Political malice and the national broadcaster


Janet Albrechtsen’s appointment to the board of the ABC is inappropriate because of her ongoing association with News Corporation as a freelance columnist.

If she wants to remain an ABC director for the next five years she should sever that relationship as Dr Ron Brunton did (he was a contributor to the Courier-Mail in Queensland, another News Corp. publication) after his appointment to the ABC board in May 2003. Then all would be above board.

The issue is sensitive. ABC directors are given access to commercial-in-confidence analysis of ABC Enterprises operations in the marketplace as a retailer of books, CDs, DVDs and other products. News Corp. is also in this business. ABC directors have access to market-sensitive digital broadcasting data of vital interest to the ABC’s survival as a mainstream player in Australia’s digital future. News Corp. has a huge vested interest in digital broadcasting through its stake in Foxtel.

With Kerry Packer we are expecting News Corp. to acquire a one hundred per cent stake in Foxtel when the government orders Telstra to divest its share as full privatisation proceeds.

There currently is a lobbying battle underway between the pay TV industry (largely Foxtel) and the free-to-air broadcasters about anti-siphoning of sports coverage and FTA multi-channelling.

News Corp., through the Australian (22 May 2003) has editorialised that it wants the ABC reduced to the weak and sponsor-dependent voice of PBS in the United States. It seems to want the ABC to seek funding through charity drives and pledge-plea telethons.

Ms Albrechtsen may not be an operative for News Corp. and I am sure she will be mindful of her duties as an ABC director, but Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, and the federal cabinet should not have put her in a position where doubts about motivation and other agendas are fairly raised.

The same protests and complaints would arise if she were a contracted columnist for Packer or Fairfax outlets or anyone in direct competition with the ABC. If the minister, the Prime Minister and their cabinet colleagues cannot be mindful of the proprieties in this situation, that, in itself, is revealing.

Another complication is that Ms Albrechtsen has been in active dispute with the ABC over a Media Watch item on her journalistic methods.

The ABC is at a tilting point in its survival in Australian media. Soon to be announced is a joint government/ABC review of the ‘adequacy and efficient use’ of funding. The Albrechtsen appointment has inflamed fears that the government will not be fair to the ABC. We public broadcasters do not forget the 1996 dishonouring of the coalition commitment to maintain funding in real terms. Programs were slashed, Radio Australia was mindlessly vandalised and more than 1000 broadcasters and support staff were made to walk the redundancy plank.

Coalition policy now is for the dismantling of the cross-media rule and foreign ownership limits. The government can claim a mandate for this policy. It was published in their 2004 election manifesto.

But the Howard Government has no mandate from the Australian people to marginalise or further defund the public broadcasters – the ABC and SBS.

In his op-ed piece in the Australian last Friday, Senator Santo Santoro said that I had been ‘strangely silent’ on Labor’s political stacking of the ABC board. This is a lie. I wrote a book about the Hawke/Keating stack, their influence, hostility and funding pressure on the ABC in the ’80s and ’90s. Twice I have given evidence to Senate inquiries to complain about the stack and pleaded for merit selection in board appointments to stop the two-party politicising of the ABC board.

The ABC and taxpayers who pay for it deserve a non-political board committed to fighting to retain the ABC’s place as an independent, mainstream player in Australian media and culture.

The point about conflict of interest/loyalties was painfully brought home to me when I was an ABC board member in 1995. Media Watch reprimanded me over paid articles I had been contributing to the Australian. I desisted.

Recently, I was asked to submit an op-ed piece to the Australian to respond to Senator Santoro’s observations and to justify the protests about the Albrechtsen appointment. I submitted the above article and it had been cleared by the op-ed editor but he informed me (7 March 2005) that its publication had been over-ruled by the newspaper’s editors. Instead I was offered a 250 word letter to respond to Senator Santoro. I have submitted that letter but also included the Brunton point re Albrechtsen. We await publication.

I thank NewMatilda for this opportunity to have the Albrechtsen arguments published in full.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.