I know its obnoxious to say “I told you so”, but I’m going to nevertheless. Back in June I told Pearls and Irritations readers that “the greatest danger to the ABC comes from within, from the board and the corporation’s management.” Last week’s events have proved me right. The current board represents a very narrow slice of Australian society, mainly conservative business-types and most were directly appointed by IPA member and communications minister Mitch Fifield. Now that they’ve revealed themselves as compromised, the question is: where do we go from here?
Back in June I gave the ABC board “a big B-minus for cultural diversity and understanding of public broadcasting.” I pointed out that most of them, including resigned chairman Justin Milne and just appointed acting-chairwoman Kirstin Ferguson (she’s on five other boards), have business backgrounds and “its hard to see how this qualifies them to run the most important cultural institution in the country.” I stand by that judgment.
What has become clear is that the central issue wasn’t Michelle Guthrie. As Peter Manning pointed out in Pearls and Irritations it was a mistake to have appointed her in the first place. The real problem lies with the people on the board and how they’re appointed.
Justin Milne inadvertently revealed all in an interview on 7.30 last Thursday. For him everything revolved around relationships with government which he described as “difficult”. “Because,” he said, “on the one hand the government provides the funding and on the other hand the ABC’s supposed to be independent of the guy…providing the funding. But you can’t go around irritating a person who is going to give you [that] funding.”
He claimed that “The government is a fundamentally important stakeholder in the ABC…I think its the role of the board to be a conduit so the left hand knows what the right hand’s doing and we understand how [the government] feels about things.” Significantly Milne never mentioned the public which he re-enforced by saying that he felt “disinclined” to provide any more information about why Guthrie was dismissed by saying all the public wanted was just “juicy details.”
However, on The Drum last Thursday evening former managing director, Donald McDonald responded saying that “one of the absolute prime duties [of the board] is upholding the ABC’s independence and caring for the organization and its people. You can get caught up mistakenly in the notion that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’ The piper is being paid by the taxpayers of Australia, not by the government…. They’re doing it on behalf of the people.”
On the same Drum programme former communications advisor, Emma Dawson, said that protecting the independence of the ABC is one of the critical functions of the board. She emphasized that the ABC is responsible to its stakeholders which she identified as “the people of Australia” and not the government. She said that recent boards have “a mindset that’s come from a commercial, business environment that doesn’t understand that…they’re [acting] on behalf of the people.”
McDonald and Dawson are right. The business types have taken over and treat the ABC as if it were a commercial operation of which the government was the major shareholder. They seem to have little concept of the public good, nor any feeling for the cultural role of the ABC. Often these corporate people are besotted with technology rather than content, as Justin Milne illustrated by his pushing the half billion-dollar Jetstream project.
Its interesting to compare the ABC board with the BBC. Since reforms in mid-2017, the BBC board is made-up of four executive members (the director general (equivalent of ABC MD) and heads of major divisions), a non-executive chairman and nine non-executive members from a wide range of cultural, commercial and geographical backgrounds, with four representing the four divisions of the UK. The other five come from the general public and apply through the board’s nomination committee, supervised by an independent Appointments Commissioner. Selection is made according to criteria that includes working in and understanding the creative arts, broadcasting, communication skills and some experience on boards. There is a clear attempt to minimise government interference in the appointment process.
In theory we have something similar here, except that the process is often ignored and as Ann Davies showed in The Guardian the five most recent board appointments were “all direct recommendations of [Minister] Fifield” largely bypassing an already established nomination panel. Even to get to the nomination panel, applicants have to get past various head-hunting outfits whose whole approach is largely geared to corporate boards with no real understanding of the public role of the ABC.
After last weeks shenanigans, its obvious that the ABC’s independence is at stake. However, I don’t think we should rush in and sack the present board and appoint another. The Morrison government must wait until the coming election at which the ABC will clearly be an issue. After that it will it be up to the new government to sort through what should happen.
Clearly, an at arm’s length process from the minister and government is essential. I favour one that involves the public through the selection of at least two audience supported board members, one elected by the Friends of the ABC and another by public nomination and selection. To avoid the ABC board becoming a political football, or a refuge for mates and political hacks, the chair and four other members should be chosen by a cross-party parliamentary committee from people who put their names forward, or who are nominated. The final member would be the staff elected person. Vacancies need to be widely advertised.
On another issue: the ABC must immediately abandon this “lifestyle” emphasis that seems to have been promoted by Michelle Guthrie and her management team by going downmarket to “attract younger audiences.” In my time it was to attract “multicultural audiences.”
Take it from an old-timer: please ABC, stick at what you’re good at—analytic content, top-line journalism, quality drama and entertainment, well researched documentaries. Leave the dross to the commercials.
A former religion editor for the ABC, Paul Collins still regularly appears on the ABC.