Historian Ken Inglis, author of This is the ABC, looks back, and forward...
THE ABC first went to air on 1 July 1932. The seventieth anniversary has set off much rejoicing, on the air and around the country. One of the oldest ABC radio stations, in Sydney, put on a lively symposium entitled ‘Dear Aunty’. Before anniversary news bulletins on radio, the old news theme (once known as Imperial Fanfare) was played live by the brass section of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. On Late Night Live, before a live audience, Phillip Adams moderated or incited a debate on the question ‘Is Australian journalism doing the job or has it gone to the dogs?’ The wave form logo identifying ABC television was cleverly twisted into a 7 and an O and displayed at events all over the country.
This year is actually the nineteenth of the ABC in which the C stands for Corporation. Until 1983 it stood for Commission. The fiftieth and last anniversary of the Commission had been celebrated in 1982, when the poet and ANU professor A.D. Hope was commanded by the last chairman of that body, Dame Leonie Kramer, to write an ode which he called ‘A Birthday Card for Aunty’. Or rather, Anthony Inkwell was commanded to write the ode. By that name Alec Hope had been known to children who belonged to the ABC’s Argonauts’ Club, and as Anthony Inkwell he had given encouragement and advice to aspiring writers among the rowers of Jason’s fleet.
Now he recited his own lines at the jubilee party:
Well, best of Aunts, it falls to me
Speaking for all, where’er they be,
While on your cake each candle burns,
To wish you fifty glad returns...
I arrived at that party a year late. The Commission had invited me to write a history which didn’t appear until 1983. How that happened I’ll be saying in another book, not commissioned by anybody, to be published in 2004, when the first book, This is the ABC, is also to be republished. This is the ABC came out just in time for its launching to be a rite of transition from Commission to Corporation.
The transition wasn’t huge. The legislation of 1983 left the old ABC pretty much intact: the same Aunty, with less than a change of life, no more than a face lift.
THIS year ABC people look back across a continuous history. In 1932: 12 radio stations. In 2002: four national radio networks (Radio National, TripleJay, Classic FM and NewsRadio); 57 stations in the metropolitan and regional areas that make up the network called Local Radio; Radio Australia; a national television network and two digital channels; an international television service; and ABC Online.
On 1 July, the official birthday, the ABC launched a new enterprise which couldn’t have been imagined 70years ago or even 15 years ago: a radio network named DiG, designed to bring music, especially contemporary Australian music, to people between 30 and 50, and broadcast, if that’s still the word to use, only on the internet.
On that day the director of radio, Sue Howard, cut the cake not in her home city of Melbourne, not in the ABC’s headquarters city of Sydney, but at Newcastle. The managing director, Russell Balding, did the cutting not in his office at Ultimo but out at Wagga Wagga. He announced that Wagga Wagga would be the first host for a series of six public debates in regional centres on issues relevant to local audiences and broadcast later to the national audience of ABC local radio. ‘Everybody’s ABC’ is this year’s slogan alongside the television logo. Mr Balding and Ms Howard were signalling the geographical dimension of those words.
Here in the national capital on 1 July the Canberra Times photographed Liz McGrath, Director for the ACT, sharing the cutting of the cake with Margaret O’Connor, president of the Friends of the ABC in the ACT. A piece of symbolism pleasing to members of that body whose friendship was sometimes welcomed by ABC leaders, sometimes not.
The Friends put out a lot of things like a cap showing Bananas without pyjamas, shivering. Friends held their own local celebrations, and Friends all over Australia were urged to post to John Howard an open letter headed ‘Wish the ABC Happy Birthday’ and ending ‘Restore its share of the cake.’
Over the years the ABC’s leaders had learned to treat the Friends with respect. In Melbourne nearly 600 people packed the Assembly Hall late in 2000 when the managing director, Jonathan Shier, addressed the annual meeting of the Victorian Friends. But when Joan Laing, as national spokesperson, complained publicly in mid-2001 of ‘political pressure on the ABC’, she provoked a rare lapse from coolness in chairman Donald McDonald, who snapped back: ‘Ms Laing should know as a national editor of the so-called Friends of the ABC. that the only political pressure the ABC is enduring is from a coalition of her organisation and the Commonwealth Public Sector Union.’ So-called Friends. The only political pressure. The minister for communications, Richard Alston, who liked applying pressure on the ABC, weighed in with his own criticism of the Friends as a Labor mouthpiece, hijacked by unions. A reporter in the Australian, using the media’s favourite metaphor for news about the ABC, declared that relations between the coalition and the Friends had broken into open warfare. The paper’s media columnist, Errol Simper, observed more temperately that the Friends ‘must at all costs avoid becoming political.’ A T-shirt, A Liberal Alphabet which leaves out A B and C, isn’t put out by the Friends and couldn’t be if they are to remain an effective lobby group. At the moment they are circulating among politicians of all parties in Canberra what seems to me a thoroughly professional submission setting out what funding they think the ABC needs for the next triennium.
