The Guardian May 9, 2001


Fight for your ABC

On Sunday April 29, 15,000 members of the public  ABC shareholders  
gathered on the Sydney Opera House steps to protest against cuts to the 
national broadcaster's funding by the Federal Government. Over the coming 
weeks The Guardian will publish edited versions of the contributions of a 
number of speakers at the protest. The following is an abridged version of 
the contribution by ABC current affairs presenter, Quentin Dempster.

My fellow shareholders. 

As you know the ABC is slowly being destroyed by government. 

Over the last 15 years ABC funding has been cut in real terms by 34 
percent. 

In the last 10 years, 2000 broadcasters and support staff have been made to 
walk the redundancy plank. 

ABC Television is now reliant on repeats and the shelf items of other 
broadcasters  overwhelmingly British  to maintain the viability of its 
programming schedule. 

We've become UK TV. 

So much for the ABC Act which obliges the national broadcaster to "enhance 
a sense of Australian identity. 

Over the last 15 years our democratically elected Australian Prime 
Ministers  Hawke, Keating and Howard  have besmirched the prestige of 
their high office by cuddling up to the big media tycoons: the policy and 
media-market `gatekeepers'  Murdoch and Packer  while allowing the 
national broadcaster to be marginalised ... to wither on the vine. 

All recent Australian Prime Ministers seem to think that by looking after 
the interests of the ascendant tycoon first, they would have a better 
chance of staying in power: Hawke and Keating by allowing Murdoch's take-
over of the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987 and Howard through the revenue 
protective digital spectrum policy favouring Packer in 1998. 

What a pathetic sight in one of the world's most enduring democracies, our 
country  Australia  to see our Prime Ministers grovelling like this. 
The Australian people deserve better. 

And what have ABC boards done in response to funding attrition? 

They have allowed the ABC's editorial independence and integrity to be put 
at risk. They have embraced editorially compromising commercial deals, like 
Pay TV (with Fairfax and the US cable operator Cox Communications) and 
sponsorship on an ABC satellite channel. 

ABC boards have allowed what amounts to the privatisation ... 
contestibility and outsourcing are the modus operandi ... of more and more 
television. This is dressed up to look like the ABC is giving work to the 
so-called "independent television sector. 

If ever there was a misnomer, this was it. They are not "independent. Dont 
get me wrong. We want a diverse and viable Australian TV production 
industry. 

But when the ABC comes to commission content from the commercial or private 
production sector the increasing risk is that programs will be selected 
solely for their bankability ... their commerciality ... their on-sales 
potential to other networks here and offshore and the pay TV market. 

The ABC is becoming (through this process) a transmitter for hire. 

ABC programs which should be commissioned because of their originality, 
their risk taking, their innovation, will be omitted from the production 
slate simply because they are not commercially bankable. This is what's 
called dumbing down. It's already happening. 

Recent ABC board strategies have inexorably run down the ABC as a 
production house, destroying the skills base of the broadcaster and 
abandoning our contribution to the Australian radio, film and television 
industry which we had provided since our foundation in 1932 through the 
training of writers, producers, artists, technicians, camera and sound 
operators and the program makers of drama, comedy, documentary, the arts, 
education programming and news and current affairs. 

ABC boards, our current Chairman, and Communications Ministers all say they 
are committed to the ABC as our most important cultural institution, vital 
to Australia's democratic processes. 

But the actions of government and the passivity and compliance of ABC 
boards  made up in many instances of party political hacks  speak for 
themselves. 

The ABC is being destroyed with the compliance of stacked boards of party 
political hacks. 

The current management, with the apparent endorsement of the current board, 
has embarked on a reign of terror in which middle and upper ranking 
executives have been "executed  their contracts summarily terminated  
sometimes on a whim. 

And where is the ABC Board in all this? 

Silent ... as usual, perhaps taking sadistic pleasure in the terror its 
management has created as program makers, production staff and executives 
have to face "drop dead days, euphemistically called "restructuring. 

Look ... the ABC is a flawed institution. 

We make mistakes. There are misjudgements. There can be bias, inexperience, 
factual inaccuracy and misinterpretations among the millions of broadcast 
and cybercast words put out each 24 hours. 

But for all its undoubted faults the ABC and its dedicated program makers 
strive for high standards and objective journalism. 

We do not always reach the highest standards, I concede. But through the 
commitment of ABC staff over the last 15 years  under enormous defunding 
pressure, evaporating creative and career opportunities  the ABC remains 
one of the most trusted institutions in Australia. 

In a survey of corporate and institutional trust  Eye on Australia  
last year, the ABC emerged at the top of the list. Listen to this: on a 
scale of one to 10 the major Australian charities were declared to be the 
most trusted  8 out of 10. 

Followed by the ABC at 7. 

SO THE ABC IS TRUSTED! Many of us within the ABC are determined not to 
betray that trust and will fight to the bitter end to maintain a genuinely 
independent and adequately publicly funded ABC. 

In recent times it has been said that the ABC has been captured by its 
staff. GIVE ME A BREAK! 

Do you remember last year's cash for comment inquiry in commercial radio by 
the Australian Broadcasting Authority? Julian Burnside QC cross-examined 
John Brennan, general manager of 2UE. 

Burnside asked Brennan if he had ever questioned John Laws and Alan Jones 
about their private financial arrangements with their corporate clients. 
"No, said John Brennan ... "they have very big egos ... I'd be too 
frightened to ask them anything like that. 

NOW THAT'S STAFF CAPTURE!! 

We, the shareholders of the ABC have to fight to secure the future of 
independent public broadcasting in Australia particularly in this time of 
technological change ... as broadcasting, telecommunications and computing 
are converging. 

It is a fight we must engage in for our country, its future in the world, 
and for the future of our children. 

There is much to do this year ... an election year ... to make our voices 
heard by our fellow Australians. We must speak up ... organise 

WE MUST NEVER GET TIRED ...

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