All your gods have feet of clay: Sarah Ferguson’s fall from grace

The year that ends today was remarkable for one thing on the media front that has gone largely unnoticed: the fall from grace of one of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s brightest stars who has long been a standard-setter at the country’s national broadcaster.

Sarah Ferguson was the journalist’s journalist, seemingly a woman of fierce integrity, and one who pandered to neither left nor right. When she sat in for Leigh Sales, the host of 7.30, the main current affairs programme, for six months, while Sales was on a maternity leave break, the programme seemed to come to life as she attacked politicians with vigour and fearlessness.

There was bite in her speech, there was knowledge, there was surprise aplenty. Apart from the stint on 7.30, she brought depth and understanding to a long programme on the way the Labor Party tore itself to bits while in government for six years from 2007, a memorable TV saga.

A powerful programme on domestic violence during the year was filled with the kind of sparse and searing dialogue for which Ferguson was known. I use the past tense advisedly for it all came apart in October.

That was the month when Ferguson decided, for some strange reason, to interview Hillary Clinton for an episode of Four Corners, the ABC’s main investigative affairs programme. How an interview with a jaded politician who was trying to blame all and sundry for her defeat in the 2016 US presidential election fit into this category is anyone’s guess.

The normally direct and forthright Ferguson seemed to be in awe of Clinton, and gave the former American secretary of state free pass after free pass, never challenging the lies that Clinton used to paint herself as the victim of some extraordinary plot.

Sarah Ferguson.
Sarah Ferguson.

In fact, Ferguson herself appeared to be so embarrassed by her own performance that she penned — or a ghost writer did — an article that was totally out of character, claiming that she had prepared for the interview and readied herself to the extent possible.

To put it kindly, this was high-grade bulldust.

Either Ferguson was overwhelmed by the task of interviewing a figure such as Clinton or else she decided to go easy on one of her own sex. It was a pathetic sight to see one of the best journalists at the ABC indulge in such ordinary social intercourse.

There were so many points during the interview when Ferguson could have caught her subject napping. And that’s an art at which she is adept.

But, alas, that 45 minutes went without a single contradiction, without a single interjection, with Ferguson projecting a has-been as somehow a subject who was worthy of being featured on a programme that generally caters to hard news. By the time this interview took place, Clinton had been interviewed by world+dog as she tried to sell her book, What Happened.

Thus, Ferguson was reduced to recycling old stuff, and she made a right royal hash of it too.

I sent the following complaint to the ABC on 22 October, six days after the interview was broadcast:

I am writing to make a formal complaint about the dissemination of false information on the ABC, via the Four Corners interview with Hillary Clinton on 16 October.

Sarah Ferguson conducted the interview but did not challenge numerous falsehoods uttered by Clinton.

Four Corners is promoted as investigative journalism. Ferguson had done no preparation at all to anticipate Clinton’s lies – and that is a major failing. There was no investigative aspect about this interview. It was pap at its finest. The ABC had a long article about how Ferguson had prepared for the interview – but this seems to be so much eyewash.

Clinton has been interviewed numerous times after her election loss and many of these interviews are available on the internet, beginning with the 75-minute interview done by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of The Verge on 30 June. So Ferguson cannot claim that she did not have access to these.

The ABC, as part of its charter, has to be balanced. Given that there were so many accusations made about WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange by Clinton, he should have been given a chance — after the programme — to give his side of the story. This did not happen.

There has been a claim by Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour on Twitter that she wrote to Assange on 19 September seeking an interview. But this, if true, could not have been a right of reply as it was well before the Clinton interview.

Neighbour also retweeted a tweet which said “Assange is Putin’s bitch” as part of promoting the programme. This is not very professional, to put it mildly.

Finally, given that the allegations about the 2016 US presidential polls have been dominating the news for more than a year, Ferguson should have known what the central issues raised by Clinton would be. Else, she should not have done the interview.

If, as claimed, Ferguson did prepare for the interview, then how she did not know about these issues is a mystery.

Some of the false statements made by Clinton during the interview, none of which were challenged by Ferguson.

1. “And if he’s such a, you know, martyr of free speech, why doesn’t WikiLeaks ever publish anything coming out of Russia?” was one of Clinton’s claims about Assange.

Here is a massive WikiLeaks drop on Russia:

There are many documents critical of Russia:

2. Clinton claimed that the release of emails from the Democratic National Committee was timed to cut off oxygen to the stories around the Trump Hollywood access tape which was released on 7 October.

This again is a lie. Assange had proclaimed the release of these emails on 4 October –

3. Clinton claimed in the interview that made-up stories were run using the DNC emails. This again is a lie.

One email showed that Islamic State is funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both countries from which Clinton accepted donations for the Clinton Foundation. The fact that the DNC acted to favour Clinton over Bernie Sanders for the Democrat nomination in 2016 was also mentioned in the emails.

The New York Times published stories based on these facts. Ferguson did not challenge Clinton’s lie about this.

