AUNTY COPS IT YET AGAIN
Well, what a vintage orgy of ABC-bashing was indulged in by News Ltd’s INQUIRER section of the Weekend Australian on 26 May 2012.
Chris Kenny (right) lead the charge, and not for the first time. He’s a former Liberal Party staffer, now a journalist.
I almost expected him to be joined by Gerard Henderson (also a former Liberal Party staffer) whose criticisms of the ABC go back decades – but his column is in the Sydney Morning Herald. I once annoyed Gerard mightily by suggesting that his views on the ABC seemed be drawn from his spinal cord rather than his brain.
Kenny’s would appear to be more visceral. Perhaps the national broadcaster upsets his digestive processes.
Kenny’s diatribe about ‘Groupthink’ at the ABC (code for entrenched left-wing inmates who have taken over the asylum) was joined on the front page by the Oz’s Legal Affairs Editor who was beefing off about the ABC’s inability to adequately apologise for alleged inaccurate claims about climate change. For heaven’s sake, the ABC is top heavy with committees examining ALL complaints, and the organisation takes this extremely seriously. These mechanisms were always there, but were beefed up during the Howard years, together with absurdly clunky rules about ‘balance’, and the search for the ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’, for God’s sake, on Radio National. (Phillip tends to have more right wingers on than lefties, and gives them a good go too, but this is conveniently ignored by the paranoid right.) Anyway greetings to Michael Duffy, who runs a pretty lively program Counterpoint. The name says it all.
Reading through Kenny’s choleric piece, I had a decided feeling of deja vue, that this had all been said before. Here he is on ‘Groupthink’:
Groupthink, at heart, is merely peer pressure. It is not about dictated policies or attitudes but something more insidious. When a collection of like-minded people engages in a common pursuit for extended periods, a form of consensus can take hold. If it leads to a form of self-censorship, then it acts against instincts for questioning or dissent, and this is at odds with an open-minded sense of enquiry fundamental to journalism.
Kenny goes further, nominating the ‘powerhouses’ of groupthink in the major cities like Melbourne and Sydney:
These inner-city ABC powerhouses are set in areas where the nation’s Green vote is a must, where the staff wear black, drink macciatos and fill city bike lanes. ABC journalists from further afield are sometimes frustrated, but not surprised, that their output reflects this environment – one that is disconnected from most Australians who are suburban all regional.
Hogwash Chris. The ABC is actually quite a conservative organisation, and its employees are simply trying to do their jobs professionally, keeping all Australians, wherever they may live, in mind. Indeed there are a plethora of programs designed to reach out to the bush, The Country Hour, and Bush Telegraph being obvious examples on radio, and there are specialist outlets on television as well. Not surprisingly Bush Telegraph is hugely appreciated in the cities too.
I was interested to read in Kenny’s Wikipedia entry that on Monday 11 April 20 11, Kenny appears on the ABC’s Q & A, alongside politicians and community figures. In 2012 he argued that the Q & A show was biased, left wing and should be cancelled. He has also called for large parts of the ABC to be shut down, whilst at the same time defending Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp as an unbiased media organisation.
As I read through more of his conspiratorial nonsense in last Saturdays article, my deja vue flash crystalised in a speech I gave on the ABC at the Brisbane Institute in 2002. Although the political references are now dated, NOTHING has changed. I’ll run it in full, but before I do, I have a question for the likes of Kenny and Henderson.
Where is the tidal wave of public outrage and dissatisfaction from the general public that MUST be there if 20 per cent of what these conservative warriors say is true? The bush is basically conservative, to draw a broad brush, but you won’t get far in the pub or at private social gatherings if you start lambasting the ABC. The vast majority of denizens in our wide (previously) brown land are very happy with what they get from the ABC on radio, television and increasingly on line.
This is how I saw it more than a decade ago in Brisbane.
MANAGING THE ABC – MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?
Brisbane Institute 16/7/02
By Tim Bowden*
When the appalling Jonathan Shier was finally sent packing last November by the same ABC board that had appointed him, the baying of the hounds of the right entered the realm of the theatre of the absurd. Padraic P McGuinness, who becomes so choleric when he writes about the ABC that it can’t be good for his health, foamed at the crutch in his Sydney Morning Herald column that ‘the sheltered workshop of the baby boomers and their obedient kiddies’ were once again in possession of their ABC. The entrenched staff culture that Shier had so enthusiastically attacked had once again triumphed over the ‘evil invader’. Paddy went on to suggest that the ‘undisciplined rabble’ in the ABC could only be controlled by breaking up the ABC into different bits so that the staff could presumably be more efficiently controlled. Frank Devine, writing one of his last pieces In The Australian, (he was about to retire from journalism) went even further. In a final conservative harrumph he wrote that the only possible solution to the left wing bias of the ABC was to close the whole place down! He did not appear to be joking.
