As the diarists talked about fearing what they would face each day at work, their stress and fatigue were palpable. They voiced concerns about exposing family members to the virus, reflected on their sense of responsibility to colleagues and patients and confessed how exhausted they were by the mental, physical and emotional toll of what was being asked of them.
Their stories were candid and unvarnished, the footage was unpolished and the collage that developed was powerful and illuminating. It also became a moving testament to the courage of those who have dealt daily and directly with the emergency.
Cohen’s program was a notable addition to a season shaping as an impressive one for the ABC’s current affairs showpiece. The 59-year-old Monday night institution has been making the most of its rare opportunity on free TV to focus on a single subject for 45 minutes.
That’s become a privileged position and it hasn’t been treated lightly.
Four Corners, which will this year present 25 episodes, six of them imports, has both news-breaking capacity and substance. Under the keen eye of executive producer Sally Neighbour, accomplished local productions have already ranged across a variety of timely and topical subjects.
The season opened with Black Summer, produced by Sashka Koloff and reported by Lauren Day and Sean Nicholls, which recalled the horrific summer bushfires and presented footage that gave viewers a sense of the magnitude and roaring force of the flames. Creating a vivid impression of what hell on Earth might look like, it featured survivors’ stories of their experiences and their reflections in its aftermath.
Other notable episodes include Mark Willacy’s Killing Field, produced by Wayne Harley, which investigated war-crime allegations against Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. Loaded with wobbly helmet-cam footage and more powerful for that, it evoked the terror, trauma and outrage of war and raised alarming questions about the actions of some members of our military.
Documenting “perhaps the greatest policy failure of our generation”, Climate Wars, reported by Michael Brissenden and produced by Peter Cronau, surveyed the battleground of climate policy, detailing the dismay of bureaucrats and scientists at the sustained political inaction.
Trapped in the Volcano, Stephanie March’s account of the White Island volcano eruption New Zealand, produced by Jeanavive McGregor, featured some extraordinary footage as well as poignant interviews with locals, sightseer survivors and victims’ family members. Aside from the striking images, the tales of how those who arrived at the scene tried to care for and comfort the victims were heart-wrenching and inspiring.
More recently, with Outbreak Onboard, reporter Elise Worthington and producer Lesley Robinson offered a meticulous chronology of a disaster in their account of cruise ships Diamond Princess and Ruby Princess. When viewed after months of lockdowns and social distancing, the footage of festivities onboard the Ruby Princess, captured on camera phones to preserve memories of good times, was profoundly disturbing.
To see crew members staging birthday celebrations and passengers partying at such close quarters, as the virus was spreading through confined spaces, was appalling, as were the testimonies of travellers about how their queries about safety were batted aside with hollow assurances.
What some of the best of the year’s Four Corners programs have in common is their tendency to resist post-production excesses. One of the elements that made Cohen’s coverage of health workers during the pandemic so affecting and effective was its rawness.
Obviously, not all stories benefit from such treatment: some require the application of imaginative techniques in the editing suite to enhance their impact and appeal. But a regrettable trend at the ABC, especially evident in its multi-part documentary investigations, is to lay on the bells and whistles with a trowel. There’s been an embrace of some of the worst of commercial TV tropes.
The often-unnecessary flourishes applied with a heavy hand include the insertion of insistent music, in an attempt to heighten the sense of drama, overuse of montages, slow-motion and dramatic recreations. At times, as with Louise Milligan’s Boys Club report early in the year, produced by Mary Fallon, these additions diminish the impact of the story. And given it was a story with a lot to recommend it in terms of depth and insights, it didn’t need so much tricking up.
Overall, there might be many reasons to lament the quality and paucity of offerings on the ABC. The systematic starvation of funds to the national broadcaster is evident in myriad ways. But Four Corners, with its consistently impressive and sometimes exceptional reporting and production, continues to validate the prestigious place it holds in our current affairs landscape.