Live Export

Four Corners grilled by Senate Inquiry

James Nason, 15/09/2011

The ABC staff that grilled live export industry participants over animal welfare standards in Indonesian abattoirs earlier this year faced an interrogation of their own at a Senate inquiry in Canberra last night.

For 90 minutes Senators of all political stripes questioned ABC Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson, producer Michael Doyle and ABC Head of News Alan Sunderland about the Four Corners investigation that led to the dramatic suspension of the $320m per year Indonesian live cattle trade in June and July.

When it aired on ABC on May 30, the Four Corners program “A Bloody Business” broadcast graphic images of Australian cattle being subjected to cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs.

At Senate hearings at Darwin, Broome and Katherine, producers and live export industry participants have repeatedly criticised the Four Corners program on the grounds that it lacked balance and did not provide a representative picture of abattoir standards across Indonesia.

Dozens of producers, livestock agents, exporters and industry officials have given evidence to hearings so far that they have never witnessed the type of cruelty depicted on Four Corners on regular visits to Indonesia, and uniformly maintain that what was shown was the exception rather than the rule.

WA Liberal senator Chris Back said from his examination the ABC program included about 15 and a half minutes of footage from inside Indonesian abattoirs, but only 35 seconds of that footage showed abattoirs that used stunning.

Reporter Sarah Ferguson said Four Corners rarely appeared before Senate Inquiries but elected to do so last night to ensure there were no misunderstandings about the representative nature of the program.

“Obviously this was a very dramatic story for the producers involved and it would be a great shame for them were they to be distracted from whatever needs to be done to improve the current situation,” Ms Ferguson said in her opening remarks.

“A distraction caused by in any way understanding that there was anything untoward or improper not genuine in the program we put to air, so that is really why we took the trouble to come here.

“It is unusual but it was an important program but we want to make sure we leave here with no misunderstanding in your minds about that program.”

Early in the proceedings senators honed in on the timing of events that led to the airing of the ABC Four Corners program on May 30.  Senators were particularly interested in why northern pastoralists were interviewed before Four Corners went to Indonesia, and why they were not shown the footage of Indonesian abattoir brutality that ABC had in its possession.

The ABC representatives said Animals Australia conducted its original filming in nine Indonesian abattoirs in mid-March, and presented the footage to Four Corners in late March. Four Corners then conducted its own seven week investigation, which was a typical production time-frame.

Ms Ferguson explained that the ABC’s investigations commenced with footage of cattle being loaded on Wellard Rural Exports’ MV Ocean Drover in Darwin in early April, followed by interviews of northern pastoralists in mid-April while the ABC was waiting for visas to enter Indonesia to be processed. Four Corners then conducted its own filming in four Indonesian abattoirs in late April.

Some senators suggested that pastoralists had been ambushed and unfairly treated by being interviewed before Four Corners had conducted its own investigation in Indonesia, and without being shown footage the ABC would later show in the program.

WA Liberal senator Chris Back said that all industry leaders who were  asked questions had to go on was what they had seen in Indonesia with their own eyes, which – while not necessarily to their liking – was nothing like the brutality and cruelty shown on Four Corners.

“Given that these industry leaders, Luke Bowen, Ken Warriner, Rohan Sullivan were never invited to see the footage about which they were being challenged, and upon which you were asking them to make comment, which found their way in the case of Warriner and Sullivan, into your transcript, surely that goes to the question of fair opportunity to be able to respond on a level playing field to the actual questions upon which they are being asked?”

Ms Ferguson said she disagreed and said journalists were under no obligation to release footage until investigations were complete. She said she had provided Ken Warriner with a detailed description of what the footage contained before she sought his views in response.

Ms Ferguson was also asked why she selected a clip which showed a long silence by Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association president Rohan Sullivan in response to a question as opposed to the more detailed answer he followed with after the pause.

“The point with Mr Sullivan is that he had seen cruelty in Indonesia. This was the ethical heart of this program, and his silence best represented it. For people who are selling their cattle into Indonesia and have knowledge that the conditions there are very poor, he had expressed that to us.

"When you ask the question why should animals continue to suffer while Indonesia gets it act together on stunning, which at that stage was like pie in the sky, they don’t have an answer, and that is the absolute ethical core of this."

Should footage have gone first to authorities

Committee chair NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan asked whether those in possession of the footage showing potentially criminal acts should have presented it immediately to authorities.

“Do you agree that if you don’t report strong suspicions or knowledge of a criminal occurrence, you become a felon under the crimes act?,” NSW Liberal senator Bill Heffernan asked. “My point is, whoever got the film, and didn’t take it to the correct reporting authorities instead of hording it for a TV ambush, could be subject to a prison felony and a criminal offence themselves.”

ABC News head of policy Alan Sunderland dismissed the assertion. “I’d reject your depiction of what we did as an ambush, and I would point out that we are engaged in journalism here, and just as we are answerable for the thoroughness of the journalistic efforts we do investigate things.”