The seventieth anniversary happens also to be the occasion for tenth anniversary celebration of two programs, one on television and the other on radio, which display the qualities that Friends of the ABC cherish. The weekly Foreign Correspondent and the weekday Life Matters are programs unlike any produced by commercial broadcasters.
Foreign Correspondent was devised to complement the oldest and most honoured of current affairs programs, Four Corners, which celebrated its own fortieth anniversary last year, without any sign of hardened arteries or lowered sights. The current presenter of Foreign Correspondent, Jennifer Byrne, described the program in the anniversary week as seeing the world through Australian eyes but not narrowed for Australian eyes. ‘We don’t try to package it up into a nice little bonbon’, she said. She meant it isn’t like the Nine Network’s Sixty Minutes, on which she has also worked. For the fortieth anniversary party Foreign Correspondent had as guest of honour Abdurrahman Wahid, lately president of Indonesia. Wahid’s presence was a particular tribute to one foreign correspondent, Evan Williams, who had reported on his last days in office. What he said at the party was also a bonus for the keepers of the ABC’s overseas arm. ‘I got my English...’ said Wahid, ‘from Radio Australia.’
Life Matters had its origin in a seven-minute segment begun in 1975 called About Children. This was expanded in 1985 under the name Offspring, which became Life Matters and began to enlarge its scope in 1992. This year Life Matters has been celebrating its tenth year of life by repeating stories requested by listeners and conducting a series of festive and searching forums in different cities. Radio National in every sense of the word. The program’s executive producer Kathy Gollan has just logged her own 25 years with the ABC, along a career path opened up for her and people like her by the pioneers of the Australian Women’s Broadcasting Co-operative. The program’s timeslot, at present from 9 a m to 11, used to be occupied by the women’s session; but among listeners to Life Matters, 40 per cent are men. As its website says, Geraldine Doogue and Julie McCrossin talk with the people behind our social policies.
They not only talk, they listen. Here are two broadcasters with faces familiar to viewers who are choosing the medium which uses only their voices, and who are opting for a style of exploratory conversation rather than the now formulaic cut-and-thrust of current affairs. The resilience of radio and the search for alternatives to the adversary style of interviewing may both be pointers to the ABC’s life after 70.
Hugh Mackay has this to say in an anniversary column published by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. ‘Although ABCTV still struggles to find an identity, the five ABC radio networks amply demonstrate how a public broadcaster can justify its existence in these days of relentless privatisation.’ And especially, Mr Mackay argues, Radio National. ‘By presenting a potpourri of thoughtful, innovative programs that challenge our complacency (and our ignorance),’ he writes, ‘RN adds a unique dimension to the media landscape. Presenters such as Phillip Adams, Robyn Williams and Rachael Kohn are genuine media pioneers, creating programs of uncompromising quality and depth.’ He goes on: ‘Yes, they appeal to minority audiences (as does the famous Alan Jones: 85 per cent of Sydney’s radio listeners do not tune in to his breakfast show), but the accumulation of all those minorities means that RN, in any given week, reaches about 800,000 listeners.’
(Speaking of Alan Jones, I interrupt this talk with a commercial break for the ABC. As I was writing these words, the papers reported that the local radio network, which unlike Radio National competes for audiences with the commercials, is doing well: coming third in Sydney ahead of John Laws’ 2GB, and second in Melbourne, ahead of its principal rival 3AW. Now back to Radio National.)
Many of us will add our own favourites to the names Hugh Mackay mentions. If your taste is for investigative journalism you may list Background Briefing and the program whose title I borrow for mine: Norman Swan’s Health Report. For me the Media Report is indispensable. The network’s finest hour so far , or to be precise its finest twelve hours, went to air on the last day of the old millennium: A thousand years in a day. If you heard it, or some of it, you’ll recall that it was a tour de force, an intellectual feast. If you didn’t, try to hear the set of CDs and see if you agree that the program has all the qualities we academics strive for in our teaching and writing. BBC radio set aside a million dollars for a series to greet the new millennium. Radio National did it for almost nothing, as its producers and presenters volunteered to work on the project in time left over after they had done their regular programs for the year. A thousand years on a shoestring, a device much used in today’s ABC.
ON OR AROUND the actual birthday, newspapers greeted it as a big event. The ABC has always been an attractive subject for the media. Editors know that most people are at least occasional viewers and listeners and all are taxpayers. Moreover, the national broadcaster is a permanent field of contest, both among parties inside the organisation and between the ABC and governments and interest groups. These contests are readily documented, for the contestants commonly use the media leak as a weapon. Sub-editors sit alert to build headlines round those words WAR and ABC. And it can be liberating for journalists who are seldom if ever free to report the troubles of their own organisation to dwell on the tribulations of another. If you work for a paper or a television station owned by Kerry Packer you can’t ask awkward questions about him, but you can go for your life in pursuit of Jonathan Shier.
