Cultural leaders say: "Stop the rot!"
by Peter Mac While the ABC's new commercially-oriented management broods and schemes in sullen secrecy, hundreds of leading figures in Australia's cultural life have published an open letter of scathing criticism of the ABC's arts policy. The real extent of the anger over these policies did not become evident until the draft letter was published. One of the letter's initiators, former ABC producer Martin Harrison, said that so many people wanted to sign the letter that the organisers rapidly had to cancel the collection of signatories. The letter, addressed to ABC Chairman Don Macdonald, states in part that its signatories "... are deeply alarmed at the failure of your Board to promote a broad policy discussion on the ABC's commitment to the arts under the new structure.... "A ratings-driven, commercially-oriented ABC fails one of the primary tasks of public broadcasting. It will downgrade specialist, challenging and small audience programs — including many forms of writing and music. This is not a structure that will deliver a vital alternative to mainstream media." Indeed, far from delivering alternatives to commercial TV, the current policies of the new ABC management appear intent on transforming the national broadcaster into a pallid imitation of commercial media. Composer Peter Sculthorpe commented that the current situation is the worst the ABC has experienced in the 30 years he had been campaigning for the organisation. The ABC's new manager, Jonathan Shier, has overseen the replacement of dozens of the ABC's most experienced managers with highly paid executives from the private sector, at an increase in salary level of between $60,000 and $70,000. Meanwhile, various sectors of ABC organisation are preparing for savage cuts in budget funding. The ABC's radio division has suffered a $2 million cut, and further cuts are expected to hit the news and current affairs department particularly hard. At a recent ABC Board meeting Shier discussed the possibility of introducing an ABC co-branded credit card as a means of gaining extra cash for the organisation. It was one of the few occasions when he has revealed any of his intentions for the ABC. However, such an initiative would be entirely inadequate to compensate for the massive cuts the organisation has experienced under the Howard Government's cruel regime. It would also raise further questions about the independence of the ABC, which is already in dispute because of the partially-privatised Telstra organisation's involvement in some aspects of ABC business. Working relations within the ABC are said to be extremely tense, due to differences in approach between the new executives and those of lower rank. The situation has also worsened because of the lack of experience of many if not all the new executives in dealing with an organisation as large and complex as the ABC. The combination of these two aspects of working relations has led to extreme difficulties in communication between the new arrivals and their subordinates (some of the new executives appear to resent any questions about their intentions for the organisation as a slur on their competence), and a plumetting staff morale. The new head of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Greg Dyke, recently commented on this crucial aspect of broadcasting. He said: "You can't make great television in an organisation that is depressed ... the challenge is to make the organisation believe in itself." The comparison with the BBC is also interesting in other respects. Like the ABC, the "Beeb" is also experiencing major organisational and technological change. The BBC international services now carry commercial advertising, and they are investigating advertising on the BBC website outside Britain. However, the BBC receives funding of 27c per day per head of population, compared to the ABC's pathetic 7.7c. The BBC is also to receive an extra 1.5 per cent over inflation each year. Moreover, unlike the ABC's new management, the BBC is also very concerned with the promotion of national culture. Dyke noted that "the great danger we all face is that there are only two sorts of television, indigenous programming and American programming. In 15 years' time there might only be American television." If the ABC is anything to go by, he'd have to be dead right.