There are numerous other instances of stories being run based on the emails – and none of these was ever contradicted by Clinton or her lackeys.

4. Clinton also claimed that the DNC emails were obtained through an external hack. There is no concrete evidence for this claim.

There is evidence, however, produced by NSA whistleblower William Binny and CIA veteran Ray McGovern to show that they could only have been taken by an internal source, who was likely to have used an USB key and copied them. See

5. Clinton alleged that Julian Assange is a “tool of Russian intelligence” who “does the bidding of a dictator”.

Barack Obama himself is on the record ( as stating that there is no clear connection between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence. Several others in his administration have said likewise.

Once again, Ferguson did not challenge the lie.

6. Ferguson did not ask Clinton a word about the Libyan conflict where 40,000 died in an attack which she (Clinton) had orchestrated.

7. Not a word was asked about the enormous sums Clinton took from Wall Street for speeches – Goldman Sachs, a pivot of the global financial crisis, was charged $675,000 for a speech.

The ABC owes the public, whose funds it uses, an explanation for the free pass given to Clinton.

Kieran Doyle of the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs department sent me the following response on 6 December:

Your complaint has been investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. We have considered your concerns and information provided by ABC News management, reviewed the broadcast and assessed it against the ABC’s editorial standards for impartiality and accuracy.

The newsworthy focus of this interview was Hillary Clinton’s personal reaction to her defeat to Donald Trump in the most stunning election loss in modern US history, which she has recounted in her controversial book What Happened. Mrs Clinton is a polarising historical figure in US politics who is transparently partisan and has well established personal and political positions on a wide range of issues. An extended, stand-alone interview will naturally include her expressing critical views of her political adversaries and her personal view on why she believes she was defeated.

ABC News management has explained the program was afforded 40 minutes of Mrs Clinton’s time for the interview, and the reporter had to be extremely selective about the questions she asked and the subjects she covered within that limited time frame. It was therefore not possible to contest and interrogate, to any significant degree, all of the claims she made. We note she did challenge Mrs Clinton’s view of Mr Assange –

SARAH FERGUSON: lots of people, including in Australia, think that Assange is a martyr for free speech and freedom of information.

SARAH FERGUSON: Isn’t he just doing what journalists do, which is publish information when they get it?

We are satisfied that Mrs Clinton’s comments about WikiLeaks not publishing critical information about Russia, were presented within the context of the key issues of the 2016 US election and what impacted the campaign. The interview was almost exclusively focused on events leading up to the election, and the reporter’s questions about WikiLeaks were clearly focused on its role in the lead-up to the election, rather than after it. One of the key events in the lead-up to the election was the Wikileaks releases of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign manager over a number of dates, starting with the Democratic Convention.

In response to your concern, the program has provided the following statement:

The key point is that WikiLeaks didn’t publish anything about Russia during the campaign. WikiLeaks received a large cache of documents related to the Russian government during the 2016 campaign and declined to publish them.

Mrs Clinton’s suggestion that the release of the Podesta emails was timed to occur shortly after the release of the Access Hollywood tape was presented as her personal view. It was not presented as a factual statement that has been confirmed.

ABC News management has explained that in anticipation of the interview with Mrs Clinton, Four Corners wrote to Mr Assange in September and invited him to take part in an interview, to address the criticisms she has made of him and WikiLeaks in the wake of her election defeat. The program explicitly set out a statement Mrs Clinton had made in a podcast interview with the New Yorker criticising Mr Assange’s alleged links to Russia, in an almost identical way to the criticisms she then made to Four Corners, and asking Mr Assange to respond. Mr Assange did not respond. Four Corners has subsequently renewed the invitation, both directly through Twitter and by email with Mr Assange’s Australian legal advisor, Greg Barnes, offering him a full right of reply. The program would welcome the opportunity to interview Mr Assange.

We observe that Four Corners published a report covering Mr Assange’s reaction to Mrs Clinton’s criticisms, soon after he released his comments. That report is available at ABC News online by clicking the attached link:

We note the program’s Executive Producer has stated publicly that her re-tweet of an offensive viewer tweet during the program was done in error. ABC News management has explained there was very heavy Twitter traffic on the night and the re-tweet was a mistake and not done intentionally. As soon as she realised she had done it, the Executive Producer deleted the tweet and apologised on Twitter that evening.

While Audience and Consumer Affairs believe it would have been preferable for the program to make a further attempt to seek Mr Assange’s response to Mrs Clinton’s criticism of him, between recording the interview and broadcasting it, we are satisfied that the program has clearly afforded Mr Assange an opportunity to be interviewed to respond to those criticisms, and to the extent that he has responded, his views have been reported in the Four Corners online article on the ABC website.

Please be assured that the specific issues you personally believe should have been raised with Mrs Clinton are noted.

The ABC Code of Practice is available online at the attached link;

Should you be dissatisfied with this response to your complaint, you may be able to pursue the matter with the Australian Communications and Media Authority

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