The name Aunty possibly disposed journalists to write benignly about the anniversary. ‘When your favourite aunty reaches humankind’s rule of thumb lifespan of three score years and ten,’ writes Errol Simper, ‘you usually treat her gently.’ He goes on: ‘Quite how the tax-funded BBC-inspired national broadcaster has reached 70 must remain a mystery.’ Simper finds a clue in what he calls the ‘staunch, solid, consistent, blessed National Party support for Aunty over many years’. He thinks it was shrewd of Russell Balding to cut the cake at Wagga Wagga. The Age leader writer notes the biblical warning that after those three score and ten, ‘men’s strength is but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone’. Many people might think, says the Age, that in recent years the ABC `has had to endure more than its fair share of labour and sorrow. They should celebrate this week’s anniversary to the full, for it is an opportunity to remind the ABC’s critics what a unique cultural asset this country has in its national broadcaster.’ The Age editorial writer, like the Australian’s columnist, thought that the National Party might help save the ABC from soon passing away, and added that support from that source was ‘a reproach to those who, too often and with too little evidence, accuse it of political bias.’
The Age declared that in order to remain the country’s unique cultural asset it must receive ‘sufficient funding to enable production of quality programs that Australians would be denied if ratings prospects alone were to determine what is broadcast’.
Insufficient funding was a theme of an anniversary piece in the Age by Tim Bowden under the heading ‘Seventy and not out: an old girl hits a milestone’. Tim Bowden joined the ABC half its lifetime ago. He lamented now that it was no longer possible to create programs built on oral history like his own two multi-part series Taim Bilong Masta (on the Australian colonial experience of Papua New Guinea) and Prisoners of War. For each of those grand projects of the 1980s Mr Bowden had been allowed more than two years of preparation. ‘These days,’ he wrote ‘radio producers would not be allocated to a specialist topic for two and a half weeks, let alone years.’ He believed that the situation was just as bleak in the far more expensive medium of television. ‘The budget cuts inflicted by the Howard government alone’, in Tim Bowden’s view, ‘have forced the ABC to abandon most of its in-house documentary, comedy and drama production... There is no way a six-part adventure series such as Breaking the Ice (on Australians in Antarctica, which I wrote and presented in 1995), could be done in-house.’
No sympathy on that score was offered in the Australian’s editorial, which had a message less genial than its columnist Errol Simper’s. ‘Dear Aunty ABC, you’re looking old’, said the headline. The writer allowed that people in rural Australia still benefit from services that most commercial operators would not supply. ‘But why do the ABC audiences in the city or coastal towns need a public broadcaster? When combined with the bias within news coverage, the argument in support of taxpayer-funded broadcasting devices for well-off, usually Left-leaning urbanites starts smelling of middle-class welfare. Why should all taxpayers subsidise a small, relatively well-off ABC audience with a penchant for programs that could be provided by commercial or pay-TV?’
This argument, and the rhetoric in which it came wrapped, had been disseminated for more than a decade by the Australian’s owner Rupert Murdoch in attacks on the BBC through his English newspapers and in his own public speech, attacks which began in Margaret Thatcher’s time when Murdoch was investing in pay television. The Australian declined to publish Russell Balding’s response to its editorial. The managing director quoted, or tried to quote, surveys showing that each week more than 12 million people watch ABC television and more than six million listen to ABC radio. On the matter of bias, he reported that of all the letters, emails and phone calls received by the ABC, less than 2 per cent dealt with perceptions of bias, and that included charges of bias in favour of one football team over another, against men, against women, against atheists and against Christians.
Did the editor reject Russell Balding’s letter because the facts it set out weren’t new? If so, how come they hadn’t impinged on the editorial writer? And if the editor didn’t believe the figures, why didn’t he challenge them?
Bias is a four-letter word with a range of meanings. Invoked against the ABC its uses go back to at least the 1970s, when those letters stood for Australian Broadcasting Commission. And thanks to Andre Malan of the West Australian I know that Australian Broadcasting Commission is an anagram for ‘Crumbs, a damn socialist organisation’. Is this occult proof that, as the conservatives say, the ABC has a pro-Labor bias? I doubt whether Simon Crean felt that after his recent inquisition on Four Corners by Liz Jackson. Ian Warden in the Canberra Times gives a vivid account. ‘She has a terrier-like, ripping, tearing, interviewing style that seems to be an attempt to get her subjects to collapse in tears, admit to her worst allegations about them and resign from office there and then in the studio... ‘
Liz Jackson employs that style on Four Corners against subjects right, left, and shonky; and when you experience it for the first time you might well think her biased against whatever cause or interest the victim is representing.
It may well be that adversarial interviewers on the ABC, as elsewhere, interrogate people who have power more strenuously than people who have little or none. If so, that’s a tradition of the Fourth Estate, a term once used to characterise the press, now more generally the media, as watchdog for liberal democracy.
