Slagging the ABC


Senator Coonan’s recent suggestions for changes to media policy have been received generally with a mixture of disdain, cynicism and disbelief. As Emma Dawson has recently suggested in New Matilda, it is now clear that the Howard Government would prefer to sit on its hands rather than create an opportunity for Australians to plug into the digital communications revolution — a revolution that most of the rest of the developed world already takes for granted.

After years of procrastinating about changing our broadband and digital future. Coonan’s vision has been stretched to embrace more procrastinating. Why? Because the entrenched sectoral interests in Australia’s mediascape are powerful enough to scare her and the Howard Government. (They scare Labor too, by the way.)

Political power in Western democracies is no longer just a matter of gaining an electoral mandate in the form of a parliamentary majority. It is more and more becoming a matter of gaining control of the (electronic) media as well.

This week, one of the world’s foremost examples of the coming together of these two forms of power, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, media mogul and politician extraordinaire, has been ousted from the front line of political power. (See Kelsey Munro’s analysis of the Thai elections and Thaksin’s resignation in today’s issue of New Matilda.) And on Sunday and Monday 9–10 April, the Italian people will pronounce their judgement on Europe’s version of Thaksin: Silvio Berlusconi (For more on that Italian election see Stephen Bennetts also in today’s New Matilda.)

In Australia, we’re not a million miles away from this kind of media-political convergence. There’s certainly a cosy feeling evident between the Howard Government and some of the players in the electronic and print media. But, significantly, there are frostier relations between the Government and the ABC precisely because the Government believes that the national public broadcaster is (unfairly) critical of its performance.

Funnily enough, the Howard Government’s woeful inaction with regard to enabling real competition and innovation in digital broadcasting contrasts starkly with the recent flurry of activity around the future of the ABC.

Is it my imagination, or is Senator Coonan trying to distract us from the poverty of her media policy by first suggesting the ABC run commercials, and now rushing through legislation to remove the staff-elected Director position on the ABC Board? And what was all that strange and venomous business about ABC Chair Donald McDonald?

Thanks to Paul Batey.

Well, it’s amazing what a Senate majority can do. The Government knows that it can now ram through any changes it feels like to the corporate culture of the ABC. It knows the Labor Party is utterly distracted by its own melancholia and frustration. And it knows that the elitist, Howard-boosting commentariat from the commercial press would love another chance to deride what it sees as the soft-left social engineers at the ABC.

While all these games are played out, programs are still produced and broadcast daily. The staff at the ABC, through a previous staff-elected Director, Quentin Dempster, have sent a letter to Senator Coonan about the issue of their representation on the ABC Board. Parts of the letter have been quoted in various places. We reproduce the full text below:

Date: 27 March 2006 4:58:53 PM

To: Senator Coonan


Dear Minister,

RE: Proposed amendment to the ABC Act.

Your intention to introduce an amendment to the ABC Act to abolish the position of staff-elected director of the ABC is ill-advised and your reasons, as stated in your news release of 24 March 2004, appear disingenuous. I ask you, in the interests of fairness to the current staff-elected director, Ms Ramona Koval, to receive a deputation from the most senior staff of the ABC before you proceed. I fear a grave injustice will be done to Ms Koval historically, hurtfully smearing her dedication and commitment to the ABC, if the amendment to the ABC Act proceeds under these circumstances.

Your statement, coming just one hour before nominations for the position of staff-elected director closed with the Australian Electoral Commission last Friday, undermines the current Act’s requirements. I am a candidate for the pending vacancy. I note you say the election process must proceed until the legislation you propose is passed. You place the candidates in an intolerable position. The amendment does not come as a unilateral action to address an allegedly urgent problem. It comes as the government considers the ABC Board’s latest triennial funding submission, your own discussion paper on media ownership reform in the digital age, the early departure of the managing director short of his statutory five year term and the Board’s search for his replacement, speculation started by yourself that the ABC Board at some time in the future consider seeking revenues from advertising, and reported leaks from the Board with some directors apparently threatening resignation if the current chairman, Mr Donald McDonald AO, has his term renewed. In this context your proposed urgent amendment to the ABC Act is inflammatory and raises deep distress and suspicion about your motives.

The position of staff-elected director has prevailed since the creation of the corporation in 1983. While the primary purpose was to bring to the board table knowledge and expertise of broadcasting existing within the corporation’s creative program makers and staff, it has evolved as a vital structural protection of the ABC’s independence and integrity. The method of appointment by Electoral Commission ballot of all the corporation’s employees may imply a constituency but the Act clearly states that a director appointed by this method is bound by the Act’s clauses covering duties of directors. There is no conflict of interest or accountability problem as stated by you and those in the media urging you to destroy the position.

There has been media reportage of an instance involving current director Ramona Koval, the presenter of The Book Show on Radio National. Ms Koval is alleged to have breached Board confidentiality in 2004 in publicly raising her concerns about the potential for political interference in the Board’s consideration of bias and balance monitoring of the ABC’s editorial output. She has repeatedly denied any breach. The Board has not censured her, or adversely reflected on her behaviour, as it would be entitled to do were it satisfied a breach was proven. As a journalist and former Board director I believe that the truth of this lies in Board documents including correspondence to the chairman in March 2004. Before proceeding with this amendment I believe you should investigate the facts of this allegation.

The position obviously involves the occupant in robust debate about the ABC’s future in Australian broadcasting, media and culture. In the 1990s staff-elected directors were engaged in such debates as the then David Hill-led management sought to wed the ABC with Fairfax and Cox Communications of the United States in subscription (pay) television in Australia. The position was crucial in exposing breaches of the ABC Act and editorial policies through ‘backdoor’ sponsorship of some ABC programs. Staff helped the Senate’s inquiry into this and other issues, resulting in your predecessor (Senator the Hon. Richard Alston) reasserting the need in his report (Our ABC — 1995) for ABC management to avoid compromises inherent in funding from external sources. In 2000 the then staff-elected director again was engaged in debate about the provision of all the ABC’s programming on Telstra’s broadband portals. These debates were a significant contribution to the policy development process and the ABC’s strategic direction as part of sectoral diversity … Now in 2006 there appears to be an agenda for the commercialisation of the ABC’s content by its provision across digital platforms with revenue to be derived through advertising, sponsorship or product placement techniques.

Debates about the ABC’s role, functions, funding and future are part of the Australian story. The staff-elected director position is now seen by the Australian people as a major contributor to the perception and reality of ABC independence from the government of the day. Rather than being a perversity, as you imply, the position has become a dynamic part of the ABC and its obligations to the Act, the Parliament and engagement with all its audiences who are the taxpayers who pay for it. Remove the position and you risk turning the ABC in both perception and reality into ‘the government station’. You further politicise and undermine this great institution.

If you wish to discuss this issue I can be reached on the telephone numbers listed below.

Yours sincerely,

Quentin Dempster
Candidate for staff-elected director ABC

It smells to me like the Culture Wars have just found another battlefield.

José Borghino

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.