Only weeks before Shier was shown the door, one Mike Nahan, executive director of the [barking mad] Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, was spewing out similar bilge – and getting it printed in The Australian. I quote: ‘Of course the ABC claims to be the national broadcaster – to be your ABC. In reality it is a workers’ collective run by a clique of ageing baby boomers, who hire and fire in their own image and likeness, and who cater for people with similar view, interests and prejudices.’ He went on to say that Shier was trying to re-assert and – now get this – to get the ABC ‘to cater to the broad range of views and interests in the community’. I thought that was something the ABC did quite well. Again, I have to assume that he was serious.
Speaking as a member of ABC staff for twenty-nine years and eleven months (I didn’t quite make it to thirty) I sometimes wonder what on earth these people are on about. Was I part of ‘an undisciplined rabble’, a ‘sheltered workshop’ or a well organised ‘workers’ collective’? It seemed to me that there was a lack of logic in these oft-trotted out mantras by the usual suspects who even borrow each others’ metaphors.
A rabble could hardly be well organised enough to run the ABC in defiance of its managers. In any case these people seemed to be writing about an organisation with which I was utterly unfamiliar. In my time with the ABC I’ve been around the traps a bit. I’ve experienced the ABC in Tasmania as well has head office in Sydney, I’ve been a foreign correspondent, and worked in news and current affairs in both radio and television. In the latter part of my career, from the mid 1970s until I retired in 1993 I worked in radio drama and features, founded the radio social history unit, and was a television writer and presenter for the viewer reaction program Backchat, and television documentaries. As a public service broadcaster I wasn’t paid all that much, but I loved the freedom of choosing topics not driven by a commercial imperative, and – with overtime not being an option – worked for as long as I had to, to get my programs on air. Most of my colleagues seemed to be doing the same thing. There were times when we felt we were poorly served by our managers, but this is the way it is in any large organisation. In some ways I wish we had had the time to organise an alternative government across the departments of news and current affairs, rural, sport, drama, science, education, religion, features, youth radio and Radio Australia but alas, our program commitments kept our busy little noses to that unforgiving and ever-revolving grindstone. I can assure you none of us felt we were running the place. We were running just to keep up with what we had to do.
There were occasions when ABC staff united behind our main union, the ABC Staff Association, to protest against issues we felt strongly about. However ABC staff by no means spoke with a united voice. The news men and women had their union, The Australian Journalists’ Association, and middle level managers were represented by their Senior Officers Association. These three groups were seldom unanimous in supporting a particular issue but there were times when this was achieved. (ABC staff members are still essentially represented by the same three unions, but there have been amalgamations and the names have changed.)
I cannot recall in my long association with the ABC ever voting to go on strike, or to take other industrial action, on pay and conditions – which is usually why unions get stroppy. Our concerns were almost always on matters of principle. Let me give you an example – and this occurred while I was working with This Day Tonight in 1970. Malcolm Fraser’s dislike and disdain for the ABC was almost as palpable as John Howard’s. On the 13th of May that year the Postmaster General Alan Hulme wrote to the ABC Chairman Sir Robert Madgwick saying that the ABC’s budget appropriations for the coming financial year would be reduced by $500 000 and directed that $250 000 of that be applied to current affairs television! The letter was leaked, and the ABC Staff Association called a mass meeting to protest against this political thuggery, and to stiffen ABC management’s resolve to resist this utterly improper interference in the way the ABC could spend its budget. No doubt buttressed by press and community outrage, and by the mass meeting of ABC staff, the then Chairman, Sir Robert Madgwick, did take a principled stand and Hulme had to pull his head in.
I am sure Mr Nahan and his ilk would – and probably will – seize on this as being an admission by me of the insidious, left-driven staff culture in action. I thought then, and still do, that combined action by concerned staff – and this was all staff, not just the current affairs lot – was justified on an important point of principle. The Post Master General’s directive was potentially a gross act of budgetary censorship which would affect the quality and integrity of programs transmitted to our viewers. We – as concerned professionals – were not only expressing our own concerns, but acting on behalf of our consumers.