The longer a party has been in office, the easier for critics to forget how often the ABC enraged their opponents when they were the government. I think Paul Keating may hold the record among prime ministers for invective against the national broadcaster. Imre Salusinzky, academic and journalist, has said in a column that the ABC’s unpopularity with Labor governments is a furphy. ‘Yes,’ he writes, ‘the ABC does criticize the ALP, but from the Left. The fact that it gives so much prominence to the anti-globalisation, anti-reform, non-mainstream Left is hardly a warrant of objectivity.’ Similar critics speak of the ABC as being run by a collective, sometimes described as Trotskyist, or more arcanely, Gramscist. The critics don’t always name names, of people or programs. When they do, it’s never items from three of the radio networks, Classic, NewsRadio, Radio Australia, rarely from local radio or TripleJay, and only from limited areas of television or local radio, mostly current affairs. Radio National is a common target. Mr Salusinzsky in that same column calls Radio National ‘a national hobby network for the Left intelligentsia’. Especially, he says, Phillip Adams on Late Night Live. Here, Mr Salusinsky writes, ‘the Tariq Alis and John Pilgers and Margo Kingstons and their crackpot conspiracy theories are not only taken seriously, but get to define the debate’. Naming only these plural entities, the critic doesn’t mention any of the numerous other guests of Phillip Adams who are conservative, detached, or expert in matters a long way from politics.
The vain search for a right wing Phillip Adams has been on and off since John Hewson called for him or her in 1993. Vain, because God or evolution has created only one Phillip Adams. St Phillip of Assisi, his predecessor at Late Night Live, Richard Ackland, has called him, and he has a point. When Radio National’s marathon Thousand Years in a Day reached the thirteenth century we heard the head of the Franciscan order in Australia wondering what St Francis would have been saying about the world at the end of the second millennium. His agenda did sound not unlike Radio National’s, or for that matter Sir William Deane’s. Some young people in the ABC think that their elders at Radio National are overly occupied with the issues of their own younger days, in the 1970s. Is there a problem here? If so, it’s surely being addressed by the present head of Radio National. Mark Collier was given charge of the network during Jonathan Shier’s time after many years at 2UE, where he had recruited Alan Jones to the microphone. As far as I can tell Mr Collier is on amicable terms with his 150 or so people at Radio National. Certainly he’s proud of what they do. He has tried out Imre Salusinszky together with Tim Blair as commentators, and when their program The Continuing Crisis was dropped after a twelve-week trial Mr Salusinszky interpreted that decision as political. Mark Collier assures me that it was made wholly on professional grounds.
‘PM attacks ABC "bias"’, said a headline in this anniversary year, and there had been others like it since John Howard became prime minister. This time he was complaining about the current affairs television program Lateline, and he was doing so on ABC local radio. It turns out that he was criticizing the program’s treatment of the refugee question not for any inaccuracy or imbalance in reporting, but for giving the issue too much attention. Mr Howard’s complaint provoked a response from Gerard Henderson, not I think a member of Friends of the ABC. ‘Whatever the present weakness of the ABC.’ he wrote in his Age and Sydney Morning Herald column, ‘it presents a greater diversity of views than a decade ago when John Howard did not make any public criticisms of the organisation’. Mr Henderson went on to say ‘Lateline genuinely believes in debate’ and ‘regularly features supporters of the Prime Minister’.
As Russell Balding tried to say in the Australian, complaints about bias in ABC programs are remarkably few. This year the procedures for considering complaints have been sharpened, partly in response to complaints about them by Senator Alston. The minister had often made unfavourable comparisons between the ABC’s complaints procedures and those of the BBC. For a moment it seemed that this year’s change might satisfy him; but soon the minister was complaining again, invoking what the managing director Russell Balding believes to be a mythical account of BBC policy. ‘Mythical’ is my word: Mr Balding just says that the minister was ‘misinformed’.
The ABC has long been fertile ground for myths. For example, about how it got to be called Aunty. One old journalist believes that she invented the name in the 1960s and that her coinage owed nothing to the BBC’s having been called Aunty. One old broadcaster says in print that it does derive from the BBC, whose legendary director-general Lord Reith, he believes, was said to have prohibited anything that could possibly offend his maiden aunt. In truth the term did come from BBC usage, but it began life there only after Reith had long since gone.
Until 1955 the BBC enjoyed what Reith candidly described as the brute force of monopoly. When British viewers were given in 1955 an alternative to the BBC, most at first preferred programs put out by the new commercial channel. The name ‘Aunty’ was first applied in the late 1950s to contrast the old broadcaster with its loose-jointed and swinging rival. The term was soon applied to the ABC. A Bulletin writer in 1967 heard the nickname as ‘more a token of steady reliability - quality, if you like - than an epithet of ridicule’. It became a term of affection, especially among people for whom the ABC was a cherished institution in need of protectors. Cuts applied by the Fraser government in 1976 provoked the formation in Melbourne of Aunties’ Nieces and Nephews, which soon merged with the Friends of the ABC, founded with similar purpose that year in Sydney.
