Which direction for the national broadcaster?
by Peter Mac In 1994, the Liberal Party Minister responsible for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Senator Alston, expressed severe criticism at the appointment of new ABC Board member, John Bannon. At the time, Senator Alston thundered that: "This blatant Board-stacking exercise endangers the independence and integrity of the ABC and has the potential to do grave danger to Australia's international reputation." Just how "independent" is the Board? To answer that, one must first ask the question: "independent of whom?" When all the rhetoric is stripped away, the ABC, like any other public organisation, can either act for the good of the working people — i.e. the vast majority of the community — or for those who own and control the means of production, including the means of mass communication. For the latter group, a public broadcaster with an obligation to present truthful news, honest views and informative programs of a high artistic, cultural and educational standard must be considered a potentially subversive organisation. The ABC does not always meet these standards, as shown by its recent screening of the series Blood on the Snow, a vicious and ugly distortion of the pre-war and wartime history of the former Soviet Union. And during the US/NATO war against Yugoslavia it sounded more like a propaganda arm of the US administration. Nevertheless, despite severe budget cuts, many of the ABC programs have continued to reach a high artistic standard and are presented in honesty and in depth. The ABC performance is therefore bound to cause disquiet to the captains of industry — especially given comparisons with the commercial media. The comparison is especially acute in the light of recent revelations over the commissioning of radio talk-back hosts to present favourable impressions of the banks and other businesses. (This has sent the commercial media scurrying for cover. Advertising for one TV current affairs programs now proclaims loudly: "our opinions are not for sale!") In striving to meets its obligations as a public broadcaster, the real threat to the independence of the ABC is overwhelmingly from the world of big business, which would dearly love to transform it into a pallid replica of the commercial media, complete with commercial advertising, or to abolish it altogether. The chances of this happening are profoundly influenced by the membership of the ABC Board. One member of the Board is appointed by the ABC staff, and the General Manager is appointed by the Board itself. The other seven members are appointed periodically by the Federal Government. The Board's current composition gives some indication of the extent to which it might bow to commercial pressure. In this regard Senator Alston has little grounds for concern over a palace revolution at the ABC. With the exception of the courageous staff appointee, journalist Kirsten Garrett, there is no appointee on the Board with any background in struggle on behalf of working people, such as a union or community leader. Four members of the Board were appointed by the conservative Federal Coalition. Of these, Judith Sloane is a professor of industrial relations who is said to have disapproved of the Howard Government's industrial relations as not going far enough. Don MacDonald is a former manager of Opera Australia, a Coalition supporter and a personal friend of the Prime Minister. Ross McLean and Donald Kroger are both former Coalition members of Federal Parliament. On his appointment to the Board, Kroger immediately tried to introduce advertising into ABC programs. Only three Board members are Labor Party appointees. Diana Gribble is a publisher and Russel Bate a computer expert. Ian Mac Phee was appointed by the previous Labor Government, a former Liberal MP who was ousted by the New Right within his own party. Given the predominant influence of Coalition members on the ABC Board it is surprising that the ABC has not yet bent even more than it has to the conservative will. Of crucial importance to the direction of the Board — and hence the ABC — is the position of the ABC Managing Director. The term of employment of the current General Manager, Brian Johns, will end early next year. Given the current composition of the Board, his successor will almost certainly be cast in the conservative mould. Despite Senator Alston's blustering, it is the current Federal Government which has a history of attempting to impose its will on the ABC by filling Board vacancies with political sympathisers. Its first appointment was Don MacDonald, followed by Justice Ian Callinan - - whose subsequent elevation to the High Court was followed by scandalous accusations of unethical behaviour. (Then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer stated openly, prior to Callinan's appointment to the Court that: "we want a capital C conservative".) Other ABC Board appointees have been clearly tailored to coalition requirements. The organisation "Friends of the ABC" recently summed up the situation as follows: "The ABC plays a major role in our community — providing independent information and quality entertainment, and maintaining Australian culture. Its independence from Government and political influence must be protected. "Directors appointed to a company board are obliged to act in the interests of their shareholders. The ABC belongs to all Australians, and the public is entitled to expect appointees to the Board which governs the ABC to be committed to the wellbeing of the ABC. "The allegiance of Board members must be to the ABC, not to outside political interests. Friends of the ABC seeks assurance that all who are appointed to the ABC are committed to it thriving as an independent and comprehensive national public broadcaster."