But to return to the present. Despite Liberal Party power-broker Michael Kroger’s ham-fisted efforts to force a last-minute entry to the selection of a Managing Director for the ABC by public pressure on the board of which he is a member, the Chairman Donald McDonald, to his great credit, refused to be bullied – even though the Treasurer Peter Costello and Minister for Communications Richard Alston also weighed in heavily on the eleventh hour Trevor Kennedy candidacy – and appointed mild-mannered accountant Russell Balding, the man who had in fact been Jonathan Shier’s deputy. The sense of relief in the ABC was profound. Not because the alleged workers’ collective had triumphed, but because people had the prospect of being able to make radio and television programs without enduring yet another new broom – and in the happy expectation that their managers, led by Balding, might actually be planning to assist in that process rather than disrupt it.
The usual suspects charged in again. THE INMATES ARE STILL RUNNING THE ASYLUM was the headline on Mike Nahan’s piece in The Australian on the 30th of May – yawn, yawn, bore, bore. ‘With its new managing director the public broadcaster remains in the hands of the collective that presently controls it…’ McDonald should go, the organisation had been on autopilot for six months, and was malfunctioning…
Well actually, Mr Nahan, without Shier the ABC had been blossoming, enjoying its highest ratings for several years.
Enter long time ABC critic Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute, who again trotted out his familiar allegations that the ‘national broadcaster has its own left-liberal agenda on a range of domestic and international issues’. ‘This’, he want on, ‘is well understood by the businessman and ABC board member Michael Kroger, as well as by the Treasurer Peter Costello and the Communications Minister, Richard Alston.’
Now Gerard Henderson is a respected, conservative, intellectual who writes and indeed broadcasts on a wide spectrum of topics. However as far as the ABC is concerned, he seems to leave his brain at home and write directly from his spinal cord. In the early 1990s Stuart Littlemore was unkind enough to point out on Media Watch – with examples – that Gerard regularly recycled invective held in the bowels of his computer whenever he was writing about the national broadcaster.
Since he was given regular air time on Radio National as a commentator, Gerard has softened his rhetoric on the ABC somewhat, but can’t resist sniping away. When President Lyndon Baines Johnson was asked why he had re-appointed J Edgar Hoover as Director of the FBI, he famously said he’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in. Well – how can I put this delicately – Gerard sometimes doesn’t hold on quite long enough until he’s completely outside the ABC marquee.
I suppose what pisses me off about Gerard Henderson is that he is so sour about the ABC. If he has written an article in praise or support of something the national broadcaster has done, without whingeing about perceived left-wing agendas, I haven’t seen it. Predicably he’s against Russell Balding’s appointment, mainly because of Balding’s perceived shortcomings as an Editor in Chief of the corporation, although agreeing that Balding is ‘a highly competent and well qualified manager who is chief executive material’. But Gerard doesn’t think, on Balding’s record, that he can prevail over ‘a Philip Adams, or a Kerry O’Brien, or a George Negus or a Linda Mottram in an argument over ideas’. The implication is that these – in Gerard’s view – left wing radicals will be free to run riot, unchecked. Well Shier never made a program in his life and didn’t have Balding’s financial and administrative background with large organisations, but Gerard didn’t seem to be too fussed about that. Presumably because Shier was seen to be the Liberal’s hatchet man taking it right up to those lefties.
From what I’ve heard, Shier never had debates with any of the staff about ideas or anything else. His style was to bark orders from afar. In fact when his new head of television, Gail Jarvis asked Shier at one of the first meetings with his hand-picked executive team to outline his vision for the ABC, Shier turned on her, to the surprise of all present, and asked angrily why on earth should he have a vision? ‘That’s what I hired you for’, he said. Russell Balding has already been seen in production studios. He wandered in to the Life Matters team in Radio National, clutching a packet of biscuits, to meet the troops and throw around some ideas. That sounds like a good start to me.
By any yardstick the ABC is a very conservative organisation. I don’t think you will find its 48 regional radio stations hotbeds of radicalism as they reflect the culture of the community around them, deliver local news, stock prices, river levels and air local issues on talk back radio during local breakfast, mid morning and early afternoon regional programs. The rural department, with its RM Williams-booted and wide-brimmed Akubra-hatted staff are unlikely to consider themselves an undisciplined rabble, or members of a workers’ collective. Just ask Macca. Nor would the ABC orchestras, Classic FM staff, sporting department, drama or religious departments be so described. Although now I come to think of it, some members of the religious department might take issue with me on being so typecast.
