Bringing the ABC to Heel


Picture the scene. A small, badly lit studio in Melbourne’s ABC Radio National. It is 9:45am. Ramona Koval is getting ready to host the daily Book Show which she, her producer and a staff of two present every weekday. Now, she is online to Sydney keying in links and fades, changing the music, checking equipment. As the 10 o’clock news comes on, she belts down the corridor for some research notes her computer has failed to print.

At 10:05 she’s on air, communicating with that combination of lightness of touch, thorough research and ability to ask probing questions that have made her a broadcaster of international standing one of the Edinburgh Festival’s top interviewers, with many of the literary giants of our age eating out of her hand.

Thanks to Paul Batey.

Ramona Koval has been the staff-elected Director on the ABC Board since 2002. During her incumbency, the Board had to undo the disastrous appointment as Managing Director of Jonathan Shier; then put Russell Balding in his place; and is now preparing the way for Kim Dalton. There has been a complete turnover of Board appointments by the Howard Government each new Director publicly declaring agendas to vigorously reform, root out bias, curb over-spending, enforce balance. Not one has gone public with a commitment to the principle of public broadcasting their agendas seeming to have more to do with the corporate and commercial worlds.

The ABC Board has mutely suffered a substantial decrease in funding (in real terms) compared to the 1996-97 levels. What goes on behind the scenes is confidential, but it is hard to find evidence of the Board’s vigorous lobbying for more funds.

On another day, Koval has been up since 5:00am. She flies to Sydney on Thursday at 6:30am to attend the March Board meeting. She’ll be back late Thursday night, to be on deck for her show on Friday morning.

Meanwhile, Maurice Newman AC has had a good week. The Australian Stock Exchange, of which he is Chairman, has just agreed to buy the country’s biggest futures market for AUD$2.25 billion, creating a virtual monopoly on equities and futures and an extremely powerful investment vehicle which Maurice Newman will also chair.

Even otherwise engaged as he was in the takeover, Newman might have permitted himself a little frisson of satisfaction at the announcement on Friday by the Minister for Communications, Senator Helen Coonan, that in the name of good corporate governance, the ‘anomalous position’ of staff-elected Director on the Board of the ABC would be abolished when the present incumbent’s term ends in June.

Good Corporate Governance . The words have been gathering gravitas like moss in the risk-averse, profit-centred business culture where, like all Australian public institutions, the public broadcaster now finds itself.

Ramona Koval and Maurice Newman go back a bit.

In June 2004, a reportedly furious Newman resigned from the Board of the ABC following revelations on ABC TV’s Media Watch that the Board had been persuaded to allocate some $200,000 from the cash-strapped broadcaster’s budget to continuously monitor what some members of the Board and the then Minister, Senator Richard Alston, alleged was outrageous Left-wing bias in the ABC’s political reporting.

Newman cited as the reason for his resignation the unwillingness of the staff-elected Board member, Koval, to abide by Board governance protocols. Stating that her role as a Director of a major public corporation required her to act in good faith and in the best interests of the ABC, Koval assured the Chairman and the Board that she fully intended to act in accordance with her legal obligations under the Corporations Law and the ABC Act.

Koval denied that she had breached Board confidentiality.

The ABC’s Board protocols spell out the ‘obligations Directors owe to the ABC and not to any person or organisation who may have nominated them, nor to any other individual or group.’

Maurice Newman was appointed by the Government for his clout and considerable financial expertise. Janet Albrechtsen was appointed because of her outstanding qualities as a journalist, Minister Coonan assured us. John Gallagher QC brings his formidable legal skills to the table and much else. Dr Ron Brunton is a well-known cultural warrior. Recently appointed, multi-skilled Steven Skala, Vice Chairman, Australia and New Zealand of Deutsche Bank AG, is also Chairman of Film Australia and other arts and media-related bodies.

The ABC’s assets are its staff and the programs they produce. Their expertise is their knowledge of broadcasting its restraints and opportunities as broadcasting technology evolves.

Koval and her predecessors (such as Quentin Dempster, Kirsten Garrett and Tom Molomby), far from being incapable of distinguishing between what are properly Board issues and those of management or staff, have given the Board the benefit of considerable experience far more than the Board has given the public broadcaster in recent years or so it seems to an outsider.

We have much to thank the staff-elected Directors for. Without their expertise at the table for all its good corporate governance mediocrity is what the public broadcaster and the rest of us have most to fear.

Norman Mailer was speaking of America in an interview with Koval in 2001:

The people who have the real power now are the corporate executives they are canny, they are highly tuned mediocrities. There is one thing about a mediocrity you can take power from someone who is a powerful person, because they take chances, real chances, that’s how they got to be powerful and that’s their pride in themselves, that they are large but you cannot take power from an entrenched mediocrity. They work at it 24 hours a day, keeping power.

Koval, like the professional interviewer she is, didn’t interrupt him.

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.