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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

TV review: The Billion-Dollar Bust, Four Corners, ABC (2018)

This week we got a little more evidence of the way the ABC is shifting to the right on the political scale when the current affairs flagship Four Corners ran a slick piece of PR for law enforcement titled ‘The Billion-Dollar Bust’, instead of the usual in-depth investigative pieces that we have come to recognise as particularly their area of expertise.

The story centred around Pakistani money launderer Altaf Khanani and an elaborate sting set up by the US Drug Enforcement Administration with the cooperation of the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation working with its Five Eyes partners overseas. Khanani was touted as an attractive target because he has been laundering vast sums for drug dealers and terrorists.

The show started with a smaller sting conducted at Clyde Railway Station in western Sydney where an operative linked with Khanani swapped a token – an Australian five-dollar bill with a known serial number – with a contact who he knew had money to clean. There is plenty of this kind of dramatic footage in the program, but by the end of it one of the police officers is shown saying quite candidly that not much will change as a result of the Khanani bust because other players will just come in and take over the same clients with their own networks of operatives.

A more intelligent program would have looked at the way that criminalising drug use is resulting in the loss of billions of dollars and of thousands of lives every year. The post-war experiment that is the developed world’s canonical drug regime – though it’s not followed, thankfully, in all developed countries – has manifestly failed and it is time for fresh ideas for combating drug crime. A good place to start would be to decriminalise personal use of illicit substances, a measure that would enable the government to take over the role of dealer, and result in higher tax receipts and a better-quality product for users by removing the business of production and supply from networks of criminals. Drug use itself needs to be handled as a health issue, not a criminal one, and this is the policy of the Australian Greens, for example.

But the ABC has form in the realm of mindlessly kowtowing to authority with its documentary drama Keeping Australia Safe running since last year that features law enforcement and immigration authorities going about their business. The program website touts the program as “arguably the most ambitious observational documentary series ever undertake in Australia”. But it’s cheap to manufacture and you don’t even need a script writer, just an editing bench.

Elsewhere, Stan Grant has been asking what he calls “the big questions” in Matter of Fact, a daily late-night program that has interviews with global experts on questions that are broadly relevant but it’s a program that eschews the heavy doses of local politics that Lateline gave viewers. Lateline was axed at the end of the year. Where Lateline would bring out Australian politicians to answer questions from an experienced local journalist, Matter of Fact avoids the overtly political and instead focuses on questions that are more difficult to find immediate relevance for in the public sphere, such as the role of the US in international relations, or the rise of China. Grant seems to believe that he has special insights to offer viewers by asking questions of experts along these lines, but I wonder how well-informed he really is.

Also on late at night is a program with Patricia Karvelas, who has had a program on the ABC’s Radio National but also has worked for Sky News and the Australian, two conservative vehicles.

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