So what do the Mike Nahans and Paddy McGuinness’s mean when they rail against workers’ collectives and allege left-wing conspiracies and the need to ‘reform’ the ABC, and bring the staff into line? They mean news and current affairs, that’s what – and certain sections of Radio National. They don’t really want the staff of the music or drama departments to have the cleaners put through them and made to toe a newly-drawn line – they mean dump Phillip Adams, get rid of Kerry O’Brien and stop those impertinent young reporters in radio and television asking difficult questions about aboriginal matters, refugee policies and the environment. And that would just be for starters.
The Coalition was so vengeful about the ABC when it took office that it immediately slashed the corporation’s budget by $66 million – despite Senator Alston famously promising on the tally room floor on election night that they wouldn’t – and set about stacking the board in a way that made Labor’s efforts seem positively liberal – in the small ‘l’ sense of course. The dogs were barking within and without. The Liberal Party’s NSW Director Lynton Crosby kept and keeps yapping away at ABC management demanding that his allegations of bias towards the Coalition be investigated, and on the inside the appointment on the ABC board of the former Victorian President of the Liberal Party, Michael Kroger, in 1998 brought hard-nosed party-political activism into that arena in a way never seen before in the seventy years of ABC existence and I fervently hope, never again. His appointment was widely viewed as payback for Labor’s alleged stacking of the board. The mild mannered media scribe Errol Simper described Kroger’s appointment in The Australian as ‘bizarre and grotesque, probably malicious, totally inappropriate, breathtakingly audacious, overtly hypocritical’.
Kroger proceeded to justify this hyperbole. A great supporter of the disastrous Shier, I have already mentioned Kroger’s attempts to introduce Trevor Kennedy as a last-minute candidate for managing director until reined in by the chairman Donald McDonald. His now well-documented attempt to put pressure on Four Corners reporter Chris Masters to produce ‘an overwhelmingly positive’ report on the controversial broadcaster Alan Jones in May was less than subtle. But he struck a seasoned campaigner in Masters who was unsporting enough to minute the conversations Kroger had with him. Four Corners Executive Producer Bruce Belsham said later Kroger maintained that balancing such a program was not a 50/50 proposition ‘as Alan Jones was a figure like Don Bradman’.
But back to budget cuts. What happens when the ABC budget gets slashed is a bit like that Monty Python sketch of the Black Knight in the forest. News and current affairs are seen as absolute core activities. What gets attacked first are the limbs that the ABC’s general viewers and listeners most appreciate – local and regional radio, television drama, comedy, sport, the ability to produce specialist programs on issues like health, consumer affairs, media and reaction to topical issues, live music both popular and classical – while the trunk of news and current affairs that is the real target of government criticism and indeed venom, stays intact. Although even those sacred cows have had their hay ration reduced in the last few years.
The war of economic attrition at the ABC is making it middle-aged and sclerotic. It is quite scandalous that there are now no general broadcast trainees being taken on, and no provision for training. There are a few cadets being taken on in news and current affairs. The ABC used to be the training ground for the entire broadcasting industry – but no more.
Perception of bias is indeed a wondrous area of individual judgement. We need more certainty about bias, some dependable, fail-safe test. I am reminded of the British judge who once said that in his view the only realistic test of whether something was pornographic or not, was if it engendered erections in at least eleven out of twelve good men and true on a jury. Surely modern technology could now devise a meter that could be built in to ABC transmitters to monitor and log the roller coaster wave form of political bias? In my thirty years with the ABC I’ve seen the wheel turn the full circle. First, there were edicts that opposing points of view had to be included in the same program. Producers did have some discretion. Without actually being spelt out it was assumed community attitudes regarding issues like matricide, incest, or child abuse would not need equal time from proponents – in the unlikely event they could be persuaded to. Discussion of a social and legal issue like capital punishment, though, would have to be carefully balanced, even though regarded as equally obscene as some of those others by opponents. When I worked on the television current affairs program This Day Tonight in the early 1970s, management decreed that if an item critical of – say – the Post Master General’s Department (then also the ABC’s parent government agency), it could not be broadcast unless the PMG fielded a spokesperson. We actually took industrial action over that Gilbertian situation after ABC management banned seven items in a row involving the PMG.