A quarter of a century later, the name is used more than ever. We await a semiologist who will tell us, perhaps on Radio National, why the public boadcaster is gendered as feminine.
There are funny but mythical stories about programs. One reviewer of This is the ABC asked why I hadn’t included the announcer who reported in a news bulletin that a lady had been bitten on the funnel by a finger-webbed spider. My problem was that more than one announcer in more than one city was said with certainty to have made that stumble. I couldn’t find any more evidence for it than for another good yarn, about the announcer who is given speech therapy because he always turns Rimsky Korsakov into Kimsky Rorsakov. Back on air after treatment he gets that right, sighs quietly with relief, and then announces the Bum of the Flightlebee.
And why hadn’t I told the story of a conversation in a lift between the general manager, Talbot Duckmanton, and an unnamed employee.
Morning Mr Manton.
Oh, morning, Duck.
Another myth, I reluctantly decided. Then there’s the persistent one that Talbot Duckmanton chose GPO Box 9994 as the ABC’s address in honour of Don Bradman’s test batting average. In fact the ABC wasn’t given that address until after Sir Talbot Duckmanton retired, by someone in the Postmaster General’s department who may or may not have had Sir Donald Bradman in mind.
Another reviewer asked why I left out the story of Mr Duckmanton’s predecessor Charles Moses greeting at the gangplank, or was it the steps of an aeroplane, a famous celebrity pianist known only by his surname, Solomon. The great man extends his hand and says ‘Solomon’. The general manager clasps it and says ‘Moses’.
There’s usually a reason for the creation and survival of a myth. GPO Box 9994 draws on the truth that cricket, especially test cricket, was always important to the ABC. Both Sir Charles Moses and Sir Talbot Duckmanton, who between them captained the side for more than half a century, began their ABC careers as sporting commentators. The myth’s creation in the 1980s expressed institutional nostalgia, for by now the ABC had lost the cricket to richer commercial rivals. The Morning Duck story connects the general manager’s unusual name with his personality: a shy man, more comfortable behind a microphone, at his desk, or at the boardroom table than in casual conversation outside the office. The lady bitten on the funnel draws on both the Reithian propriety of ABC radio and the perilous immediacy of radio. The Solomon and Moses story rings true because Sir Charles Moses loved music and musicians, did pay high ceremonial attention to visiting celebrities, and became over the years a more and more patriarchal boss.
I don’t know that any of those myths have done any harm. But there are myths and misunderstandings that may distort our perceptions of ABC reality. Bring back the licence fee on television and radio sets, say some people who believe that this device, adopted in imitation of British practice, gave the ABC secure financing until the fee was abolished by the Whitlam government. I’ve seen this said even by a senior executive of the ABC. In fact the takings from the licence fee hadn’t gone to the ABC since 1948. From then till now, parliament has financed the ABC out of general revenue.
The most serious of persisting myths or misunderstandings, going to the heart of the ABC character, is that the government of the day appoints the chief executive. Here’s a columnist in the Australian, Stewart Fist. ‘Hawke and Keating put their friends on the ABC board, and gave the managing director’s job to Labor apparatchik Brian Johns. The Liberals then loaded the board with their own mates, and dragged Liberal minder Shier out of obscurity in some remote Pommy marketing-and-hatchet position, to take over.’ And here is not just a usually well-informed observer but a senior member of the coalition, Ron Boswell, National Party leader in the Senate, speaking about Jonathan Shier. ‘While he makes the programs, we appoint the directors and we appoint the managing director.’
How did this misunderstanding begin, and why does it endure? For two reasons, I suggest. First, there are some statutory authorities for which the government appoints the chief executive as well as the governing body - among them the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia - and it’s easy for people to imagine that this is the only model.. Second, people may be reluctant to believe that a government will endow a public authority with any real autonomy. For almost the last twenty years I think both Labor and coalition governments have shown a diminishing regard for the statutory authority as an instrument of public policy. That may well encourage people to be sceptical about how the device actually works, as the Friends of the ABC were, in a comment on Senator Boswell’s blunt statement. Either he doesn’t know that the Board is supposed to appoint the managing director, said a Friends newsletter, or he has spilled the beans, knowing that the government secretly forced the appointment.
