towards that format, rather than the one proposed by Raymond and Charlton.
‘Four Corners’ DID go to air, as scheduled, on Saturday, 19th August, 1961 and obviously won the approval of those recalcitrant ABC executives and after 60 years, there can be no doubt that their trust and faith has paid off 100 fold.
In ‘Out of the Box’ Bob Raymond quoted a later presenter and executive producer of the program, Bob Moore, as saying of Raymond and Charlton that “they legitimised the Australian accent on TV. They showed real Australians to be seen and heard and changed our consciousness of ourselves and our country.”
In 1963 Michael Charlton was the recipient of a Gold Logie Award for the most popular personality on Australian TV!
My road towards becoming a film researcher on ‘Four Corners’ was not so rocky, but it was certainly long and winding. The program has become part of me.
I Joined the ABC in Radio Talks (now Radio Current Affairs) and became the first secretary to the Executive Producer on AM in 1967, where I remained for many months- a period which included the disappearance of our prime minister, Harold Holt, in the ocean off Portsea in Victoria. In 1968 I found myself in the permanent position of assistant to the Chief-of-Staff in the News Department at Gore Hill, but later I was offered the exciting job as production secretary on a new all-film drama series, called ‘Delta’. After two years, I returned to News, just in time to witness the saga of the Qantas hoax, during which it was claimed by a ‘Mister Brown’ that there was a bomb on board the Qantas jet ‘City of Broken Hill’ and if the airline didn’t hand over a huge sum of money immediately, the bomb would be detonated! There was no bomb.
I had become quite friendly with one of the Film Librarians, Lois Lawson, who used to visit News on a regular basis to collect the daily film from our editors for accession into their collection. One day I enquired as to what were her duties, which she explained and told me a vacancy for a researcher was coming up soon so why didn’t I apply? I did and was appointed, which was very exciting and meant my life changed dramatically, especially as I was now working on a shift.
As the junior researcher on the team of four, which consisted of Lois, Elizabeth Steptoe and Wendy Odlum, I was assigned to children’s programs such as ‘Junior World’ when I was asked to find films with fascinating titles such as ‘Root Knot Nematode’ and I still have no idea what this is exactly.
My lucky break came one day when ‘Four Corners’ producer, Gordon Bick, arrived in the Library with an urgent request for a film researcher to find footage relating to the Croatian terrorist group, Ustasha, which had been active in Sydney. My colleagues were all busy with other urgent stories, so I was allowed to take this assignment. Meticulously combing through the records I managed to unearth all the items Gordon had listed and he told me he was going to give me a visual end credit on his story – ‘Ustasha Down Under’ to show his appreciation. Wow – a credit – I hadn’t thought of that and when my name appeared my flatmates and I cheered. My mother, in the Hunter Valley, saw my name in lights too, having gathered some of the neighbours together to watch the show with her. It was one of the proudest moments to the start of a long and fascinating career.
I was privileged to work with so many brilliant staff members on ‘Four Corners’ over the years that it is hard to single out any person, or any story for a special mention, but I would like to make an exception to the rule to tell the story of Nancy Young, transmitted on the program in 1969, one of the worst miscarriages of justice I had ever encountered.
In May, 1968, an Aboriginal woman, Nancy Young, carried her critically ill baby daughter, one and a half kilometres, through scrubby country, from her home at the Cunnamulla Aboriginal reserve in Queensland, to the hospital in town, where she arrived at 1am. No doctor examined the baby until 9am and she died two days later. Nancy was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter by an all-white, all male jury and sentenced to three years hard labour.
In the ‘Four Corners’ film, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, transmitted on August 30, 1969, Peter Reid revealed the injustices of the case; the steady increase in the death rate amongst Aboriginal children and the appalling squalid conditions under which Aboriginal people on the Cunnamulla reserve were expected to live. After serving the majority of her three-year sentence, Nancy was released, following fresh evidence, which resulted in the conviction being quashed. It was later acknowledged that the baby Evelyn died from scurvy, which she contracted in the unsanitary conditions of the Cunnamulla reserve. This story created a huge surge of public outrage.
In early 1976, ABC New York correspondent, Ray Martin, interviewed the former head of the CIA, James Jesus Angleton, who it is said, spilled the beans on the CIA’S involvement in the sacking of the Australian Prime Minister, Edward Gough Whitlam, by the Governor General, John Kerr, on 11th November, 1975. Unfortunately we will never know for sure the content of that interview because the film “disappeared” from the office of the ‘Four Corners’ production unit, which means it did not make it to the library or the screen. It’s just another one of life’s little mysteries, but how I’d love to know the truth.
Atomic Bomb off WA
In 2018 I was on a mega-adventure on an aerial anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Australia. We had just visited the lighthouse at Vlamingh Head in Western Australia and I was studying a map of the region of the Exmouth Gulf in the Pilbara, when I spotted the archipelago of the Monte Bello Islands. In 1978 I was assigned to a ‘Four Corners’ story of the same name, produced by Bob Pride, when I learned there had been three top secret British atomic tests, 1952 and two in 1956, on the islands in the Cold War of the 1950’s. When I checked with my fellow travellers no-one had heard of them – Maralinga yes, Monte Bello Islands, no. There is no proof that the Australian prime minister at the time, Robert Menzies, had ever consulted with his Cabinet when he gave the British government the green light to detonate the blasts, contaminating atmosphere and blackening the sky! The islands are still radioactive but tourists ignore the warning signs and camp there anyway.
(In 1956, 4 year old Kevin Streicke watched a mushroom cloud rising to the north west of the gulf; the deserted Monte Bello islands were a mere 130 kilometres from the WA coast, but their selection of the site for two British atomic bomb tests in 1956 and an earlier one in 1952, underlined the remoteness and near-emptiness of the state, stretching to the north of North West Cape. ‘A Little America in Western Australia’ by Anthony J Barker and Michael L Ondaatje UWA Publishing, 2015)
I knew about those contentious atomic tests because I used to work on ‘Four Corners’.
‘Four Corners’ I salute you, you have created a priceless record of Australian history and I congratulate all of you who are still there ensuring that Aunty’s Flagship remains world class. Robert Raymond and Michael Charlton would be so proud of you!
Wendy Borchers AM
Thank you Wendy. You’re a legend too. And I know you’re still called upon on occasion as you seem to have archives filed in your head!
In this sad time of diminishing and threatened honest media, we need fearless “Four Corners’ and other brave programs and newspapers to reveal the stories that some in our government, corrupt organisations and individuals do not want told.
This current government has slashed the budget and undermined the ABC in many ways. But it will never silence it’s journalists, Chairwoman, General Manager and staff nor we, their loyal audience.
Here’s to another brave sixty years “Four Corners.”