The Guardian July 5, 2000


New boss hacks ABC's independence, programs

by Peter Mac

ABC Managing Director, Jonathan Shier has taken another step along the road 
to privatisation of the National broadcaster. The ABC has already suffered 
savage budget cuts. Now the heads of its current affairs, programming, 
national networks, marketing, news and current affairs, transmission, 
corporate strategy and research divisions have been replaced, without any 
advertising of their positions, by recruits predominantly drawn from the 
private sector. 200 middle management positions could also disappear.

The current affairs and news divisions of ABC TV are to be merged, with a 
new mid-evening (i.e. non-rating and watered down) current affairs program 
replacing the popular 7.30 Report and Lateline. News 
broadcasts are also likely to become more restricted, with the independence 
of the ABC already compromised should a recent business arrangement 
eventually go through in which its "on-line" news bulletins would be 
subject to approval by the semi-privatised Telstra Corporation.

Abolition of the separate ABC current affairs division was previously 
suggested by former ABC Washington correspondent Max Uetritz, who is now to 
become the director of news and current affairs. 7.30 
Reportpresenter Kerry O'Brien, at one time a potential contender for 
ABC managing director, may be forced out altogether. 

Howard's nasty intentions

Although O'Brien's program toed the conservative line on many issues (e.g. 
NATO's Balkans war), it was far more open, honest and critical in its 
analysis of the Howard government's intentions than the commercial media. 
In numerous 7.30 Reportinterviews O'Brien's good-natured but 
intelligent and determined questioning of Howard revealed much about the 
coalition's nasty intentions for the Australian people, and caused the PM 
to become visibly defensive, nervous and hostile.

One anonymous ABC source this week commented:

"Join the dots. The Howard Government now has a majority on the (ABC) 
Board; the chairman is a close friend of the Prime Minister, who has been a 
long-time critic of ABC news and current affairs, and particularly O'Brien 
and his program. Shier, ... a former vice-President of the Young Liberals, 
a member of the staff of two former ministers, (and) a strong Thatcherite 
during his time in the United Kingdom ... emerges to demolish the best news 
management team the ABC has ever had, and get rid of Howard's number one 
target. How much more obvious do you want it to be?"

Media vultures

And the media vultures are gathering. One commentator, bristling with 
commercial patriotism, declared: "Australians ... have every right to 
expect the bright, innovative programming reflecting Australian values that 
Shier promises. They also have every right to expect value for the half 
billion dollars a year that supports the ABC, and if it takes a no-nonsense 
business approach to extract it, fair enough."

Another compared the ABC unfavourably to multi-cultural broadcaster SBS, 
which has adopted a conservative political line and broadcasts commercial 
advertising. With superb hypocrisy, yet another claimed that the ABC had 
abandoned its rightful viewing public (the "light" program "consumers") by 
presenting quality productions of literary classics, which it described 
with a sneer as "costume dramas ... so beloved by the Mosman demographic". 
Nevertheless, it was quick to argue for a commercial takeover of these 
potentially lucrative programs, claiming enthusiastically that they could 
"just as easily be delivered by pay-TV". It's "Dinner Ladies", not Dickens, 
for the masses, please!

Minister for Communications, Senator Alston, last week complained that 
multi-channelling by the national broadcaster would lead to "trash" on ABC 
TV. However, it would appear that the Minister is actually more concerned 
about allocation of multi-channelling to the ABC at the expense of 
commercial channels. Although Democrat and Labor MPs have now voted for ABC 
multi-channelling, the Howard government is expected to restrict it to 
areas such as education and children's TV, so as to protect the commercial 
channels from competition. 

And basically, serving the interests of the commercial media is what 
they're all about, for none of the major changes Shier announced last week 
will serve the interests of the Australian working people or the wider 
community.

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