Is that how Jonathan Shier came to be appointed? And his predecessors? I’m still trying to find out. It certainly didn’t happen that way in 1983, when the brand-new Board chose an Englishman in New Zealand broadcasting named Geoffrey Whitehead. When the chairman, Ken Myer, told the minister, Michael Duffy, Mr Duffy said ‘Geoffrey Who?’ The next appointment, of David Hill in 1986, is a more complex story. Mr Duffy had chosen Mr Hill, with Bob Hawke’s consent, to be chairman when Ken Myer stormed out of the board room and never returned. David Hill was reasonably perceived as a Labor man, a senior adviser to Neville Wran whom Wran’s government had then appointed to the State Rail Authority; but his performance in that job was respected on both sides of politics. Then Mr Hill as chairman persuaded the rest of the board to dump Mr Whitehead as managing director, and without advertising the managing directorship the Board appointed Mr Hill to that job. I doubt whether designers of the statutory authority had foreseen such a moment, when the chairman of the board stepped down to become chief executive. The Board would have denied, did deny, that they were making a political appointment. They reappointed Mr Hill after one five-year term, then dumped him three years into a second term. Mr Hill believed, and believes, that Paul Keating leaned on the Board to dismiss him; but so far I can find no evidence that this happened.
To replace David Hill the Board chose early in 1995 Brian Johns, who was known to be close to members of the Labor government. Like Mr Hill he had been a public servant, first under the Whitlam government and then under Mr Fraser’s; and he too was respected as a non-partisan professional. Some Labor people, above all his good friend Mick Young, lobbied Board members on Mr Johns’ behalf. Not all Board members: the lobbyists knew better than urge for example Ian McPhee, Labor appointee and former Liberal minister, to vote for their mate. Board members have divided memories of whether Brian Johns’ cause was on balance helped or hindered by the knowledge that he was the government’s man for the job. The Board’s decision not to give Mr Johns a second five-year term could be construed as having at least a political element.. Had Labor won in 1996, he might well have got the second term which a Board chaired by the coalition appointee Donald McDonald denied him. Might have: not every board member who thought it was time for Mr Johns to go after one term had been appointed by the coalition.
The choice of Jonathan Shier in 1999 was widely read as political, especially once his early connexions with the Liberal party became general knowledge. After talking with nearly all of the Board members who appointed Mr Shier, I’m not convinced either that the choice was made on political grounds or that anybody in government intervened on his behalf. I expect the account of this episode in my book will blend with the theme of the ABC and the media.
The appointment of Russell Balding as managing director seems to me the heartening case of a statutory authority working just as creators of the form had intended, resisting or ignoring hints from Canberra and pressure from one member of the Board not to choose him. More than one conspiracy theorist has tried to argue that Donald McDonald and his colleagues had somehow become captives of that workers’collective. Their argument is elaborate. The theorists would have been wise, I think, to heed the advice that gives its name to the Radio National program Ockham’s Razor: let’s not needlessly multiply assumptions.
PARTISAN political considerations do affect the choice of chairman and the composition of the Board, though not always. The first chairman of the Corporation, Ken Myer, had come out in support of Labor in 1972 and he had been Gough Whitlam’s first choice for Governor-General. (How might that have affected our history?) Mr Myer enjoyed such broad civic regard, however, that his appointment was welcomed without controversy. The second chairman, David Hill, had (as I’ve said) worked for a Labor government. The third and fourth chairmen chosen by Labor governments, Bob Somervaille and Mark Armstrong, had no known political affiliations. The fifth, appointed and now reappointed by the Howard government, is famously the prime minister’s friend. Of the Board members appointed since 1983, more than half could be described as sympathisers with the government that chose them. My estimate is that the proportion is rather higher under the coalition than it was in the Labor years.
There are perennial proposals for some non-partisan or bi-partisan method of appointment to the ABC’s Board. Such a method has been used once, in 1983, when Bob Hawke’s first minister for communications, John Button, put names before an all-party committee. That committee agreed on a list which was greeted almost without public criticism. Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating never allowed that procedure to be repeated, and regrettably, I think, its use has disappeared from public memory. The report of a recent senate committee on the subject with the promising title Above Board ends up with three bickering sets of recommendations. It seems unlikely that the method of appointment will be changed under any presently foreseeable government, though the Senate just might vote to do so.
The Board is now made up almost entirely of directors chosen by the Howard government. How come, then, that it behaved so independently, as I believe, in this year’s appointment of a managing director? And how come we still read that headline ‘PM Attacks ABC "Bias"’? Part of the answer is the presence of a staff-elected director among the nine members of the board. This is one respect in which the ABC differs from its imperial model in London. The BBC has no staff-elected governor. The ABC’s was introduced by the Whitlam government, though only after some disagreement about the wisdom of the arrangement. The Fraser government abolished the position, the Hawke government restored it, and the Howard government has left it be, possibly because any amendment of the Act to remove the staff-elected director might be resisted by a majority in the Senate.