By the 1970s ABC producers in radio and television won the right to, as we used to say, ‘balance over a distance’. You could broadcast a one-sided program provided opposing views were aired within a reasonable time. Now, as I understand it, the noose is tightening again with ‘balance’ required within a particular program.
Issues about balance, of course, surface more shrilly during a federal election campaign. Yet how quickly we forget relatively recent history. If those who allege a left-wing conspiracy in the ABC are to be believed, surely the ALP should have been exceedingly benevolent towards the national broadcaster allegedly crammed full of its soul mates. Oh yeah?
Labor didn’t like the hard news and current affairs questions either. And they got back in a particularly sneaky way. Triennial funding, achieved under Hawke’s prime ministership should have relieved the ABC of the annual cap-in-hand approach to Treasury. But there was a sting in the tail. The Department of Finance inserted a devious formula with the arcane title of the ‘non-farm GDP price deflator’ – which sounded a bit like a sex aid used in animal husbandry – and it certainly screwed the ABC. This was a broad-based measurement of price increases across the whole economy which took into account the terms of trade and other fluctuations of absolutely no relevance to the ABC or the production costs of the broadcasting industry. By rights it should not have applied to the national broadcaster, but during the Hawke and Keating Governments a cumulative $120 million was lopped from the annual appropriation.
Neither Bob Hawke nor Paul Keating were fond of the ABC. In Quentin Dempster’s book ‘DEATH STRUGGLE – How Political Malice and Boardroom Powerplays are Killing the ABC’, he reports an account of a conversation between David Hill and Paul Keating which led to the 1987 ‘Eight Cents A Day’ funding campaign to counter budget reduction plans by the then Minister for Communications Senator Evans.
According to Hill, Keating kept pointing to the ceiling and saying, “If you think I’m dirty on the ABC you ought to hear Old Silver”… one version of the private conversation that followed was that Keating said to Hill: ‘I’ll give you the tip. We’ve had enough of you c***s. We f****d Fairfax. Now it’s your turn…’ (There’s a dispute about this exchange. Mr Keating denied he said it. Quentin Dempster’s source insists he did.) Hill, said Dempster, not normally lost for words was speechless for a time. Hill pressed ahead with his public campaign against funding cuts planned for the ABC, and was successful – a tactic his successor Brian Johns chose not to adopt when the ABC under him essentially rolled over and accepted the $66 million cut from the Howard Government in 1996 without a squeak.
The point I want to make is that the national broadcaster is between a rock and a hard place where Labor and Coalition governments are concerned. However I would say that in my experience, this Coalition government in its first two terms has been unbelievably paranoid about the ABC – or should I say news and current affairs. Let me give an example. In June 1997 Brian Johns was facing up to a task beloved by ABC managing directors – being grilled at a Senate estimates hearing. Leaked documents obtained by The Australian revealed that a series of provocative questions was prepared for Helen Coonan and Alan Eggleston to put to Johns designed to embarrass The 7.30 Report’s presenter Kerry O’Brien. According to The Australian’s report the questions, about O’Brien’s working conditions, salary and internal editorial policy, were drafted up in Senator Alston’s office. But Senator Coonan did not show, and in her absence Eggleston placed the questions on notice. The reason for this pull back, according to the report in The Australian on the 12th of June 1997, was that an earlier draft of the questions had originated in the Prime Minister’s office.
Not long after this petty grubbiness surfaced in the press, John Howard went on The 7.30 Report. Not one to mince words or shirk controversy, O’Brien ended his interview with the PM by asking him pointedly whether there were ‘any questions you might like to ask on behalf of your staff or anyone else’? Howard was unfazed, and while not confirming the role of any of his staff in the abandoned questions about O’Brien, he blandly said he saw nothing wrong in people asking ‘legitimate questions’, particularly as the ABC was funded by the taxpayer.
One of John Howard’s then closest advisers was Grahame Morris, who once said of the ABC: ‘They’re our enemies talking to our friends.’ Publicly the Prime Minister has consistently criticised the ABC as ‘biased’, ‘predictable’, and ‘too narrow in its spectrum of views’. In private he is known to be more vitriolic.
It was no accident that Kerry O’Brien was singled out. Like many journalists he has done a spell as a political press secretary. In Kerry’s case, that was on Gough Whitlam’s staff more than twenty years ago. That is often quoted by Coalition supporters as proof of Labor bias. I sometimes think that the prime motive of the Coalition’s hounding of the ABC is to get rid of Kerry O’Brien! What a nonsense this is.
