The appointment last week of Keith Windschuttle to the ABC Board has provoked a range of predictable reactions. New Matilda Board member, Hilary McPhee expressed her belief that ‘This Government is shameless; their ideological bent is so palpable,’ while Friends of the ABC spokeswoman Glenys Stradijot declared the appointment ‘laughable, if it were not so serious.’ Michelle Grattan, in The Age, described the move as ‘beyond controversial’ and ‘highly provocative.’
The fact that the ABC Board now contains three regular contributors to Australia’s Right-wing Bible, Quadrant magazine (the others being Janet Albrechtsen and Ron Brunton), is a sure indication of the ideology driving the Howard Government’s appointments to cultural boards. In fact, swamped by the outcry over Windschuttle’s appointment was the news that current Quadrant Board member, Imre Salusinszky, has been appointed Chair Australia Council’s Literature Board; and that Sydney Institute Board member Joe Gersh will be Deputy Chair of the Council, just a week or so after James Strong’s appointment as Chair. Add to this the filling of the last spot on the ABC Board with Liberal Party donor and Vice-President of the Australian Hotels Association Peter Hurley a man with no apparent expertise in any area of media or broadcasting and the picture is complete.
But let’s not get bogged down in the obvious arguments about the Howard Government’s shameless ideological push for control of Australia’s cultural life. Windschuttle’s appointment to the ABC board deserves some serious consideration in terms of its implications for public broadcasting and the role of the media in Australian democracy.
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that Windschuttle has significant experience as both a working journalist and media analyst. His 1984 book, The Media: A New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia, regarded by many media academics as a seminal text, was a critical study of the media from (and this will be a shock to followers of Windschuttle’s recent career) a largely Marxist perspective.
Windschuttle is an exemplar of that curious breed of Australian intellectuals who move inexorably from the far Left to the hard Right over the course of their lives. He is, if you like, the anti-Robert Manne. So much so that his 1984 belief that the ABC was subject to ‘relentless and illiberal campaigns by conservative politicians [and]figures of the radical Right’ has since been supplanted by the view, expressed in a lecture last year entitled ‘Vilifying Australia,’ that the ABC has been captured by the ‘adversary culture’ of Left-wing ‘tertiary educated middle-class professionals’ who have ‘built a culture that even a Board now dominated by conservatives has been unable to displace.’
Is Windshcuttle’s appointment to this supposedly ineffectual Board a move guaranteed to achieve the displacement of that ‘adversary’ Left-wing culture that Howard and his reactionary conservative cronies so obviously desire?
Probably not. In reality, the Board’s only real impact on the operation of the ABC is the appointment of the Managing Director. It has little, if any, ability to influence on-screen content. The concern of most observers is that the current Board will allow the introduction of advertising.
Comparing the ABC to its younger cousin SBS, Windschuttle, in ‘Vilifying Australia,’ declared that the introduction of advertising to SBS in 1991 had caused no ‘apparent detriment to its operation, so the ABC should do the same.’ It is this, more than the ideological implications of his appointment to the ABC Board, which has caused supporters of public sector broadcasting such alarm. But, despite Windschuttle’s professed enthusiasm for advertising on the ABC, shameless Board stacking alone will not be enough to bring this about.
For instance, the commercialisation of the ABC will not be as easily achieved as the change, announced only two weeks ago, to the scheduling of advertising on SBS that will allow the interruption of programming and make Australia’s second public broadcaster increasingly indistinguishable from commercial television.
SBS was set upon its current trajectory in 1991, with the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service Act, section 45 of which sanctioned the introduction of ‘advertisements or sponsorship announcements,’ but allowed only those ‘that run during periods before programs commence, after programs end or during natural program breaks.’
The Howard Government has, therefore, not had to change the SBS Act in order to allow ads to interrupt programs. For the Government to come out openly and say, ‘We’re going to change the SBS Act, and allow advertising between programs,’ would have been politically risky. It was much easier to stack the SBS Board with people willing to reinterpret what a ‘natural program break’ might mean .
A similar approach at the ABC cannot have the same effect. The ABC Act and Charter do not allow advertising or sponsorship in any form. Without a legislative change to the Act, the Board and its recently appointed Managing Guru, Mark Scott, cannot introduce advertising to the ABC. It’s highly doubtful that Howard has the ticker to declare open warfare on the ABC by changing its governing Act to allow advertising, no matter how strident the appeals from the conservative quorum that now runs the ship.
What Windshcuttle’s appointment, and the recent reinterpretation of its Act by the SBS Board, do highlight, however, is the need for a complete overhaul of public broadcasting policy in Australia.
Our public broadcasting policy was modelled on that of the BBC. We should go back to this drawing board: revisit the licence fee, possibly via a levy to ensure the fee is equitable, and establish a Board of Governors for public broadcasting that would oversee appointments to the Boards of both the ABC and SBS in fact, to all cultural institutions.
The sad truth is that until all Board appointments and all funding allocations are removed from the direct control of Government, the decline of public sector broadcasting in Australia will continue.
New Matilda is committed to exploring this issue and developing a media policy that will enshrine the independence of public broadcasting as a central tenet of Our Common Wealth. Contributions and comments are welcome, both in the online forum, and by submissions to the Common Wealth media policy page.
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