There have been six. Tom Molomby, John Cleary, Quentin Dempster, Kirsten Garrett, Ian Henschke and now Ramona Koval, each appointed for a two-year term and all so far except Mr Henschke re-elected for another two years. Their very presence alters the board’s character a little, rather as putting student representatives has done to university councils and senates, making the conversation on the governing body no longer entirely an us talking about a them. Moreover, I think every staff-elected director has exercised more influence on the board’s deliberations than any other single director apart from the chairman and deputy chair. When it comes to the Board’s most important decision, who to appoint as managing director, the staff member is there to be either convinced or railroaded, and I don’t believe the latter has ever happened. When programs are criticized around the board table, the staff director is potential advocate for his or her colleagues. And my guess is that the staff director has been at least as significant as almost any other member of the board in briefing an always thirsty media, on and off the record.
There’s another reason why this board is behaving more independently than we might have expected. `We leave our guns parked at the door’, a member of the old Commission once said to me. Recent and present directors make the point more positively, saying that they feel beholden not to the government which invited them to come on board, however preferable they may find its overall policies to those of the opposition, but to the ABC. They develop a common sense of themselves as stewards, custodians, disinterested guardians of a national treasure. Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. But consider the case of Michael Kroger, who seems to me, in a hoary but helpful phrase, the exception that proves the rule. Mr Kroger, appointed in 1998, had been more closely involved in the affairs of the prime minister’s party than any other board member; and he is the only one, I think, to believe that the board’s role is straightforwardly political. He has often been at odds with the chairman on that issue, and at times with other directors.
Mr Kroger appears to be as close to the treasurer, Peter Costello, as Mr McDonald is to the prime minister; and both Mr Kroger and Mr Costello appear to be close to the minister for communications, Richard Alston. One member of the Board from 1995 to 2000 recalls being more aware of differences between directors appointed by the coalition than between Labor appointees and coalition appointees.
The minister is always a major participant in the working of a statutory authority. Normally the board can count on the minister as being a friend at court, consulting the chairman about appointments to the board, putting budget submissions sympathetically to the cabinet’s expenditure review committee, speaking up for the organisation against critics in party room and cabinet. For all I know Senator Alston may have protected the ABC against even more severe budget cuts than it had to endure in the first years of the Howard government. But in his public and semi-public dealings with the ABC this minister has been more antagonistic than almost any other I can think of over the whole seventy years. That antagonism puts an unexpected strain on the relationship between the board of a statutory authority and the government which appoints it.
The minister more antagonistic than Senator Alston was Archie Cameron, Postmaster-General in 1938, who said to the then chairman, W.J. Cleary, as Mr Cleary took down his words: ‘I would stop all broadcasting... As for people who give talks and commentaries over the air, if I had my way I would poison the blank blanks - would bring them under the Vermin Act.’
SIXTY years on, Archie Cameron would have been pleased to see Jock Given publish in 1998 a book entitled The Death of Broadcasting, though Cameron would have regretted that those words were followed by a question mark. The death of public or public service broadcasting (the terms have become virtually interchangeable) has been predicted in the titles of numerous books over the last decade or so, in the UK, Canada and the USA. And in Australia Quentin Dempster, who had served two terms as staff-elected director, published in 2000 a book entitled Death Struggle: How Political Malice and Boardroom Powerplays are Killing the ABC.
Such prophesies have been provoked by changes in both ideology and technology over the last twenty years or so. Under the Hawke Labor government the ideology permeating the corridors of policy in the English-speaking world and known in Australia as economic rationalism ordained a large reduction - downsizing was the new word - in expenditures on the public sector, driven by a conviction that private enterprise could provide as well or better many goods and services which had come to be accepted as the responsibility of governments. The Australian Public Service has been downsized by more than a third since 1986, the ABC by still more. In the particular case of public broadcasting, economic rationalists thought well of the argument aired in that 70th birthday Australian, that the ABC should be financed on the principle of user pays. ‘In a few years’, wrote one advocate of applying economically rational public policy to the ABC, ‘when everyone is connected to pay TV, and the majority of television stations are pay, the idea of subscribing to the ABC won’t seem so radical.’ That was in a piece written to mark Aunty’s sixtieth birthday, in 1992. In this and other predictions and prescriptions, the arguments from ideology and technology overlap. Jock Given canvasses that larger possibility, the death of all broadcasting, on grounds indicated in his subtitle: Media’s Digital Future. Will new technologies make the very medium of broadcasting an extinct species? As digitalisation opens up the electro-magnetic spectrum to hundreds of providers, each pursuing a particular audience, will broadcasting become an obsolete word, being overtaken by a notion which already has much currency, narrowcasting? Will the Internet make the whole spectrum irrelevant, given its capacity to deliver programs, if we still use that old word, direct to our computers? Apocalyptic visions abound.
But already we can see that prophecies in the early 1990s proclaiming a brave new world of communications were based on a naïve technological determinism. Why is the number of households with pay television so much smaller than was confidently forecast? It’s about ten years since Bruce Springsteen sang `There’s 57 channels and nothin’ on’. That wasn’t quite fair to the new system in the USA - poetic licence - and it isn’t quite true of pay television in Australia now, when Optus, for example, can offer Clive James in conversation with Peter Porter. But overall, what pay television offers Australian subscribers in 2002 strikes one independent-minded critic, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan, as ‘pathetic’. For whatever reason, Australians are still not taking to pay television in numbers that would give its programs anything like the universal reach which is one characteristic of public broadcasting.