Purpose of beating cattle

Among several questions asked by WA Liberal Senator and veterinarian Chris Back was why Indonesian abattoir workers would find any reason to beat and whip cattle.

“What is the purpose in an abattoir in processing of animal from the live animal through to the wet market, what is the purpose of standing there kicking it?"

Ms Ferguson replied: “If you look at the footage the thing that is absolutely clear, and I urge everyone involved in this to keep looking at the footage because the message from the footage is very clear, in that case the particular animal in Mabar slips on a faeces covered floor, a very dirty pen at the back of the abattoir, and breaks his back leg very badly.

“It is clear from the images there that the abattoir worker is frustrated with that animal because he cannot get it to stand again, he tries in everything he can, in every way he can to get the animal to get up so he can move him to the box in order to continue with the slaughter, and that is what was so excruciating about it… he wasn’t just doing it, the animal broke its leg, he was trying to move it, he tried everything in his armoury to move the animal and eventually failed and dragged it."

Evidence that mistreatment was widespread?

NSW Nationals senator Fiona Nash asked the Four Corners team to explain the evidence it drew upon to support its claim that mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs “was widespread”.

ABC Head of News Alan Sunderland said the claim was based on filming in nine different locations by Animals Australia over a number of weeks followed by footage filmed by ABC in four different locations over several nights.

“What I’m saying is this was not an issue of what is this one slaughterman doing in one abattoir,” he said. “…We had seen a clear pattern.”

Senator Nash asked the Four Corners team to provide excerpts of footage with notations documenting when and where each was filmed to provide evidentiary support to an earlier statement by Mr Sunderland that the practices depicted were "so widespread".

Later Greens senator Rachel Siewert asked Ms Ferguson if she was totally convinced that what was shown was routine behaviour in Indonesian abattoirs.

Ms Ferguson said she was:  “Yes, otherwise we would have said so in the program. If we had come to the conclusion that this was aberrant behaviour we would have said so. We went to great lengths as we do in any Four Corners program to ensure that what we are asserting is represented by the facts and not just one person’s set of facts and that is why it takes us seven weeks to make a program.”


SA Independent senator Nick Xenophon said northern producers had told senators in Broome, Katherine and Darwin that Four Corners had picked the worst of the worst footage and that the program was skewed, based on what they had seen in their own visits to Indonesia.

Ms Ferguson said industry leaders had told her otherwise: “That puts them at odds with some of the key members of the industry who we featured in the program who said the exact opposite.”

Senator Xenophon said another criticism that had been put to him by producers was that comments by US cattle handling expert Temple Grandin had been taken out of context and that she had since retracted the statements.

Ms Ferguson: “It is absolutely not the case that Temple Grandin has in any way stepped back from what she said… There is a no possibility that an intelligent woman could claim to have been taken out of context when I am in possession of the transcript which reveals they were utterly in context.”

Ms Ferguson also added that the production team had gone to great lengths to highlight “the explicit contrasts that existed between the good treatment animals received on ships and in Indonesian feedlots" and what happens to them once they  arrived in an abattoir in the country.

Fear or transit tetany

WA liberal senator Chris Back, a veterinarian, challenged the ABC's treatment of one of the most dramatic images contained its program. The footage in question showed a single beast shaking and shivering while other steers were slaughtered and skinned in front of it.

The ABC drew expert comment from Temple Grandin to explain in the program that it was clear the animals were experiencing and exhibiting fear.

Senator Back said Temple Grandin was not a veterinarian, and asked if the ABC had sought advice from a veterinarian able to make a clinical diagnosis of the animal’s actual condition. Ms Ferguson said she did not, because they had sought views on that particular footage from Temple Grandin, who was a recognised expert in animal behaviour.

“It is a shame you didn’t consult Dr (Ivan) Caple or any other vet because had you have done so, had Ms Grandin even inquired as to the history of that particular circumstance, you would have been informed that the condition we all saw, was a very common condition, of cattle, called transit tetany,” Senator Back said.

“Transit tetany is a condition of beef animals that come out of intensive feeding in a feedlot, transported a distance, that are not rested prior to slaughter, and they exhibit all of the signs, that we saw in your footage.

“It is a disease in which clinically there is a sudden drop in blood calcium and magnesium levels and what we see… is restlessness, wild-eyed, extreme nervousness, agitated, easily excited, skeletal muscle tremors, unsteady on their feet, shivering continuously and showing rapid gasping breathing.”

“Can I put to you that this was a failure on something as critically important as this event that you did not obtain independent verification by a person or people competent to be able to comment on the actual condition we saw.”

Ms Ferguson: “I’m very grateful for that explanation, we shall take it away and look into it, thank you, if there is more to say about that particular scene and we can add to the program website we would be very happy to do that.”

She added the footage was analysed by the RSPCA and transit tetany was not something they mentioned.

“You’ve got to remember what this scene was about, you have a line of animals lined up in a crude raceway, they are pulled violently to the ground, there is no reflex check of the cornea before they are skinned.

“But that is what is principally important about that scene, we mentioned the fear, lets not forget what is being depicted in that scene.”


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