In the early days of Backchat, Prue Goward was doing the political interviews in Canberra for The 7.30 Report. Like O’Brien she was doing her job without fear or favour. I used to be deluged with mail saying how could the ABC possibly put up with her continual left-wing bias. One letter writer called her ‘the ABC’s little acid drop’. I didn’t know what Prue’s personal politics were and was quite surprised in recent years when her conservativism surfaced. She co-wrote a biography of John Howard with her husband David Barnett – dismissed by some critics as an uncritical hagiography – and makes no secret of her friendship with the Howards. She has been appointed by the present government to several senior jobs, from Adviser to the Prime Minister on Womens’ Affairs, to Director of the Office of the Status of Women and most recently as the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. I often think of Prue when I hear people rant and rave about Kerry O’Brien’s ‘obvious’ pro-Labor bias.
So what has all this got to do with my topic, Managing the ABC – Mission Impossible? Well a great deal actually, because the single, most enduring issue that staff have to face is this continuing slur about political bias – and by implication secret agendas, and ungovernable lunatics in charge of the asylum.
The next in line for conservative opprobrium after Kerry O’Brien is the unashamedly left-wing intellectual and commentator, Phillip Adams. No one need be in any doubt where Phillip’s personal politics are. Yet he fronts Late Night Live, a pluralist, varied program that conservatives queue up to be interviewed on – and Phillip welcomes them, from William Buckley Jr to Henry Kissinger. If the yet-to-be-perfected political bias meter were to be applied to Late Night Live it is highly possible they might have to put a few more lefties on to get the balance right. Yet our Prime Minister recently asked rhetorically, ‘Where is the right-wing Phillip Adams’? Not long after he made that comment last year the right-wing columnist, Imre Salusinszky (reputedly Jonathan Shier’s favourite columnist) was invited to participate in an ABC television program, now defunct, Media Dimensions. He also scored a gig on Radio National in a twelve-week trial of a late night talk show, The Continuing Crisis, billed as ‘a provocative mix of comment and satire’. The show didn’t work and Salusinszky (and his co-compere Tim Blair) were dropped. Salusinszky then turned nastily on the RN hand that had temporarily fed him in his Sydney Morning Herald column. Fortunately for RN listeners, ‘Thou shalt not bore’ remains the cardinal rule of broadcasting and Salusinzsky failed to cut the mustard. Even the Daily Telegraph’s tub-thumping Piers Akerman got a guernsey – and still has one from time to time on ABC-TV’s The Insiders on Sunday mornings. The Prime Minister thinks this is a terrific program.
Phillip Adams – who, as he says, keeps his table-thumping for his newspaper column – runs a program of ideas with guests who are overwhelmingly apolitical, scholars, scientists and philosophers who are generally uninterested in ‘the sound and fury of everyday politics’. Phillip found Howard’s take on him flattering but bizarre, and had great delight (in his column) pointing out that the ABC already had a raft of presenters whose political social or cultural views were ‘not merely conservative but reactionary’.
(Incidentally Labor’s Mark Latham wrote in the Daily Telegraph this month that the ABC already has a right-wing Phillip Adams, a millionaire farmer and property owner, with expensive holdings in the Hunter Valley and Paddington, who supports economic protectionism. Latham thinks the ABC needs a left-wing Phillip Adams!)
I was pleased that Phillip also addressed the enduring nonsense of the alleged ‘ABC culture’ – presumably broadcasting’s counterpart of the notorious ‘police culture’. And I quote:
‘Tripple J doesn’t talk to Radio National which knows nothing of the metro stations who, in turn, are oblivious to what’s going on at Classic FM. Rural radio, like Radio Australia, was always another world – and ABC television was, and remains as far as people who work in wireless are concerned, a distant galaxy.
‘As for the alleged dominance of the trade unions, a very high percentage of the ABC’s best-known people are, like me, freelancers employed on the shortest of short-term contracts.’
Well that sounds more like the ABC I know.
Let’s have a much overdue reality check on bias. The ABC records its audience contacts. Last year more than 110,000 letters, emails and telephone calls were received. All were classified according to subject matter.
Less than 1.8 per cent dealt with perceptions of bias – and these were not confined to politics. There were perceptions of bias against or in favour of major and minor parties, in favour of one football team over another, or alleging perceived bias against men, against women, against atheists and Christians. Needless to say a perception of bias is not a proof of bias.