Ten years ago nobody foresaw, nobody could foresee, ABC Online. When people look back at the ABC’s 70th birthday party they may well think that the most significant item was the inauguration of that music station DiG, which listeners find not on the radio dial but at www.abc.net.au/dig.
ABC Online, launched in 1995, has won the media category in the contest for Australian Internet Awards five years running. Surveys show it as one of the most visited Australian websites. I’m no technohead, but let me mention some of my own visits. I often print out transcripts of ABC radio’s weekly Media Report, sometimes television’s 7.30 Report, occasionally annual Boyer lectures one by one as they come on air. First thing in the morning, before the papers have arrived, I may look at ABC News Online. I notice that when the head coach of the Sydney Kings basketball team is asked about his uses of the media he says ‘I don’t read any newspapers. I use the internet for that.’ He digs in hard, he says, to the websites of the ABC and the NBA, the national basketball association.
The Canberra Times writer Crispin Hull alerted me in 1999 to what was happening to news, when he observed that there was little difference between his paper and the ABC’s web site. Only the method of delivery was different. ‘With the ABC newspaper’, he wrote in an arresting phrase, ‘the printing has been outsourced to the reader.’
That’s not all. I can hear and see programs days after they have gone to air. If, travelling overseas, I can’t wait to know how the David of Media Watch, David Marr, is taking on such Goliaths as Alan Jones and John Laws, I can log on while the program is going to air. If I want to hear an ABC radio program which has been put off the air by test cricket, I can hear it on the Internet.
When Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, the first words he sent along the wire, from Baltimore to Washington in 1844, were ‘What hath God Wrought’. What would Samuel Morse have said about the Internet?
What are its long-term implications for public broadcasters? There’s now a substantial literature arguing that public broadcasters are well placed to be among the most significant users of the Internet. Commercial providers of on-line data are getting more and more ingenious at turning a public good into a profitable commodity. The more that happens, the greater the value of those providers who treat users as citizens and not just consumers. The public broadcaster may well become an even more precious cultural resource in new media than it’s been in the old ones.
‘Convergence’ is a key word now in talk about the media. For the ABC, it can mean both convergence of media and convergence with other cultural institutions. The Open Learning project thrives as an exercise in collaboration between the ABC and universities, and a harbinger of other such exercises using old and new media. Two years ago the joint enterprise of ABC Radio, ABC Online and Monash University yielded a thirteen-part series on the subject of what digital technology may be doing to our lives. Next year we may see a periodical journal published from a university and composed of material from Radio National. Such collaboration can readily spread from universities to other public cultural institutions - libraries, archives, art galleries - given imagination, skill, and some money.
I don’t know what the ABC is requesting for new media in its current triennial submission, and still less do I know what it will get for that and for all its traditional purposes. I believe we can be confident, though, that the ABC will endure. There was a time, around 1990, when some people in the Liberal party were tempted by proposals to fully privatise the ABC; but any thoughts of that appear to have been abandoned by 1991. Since then the Liberal alphabet has not begun, as that T-Shirt proclaims, at the letter D. The Liberals did have a strategy to tame the public broadcaster. That was on the party’s agenda, though not publicly, for the elections of 1993, when the Liberal-National coalition lost, and 1996, when it won.
The ABC has proved a difficult animal to tame, for several reasons. First, its character as a statutory authority, with at least a measure of autonomy. Second, the depth and breadth of public regard. Critics in the Liberal Party are constrained by surveys showing that the ABC is one of our most cherished institutions. Subtle and rigorous research conducted by Glenn Withers at the ANU has established that beyond doubt. Third, most conservative politicians, however vehemently they may charge the ABC with particular misdemeanours, do cherish it.
When I interviewed Tim Fischer for my book, just after he stepped down as deputy prime minister, he said: `I’ve got a title for you:
Where would we be?
My last words are also in verse, by A D Hope, Anthony Inkwell in that fiftieth anniversary ode to Aunty. Having wished her a happy birthday, he addresses her future.
For though not many of us may
Live long enough to see the day -
For being a body corporate
You may expect no mortal date -
And though the clock with ceaseless tick
Reminds you that you are no chick,
You’re getting on, dear, but don’t fret,
You’ll live to be a hundred yet,
To rule the ether and its waves
And dance a jig upon our graves. •
This is the text of a lecture given by Ken Inglis for the ANU National Institute of Social Sciences at the National Museum of Australia on 13 November 2002. Ken Inglis is Emeritus Professor of History at ANU. His book The Stuart Case was republished recently, with a new, extended postcript, by Black Inc