Sadly departed in the past week, historian Ken Inglis wrote this appraisal of the ABC for Meanjin in 2003 (Vol62/2) to mark the broadcaster’s 70th anniversary…
The ABC first went to air on 1 July 1932. The seventieth anniversary 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. Newspapers greeted the birthday 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, the contestants commonly using the media leak as a weapon. It must 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 displaced ABC head 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,’ wrote the Australian’s columnist Errol Simper, ‘you usually treat her gently?’ He went on: ‘Quite how the tax-funded BBC-inspired national broadcaster has reached seventy must remain a mystery.’ Simper found a clue in what he called the ‘staunch, solid, consistent, blessed National Party support for Aunty over many years’. The Age leader writer noted 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, said 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 the ABC 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’. He 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 multipart series Taint Bilong Masta (on the Australian colonial experience of Papua New Guinea) and Prisoners of War. For each of those grand projects of the 1980s he 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.’
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 sort of rhetoric in which it was wrapped, had been disseminated for more than a decade by the Australian’s owner Rupert Murdoch in his attacks on the BBC that started when Murdoch began investing in pay television. The Australian declined to publish a response to its editorial by the ABC’s current managing director, Russell Balding, in which he quoted surveys showing that each week more than twelve 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, e-mails and phone calls received by the ABC, less than two 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.
‘Bias’ is a four-letter word with a range of meanings. Invoked against the ABC its use goes back to at least the 1970s, when those letters stood for Australian Broadcasting Commission (not Corporation, the operative word since 1983). 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. She employs that terrier-like style 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. 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 the Courier Mail (19 July 2002) that the ABC’s unpopularity with Labor governments is a furphy. ‘Yes,’ he writes, ‘the ABC does criticise 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.’ Other critics have also spoken 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 Triple J, and only from limited areas of television or local radio, mostly current affairs. Radio National is a common target. 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 ‘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.’ Salusinzsky 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.
‘PM attacks ABC bias’ said a headline in the 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 criticising 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 the Age (30 April 2002), it presents a greater diversity of views than a decade ago when John Howard did not make any public criticisms of the organization. He went on to say that the program in question ‘genuinely believes in debate’ and ‘regularly features supporters of the Prime Minister’.
The ABC has long been fertile ground for myths—notably about how it got to be called Aunty. There’s one story that this epithet derives from the BBC, whose legendary director-general Lord Reith was said to have prohibited anything that could possibly offend his maiden aunt. In truth the term does come from BBC usage, but it began life there only after Reith had long gone.
Until 1955 the BBC had enjoyed what Reith candidly described as the brute force of monopoly. When British viewers were given an alternative to the BBC in 1955, 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 Auntie’s 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 broadcaster is gendered as feminine.
There are funny but mythical stories about programs. One reviewer of my history of the organisation, This is the ABC (1983), 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-web spider. My problem was that more than one announcer in more than one city was said with certainty to have made that stumble. 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. 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 first name, Solomon. The great man extends his hand and says ‘Solomon’. The general manager clasps it and says ‘Moses’.
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 heard even a senior executive of the ABC say this. 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’s character, is that the government of the day appoints the chief executive. Editorial writers, cartoonists, reporters, even members of parliament can betray ignorance of what the Act prescribes. Here is 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. Duffy had chosen Hill, with Bob Hawke’s consent, to be chairman when Ken Myer stormed out of the board room and never returned. Hill was reasonably perceived as a Labor man, a senior adviser to Neville Wran whom the Wran government had then appointed to the State Rail Authority; but his performance in that job was respected on both sides of politics. Then Hill as chairman persuaded the rest of the board to dump Whitehead as managing director, and without advertising the managing directorship the board appointed Hill to the 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 Hill after one five-year term, then dumped him three years into a second term. 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 Hill early in 1995 the board chose Brian Johns, who was known to be close to members of the Labor government. Like Hill he had been a public servant, first under the Whitlam government and then under Malcolm Fraser’s; he too was respected as a non-partisan professional. Some Labor people, above all his good friend Mick Young, lobbied board members on 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’ recollections are divided over whether 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 Johns a second five-year term could be construed as being partly political. Had Labor won in 1996, he might well have got the second term that a board chaired by the Coalition appointee Donald McDonald denied him. Might have: not every board member who thought it was time for Johns to go after one term had been appointed by the Coalition.
The choice of Shier in 1999 was widely read as political, especially once his early connections with the Liberal Party became general knowledge. After talking with nearly all of the board members who appointed Shier, I’m not convinced either that the choice was made on political grounds or that anybody in government intervened on his behalf.
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?) 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 bipartisan method of appointment to the ABC 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 that was greeted almost without public criticism. Hawke and then 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 it did, in the appointment of the current 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 the BBC model. 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 preserved it, 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 staff-elected directors to date: Tom Molomby, John Cleary, Quentin Dempster, Kirsten Garrett, Ian Henschke and now Ramona Koval, each appointed for a five-year term and all except Henschke re-elected for another two years. Their very presence alters the board’s character a little, rather as including 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, whom to appoint as managing director, the staff member is there to be either convinced or railroaded. I don’t believe the latter has ever happened. When programs are criticised around the board table, the staff director is a 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 always thirsty media, on and off the record.
There’s another reason that 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 that 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 the exception that proves the rule. Appointed in 1998, he 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. Kroger appears to be as close to the Treasurer, Peter Costello, as McDonald is to the Prime Minister; and both Kroger and Costello appear to be close to the Minister for Communications, Senator Richard Alston.
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 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 that appoints it.
The only minister more antagonistic than Alston was Archie Cameron, Postmaster-General in 1938, who said to the then chairman, W.I. Cleary: ‘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 the title of Jock Given’s book, The Death of Broadcasting? (1998), though he would have regretted the question mark. The death of public or public service broadcasting (the terms have become virtually interchangeable) has been predicted in 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 a book in 2000 entitled Death Struggle: How Political Malice and Boardroom Powerplays are Killing the ABC.
Such prophecies have been provoked by changes in both ideology and technology over the last twenty years or so. Under the Hawke 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 expenditure on the public sector, driven by a conviction that private enterprise could provide as well or better many of the goods and services that had come to be accepted as the responsibility of governments. The Australian Public Service has been downsized by more than one-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 seventieth-birthday Australian editorial that the ABC should be financed on the principle of user pays. There have been predictions that when everyone is connected to pay TV, and the majority of television stations operate on that principle, the idea of subscribing to the ABC won’t seem so radical.
In that 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 electromagnetic spectrum to hundreds of providers, each pursuing a particular audience, will broadcasting become an obsolete word, being overtaken by a notion that 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 naive 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 commentators and disappointed subscribers in Australia can still sound like Springsteen. For whatever reasons, we are not taking to pay television in numbers that would give its programs anything like the universal reach that is one characteristic of public broadcasting.
Ten years ago nobody foresaw, nobody could foresee, ABC Online. When people look back at the ABCs seventieth 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 web sites. 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 online 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 ifs 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 is 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. Such collaboration can readily spread from universities to other public cultural institutions—libraries, archives, art galleries—given imagination, skill, and some money.
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 privatise the ABC; but any thoughts of that appear to have been abandoned by 1991. 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); third, the fact that most conservative politicians, however vehemently they may charge the ABC with particular misdemeanours, do value it. When I interviewed Tim Fischer for my current book, just after he stepped down as deputy prime minister, he said: ‘I’ve got a title for you: No ABC: Where would we be?’.