The Guardian August 18, 1999


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."

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