A new organisation was launched at the ABC headquarters at Ultimo yesterday. Called the ABC Alumni, it describes itself as a ‘a community of former staff and supporters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’.
As Banjo Paterson might have put it, all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
There was Kerry O’Brien, the most famous alumni currently on a book tour promoting his memoir. There was the near sanctified broadcaster Caroline Jones. There was Timothy Bowden, once of the ABC television program Backchat, and there was Jonathan Holmes formerly of Media Watch, Robyn Williams of the Science Show and a gaggle of other household names.
And, sitting next to each other in the front row, were the present and former members for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps and John Hewson, who seemed to have a bit to say to each other.
At a discrete distance was former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr, who tucked in to at least one finger sandwich, despite his reputation for being pernickety about such things.
The head of the Australia Institute think tank, Ben Oquist, loomed at the rear, and former ABC board member and medical heroine Fiona Stanley was among the speakers, about which more later.
In other words, a potentially significant cultural event, if notably free of representatives of the current government. We were told that Gerard Henderson had been invited, but he didn’t show up.
So what is this new organisation for? It plans to lobby for ‘properly funded, high quality, independent, ethical, and free public media’.
This follows the dust ups of the last couple of months, in which the ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie was sacked by the board, then hit back through a series of orchestrated leaks which forced the Chairman, Justin Milne, to resign over emails in which he called for the sacking of ABC reporters who had displeased the government.
I hear there was a considerable amount of angst in the ABC public affairs department about whether Aunty should agree to host the alumni event on its premises.
Nevertheless, the sandwiches and grog flowed at a stutter; not on the taxpayer dime, we were assured, but by depleting the new organisation’s bank account to desperation levels.
The current ABC acting managing director, David Anderson, gave a brief and anodine speech.
He can be forgiven for being bland. As an ABC Board member himself, he is in the awkward position of facing legal action from his predecessor, the little-lamented Guthrie. As well, he has been called as a witness before the current Senate Committee inquiry into allegations of political interference at the ABC. To top all that, he is in the process of applying for his own job, with the headhunt for a new permanent Managing Director underway.
The strongest thing he did was draw attention to the ABC submission to the Senate Inquiry, which notes that the triennial funding of the ABC has been undermined by out-of-triennium cuts, and calls for a new method of setting ABC funding a number of years in advance ‘to provide stability and certainty…both to protect against actual or perceived political interference and to provide the Corporation with the ability to plan for the future.’
Some observers concluded that simply by appearing, Anderson was signalling that he had given up his hope of being confirmed in the top job. I disagree, but paranoia is everywhere at the Ultimo headquarters these days.
So what news emerged from the event? A few items. Working the room resulted in the knowledge that insiders expect the new Chair of the ABC Board to be appointed soon, but the new managing director is not expected until at least May – which raises the prospect that the Chair could be appointed by the current government, and the Managing Director by an incoming Labor administration.
That could make for an uneasy partnership if the current government follows its form in making politicised appointments. As well, given recent events, any MD worth having would want to know who the chair was and have some assurances about the integrity of the board before accepting the position.
I asked the new member for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps, what she could do to ensure that the replacement Chair of the ABC Board was appointed through a proper process.
She replied that she would be consulting the ABC Alumni about exactly that issue – but ran off to another appointment when asked for more detail.
‘I don’t provide comments off the cuff,’ she said. Although she just had.
Apparently, the ABC alumni will be letterboxing and handing out its literature in Wentworth at the federal election, and engaging in more ‘targeted actions’, according to co-founder Matt Peacock.
Meanwhil,e the Alumni state on their website that the new Chair should not be appointed until the Senate Committee has reported. That deadline is the end of March, and some were making it clear they hoped it could be delayed even further, past the expected May election date.
Fiona Stanley, generally regarded as a kind of public health saint and thus above attack, gave the current ABC board a serve in her speech. ‘Where is the advocacy from the current ABC board, advocacy for anything other than I don’t know what.’
She revealed that during her time on the board, when ABC critic Janet Albrechtsen was appointed to the supposedly independent panel that selects board members, she had wanted to publicly protest, but was banned from doing so..
Kerry O’Brien gave the gathering a potted history of political attacks and interference at the ABC, provoking the reflection in this observer that for significant parts of its history, the ABC Board has been composed largely of people who were opposed to the organisation’s existence.
Surely in any other organisation, that would be directorial misconduct of some sort?
After an impressive list of instances of pressure and political buckling, O’Brien declared that things now are as bad or worse than they have ever been.
An independent board was at the heart of the organisation’s integrity, said O’Brien. “If the staff are not to look over their shoulder, sometimes in fear, then you have to have a genuinely independent board appointed at arm’s length from government…. the government that can’t guarantee that is a government that should be judged by all ABC [users] around the country as a government that is found wanting.”
After an hour on ABC premises, the cracks and their supporters adjourned to a pub across the road at the University of Technology, Sydney. Many of them were clearly looking to a change in government to address the ills of the organisation.
Too many forget that the biggest cuts to the ABC until recent times occurred under the Hawke-Keating Government, when the spirit of economic rationalism stalked the land.
If Gerard Henderson had been present, I am sure he would have pointed that out.