On the other hand, over 98 per cent of audience contacts dealt with various other matters in connection with ABC programs – most were either appreciative or enquiries. I don’t think we need that bias meter after all.
Newspoll research conducted in February last year (commissioned and published by The Australian) found 80 per cent of Australians thought the ABC did a good job in providing news and entertainment, and 60 per cent wanted more funding for it. The view from Parliament House seems uncommonly distorted.
There are howls of rage from the Nahans and Akermans and their ilk whenever ABC staff speak up about issues of policy affecting the national broadcaster. There seems to be an assumption that management worth its salt should stamp down on such impertinence – the workers should just do as they are told. But although the ABC is a corporation, it does not manufacture widgets. Its efficiency cannot be gauged by the numbers of widgets cranked out each month. The ABC produces ideas, expressed in radio and television broadcasts – and now increasingly, on line. If people who deal in ideas don’t have ideas themselves and a sense of purpose and inquiry in analysing what they do, then god help public broadcasting in this country. Robust discussion and argument has always been an essential element of ABC life, and is a strength not a weakness.
Contrary to popular belief, ABC staff did not set out to scupper Jonathan Shier before or immediately after he arrived, even though the early omens were not good. Shier had his head hunters out, before he even walked in the door, to replace the specialist heads of department he’d never even met! You would think that he might want to assess whether they were any good or not, or at least meet them, before giving them the long white envelopes. My former colleague Robyn Williams called it ‘executive cleansing’. Out they went, carrying their corporate memory and knowledge of public service broadcasting with them, and in came the by-and-large commercially oriented replacements who were probably unsure of what Shier wanted and so apparently was he, because he then started sacking the people he’d hired at vast expense. John Clark, there’s good material for you here, although it’s a bit too soon to get an in-house belly laugh yet.
Shier destroyed himself. Ironically it was Shier’s own new hand-picked team of executives, imported at great expense, who voted him out! The ‘workers’ collective and ageing baby boomers’ weren’t even in the hunt. The job was done by upper management. But a conspiracy theory is much more fun.
While the appointment of Russell Balding as Managing Director has been largely welcomed by a shell-shocked staff, there are worrying political implications for the ABC. Although ABC board chairman Donald McDonald properly prevailed against Michael Kroger who wanted to wheel in Trevor Kennedy at the last minute, both the Treasurer Peter Costello and Telecommunications Minister Richard Alston weighed in to the public debate behind Kroger and Kennedy’s candidature. McDonald is a friend of the Prime Minister’s who presumably continues to back him as chairman. Even though John Howard’s long held views on the ABC are well known and not complimentary, he now seems to be a firewall between his annointed successor and the ABC. The words of the Beatles’ song ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64’ have taken on an added significance to supporters of the national broadcaster.
The ABC will continue to be a political football unless a better way is found to fund it, and appoint the board. At the conclusion of his book, Death Struggle – How Political Malice and Boardroom Powerplays are Killing the ABC, Quentin Dempster does suggest a solution. ‘Funding could be directly appropriated and monitored by the federal parliament as a whole, rather than through the federal cabinet as at present. To depoliticise the ABC’s contribution to our national life and to stop the practice of party political stacking of the ABC board, the broadcaster could be made accountable to a joint (House of Representatives and Senate) parliamentary standing committee on the ABC which could oversee and investigate funding adequacy and other issues arising from the funding appropriation. Such a standing committee could see that appointments to the ABC board were made on merit, thereby ending the practice of political stacking.’ Ever the realist, Quentin added, ‘Do not hold your breath.’
Let’s face it, unless the government of the day is annoyed with the ABC, the national broadcaster is almost certainly not doing its job properly. Our political system should be mature enough to accept that.
A final thought. Some say the Australian Labor Party is now to the right of the Liberal Party. If, as Michael Kroger said recently, the ABC is to the left of the Labor Party, doesn’t that put the ABC smack bang in the middle where it ought to be?
Thank you for having me.
Tim Bowden is a writer and broadcaster who worked for the ABC for 30 years as a current affairs reporter and producer in radio and television. For nearly nine years he presented the ABC’s viewer reaction program Backchat. He is the author of 14 books, including Aunty’s Jubilee – Celebrating 50 Years of ABC-TV published by ABC Books in 2007.
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