PAUL COLLINS. ABC -Shenanigans at Ultimo’s Level Fourteen.

Monday’s Four Corners on the ABC’s management shenanigans—the Guthrie-Milne, she said-he said fiasco—and the failure of the rest of the ABC Board to own-up and answer publicly for their performance tells you everything about what’s wrong at the top of the national broadcaster. Its not imagined left-wing bias, or ‘inaccurate and unbalanced reporting’, or Emma Alberici, or Andrew Probyn. It’s the bevy of management and business clones appointed by government to the Board of the ABC and the kind of person they chose to run the organization.

The shenanigans also tell you a hell of a lot of what’s wrong with contemporary government. Political parties have increasingly become elite cabals cut off from democratic processes, accountability and grass roots. The boards of statutory organizations like the ABC have become opportunities for patronage to reward mates and ideological fellow-travellers. The public interest is completely ignored.

The present government didn’t invent this situation. It goes back a long way. Its just that the Howard, Abbott and Turnbull regimes turned it into an art form. And given that the ABC is the most important cultural and news organization in Australia, appointment to the board is certainly a prestigious reward for mates.

The other thing the present fiasco tells us is that the ABC board and management have become fixated on technology, on things like Milne’s pet project Jetstream which was going to cost a cool half a billion dollars. Just think of all the great programs that would fund, as well as the staff to make those programs. Sure, Milne was not alone in his fixation on technology. Previous general manager, Mark Scott was also a complete technophile. He moved the Corporation in an increasingly commercial direction, possibly under the influence of several of his board members who were essentially right-wingers appointed by John Howard.

What these technology-besotted guys don’t get is that the ABC is not there to have endless brand-spanking-new platforms. Its there to create content, to report the news as truthfully as it can, to promote the cultural, artistic and educational life of Australia and to serve the people, especially by providing services to those cut off from or isolated from mainstream media.

The ABC is well rid of Milne and Guthrie and one can only hope that the rest of the present board have the decency to resign or, if not, be sacked, probably best by the incoming government after the forthcoming election. What is needed is an interim board chair who works with the acting general manager and a small committee to draw up a whole new process for appointing board members at arm’s length from government.

However, this should not happen until after the next election. The last thing we need is Scott Morrison or Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who is ‘close to’ the Institute for Public Affairs and who has said that ‘Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC…There is merit in such proposals’, making decisions about the future of the ABC.

In a previous article I referred to the way in which the BBC now gets its board (Pearls and Irritations, 1 October 2018). It is much more representative than the ABC process. In that article I made some tentative suggestions as to how the ABC board might be formed. The key principle here is that there must be public input and public accountability and that the majority of those appointed not be selected by government.

The ABC must also have guaranteed funding. Labor has guaranteed that it will restore the $84 million that Turnbull cut from the ABC. That’s good, but its chicken feed given that the Coalition has cut about $270 million from the ABC Budget since 2014. The Corporation is massively underfunded to fulfil its charter obligations. Again, some type of arms length formula has to be developed so that funding is guaranteed and dependence on government minimised.

I see the present contretemps as an opportunity. It is a chance to start again on board appointments and funding and it needs public support. But the people who should butt-out are the present government and especially Fifield. This fiasco has occurred on his watch. He’s not the person to solve the problems he partially created.

A former religion editor for the ABC,Paul Collins still regularly appears on the ABC


Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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7 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. ABC -Shenanigans at Ultimo’s Level Fourteen.

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Eric Beecher wrote a long piece some years ago, I think for Crikey – can’t remember the source exactly- lamenting the way things were going, and now have come : same focal point-management.
    The essence of this – and there have been many such warnings and prophecies – I think of John Hartigan but there are many in the archive – is that, once the ‘rivers of gold’ are gone – quality journalism is a luxury we need to be very, very determined to afford. On the whole: we are not – so-committed. I wish it were not so.
    Beecher focussed, naturally, on Fairfax. That has been a sad, sad story for those who love quality reportage and comment for every-one. The loss of the Bulletin was another. We damage our culture by allowing these public interest diminishments. For those who care, the ABC was the great cultural backstop; it was and is the guarantee against stupidity, ignorance, & negligence in our electorate. Once it is treated like a ‘business’, as has been so for several years, now, we, and our ‘democracy’ such as it is, are in trouble. For 500 years we in ‘the West’ have believed and hoped in a people’s ‘right to know’ – a fundamental liberty. This ABC has been de-constructing that ‘right’ along with constructing a drearily mediocre technology as its substitute. My hat’s off to those reporters who continue to try to report Facts, under difficult conditions, – while the shriekers and celebrities make a public spectacle of general knowledge by offering grabs of the obvious and mundane ‘comment’. The problem is, of course, management, and those who appoint the Board: but the base-problem is those we elect to make the appointments, and the appalling assumption by many in what are called, seriously, our political classes/even ‘elites’ – that they have a free hand in applying pressure and intervention upon this national treasure-trove. We need good journalism more than ever; only a public-resource / government can afford it. It must be blindingly obvious to all that we are not going to get it.

  2. Tom Kelly says:

    The powers of an incoming Labor government to terminate the directors are defined by the ABC Act and are limited to misbehaviour, physical or mental incapacity, bankruptcy or failure to attend meetings.
    Although it is arguable that the board’s tolerance of some of the behaviour of Milne might justify termination, if the directors dug their heels in this issue might have to be determined in the Federal Court, which could be messy.
    I wonder when their terms expire.

  3. steve johnson says:

    Communications Minister Fifield and PM Morrison pay lip service when speaking about the ABC but it is obvious where their real feelings lie with Chairman Milne demanding the sacking of senior journalists because they were seen to be doing their job in an excessively good manner. The LNP is more than happy to keep on side with the Murdoch press and so stem the ABC’s progress in the digital Jetstream project, as in return, the government will be treated favourably in the coming election campaign. The LNP was also keen to take support from Pauline Hansen in return for clipping the ABC’s wings with Ms Hanson demanding that “fair” and “balanced” be inserted in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information criteria. But would it not be fair and balanced if those words were also taken into account when media licences were considered for commercial news services? And perhaps a few more amendments are required.
    To support and maintain the ABC’s independence and impartiality all board members and the Chairman would need to appear before a Senate committee to justify their possible inclusion. Having been a business partner of Malcolm Turnbull would have ruled Justin Milne out pretty quickly and the relevance and experience of board members would be brought into question: not much to see there.
    AFL players and coaches are fined heavily if they make critical statements or incite action against AFL umpires and this is analogous to how Ministers conspire to bring down the ABC. Tranches of ten million dollars could be the currency used with a grade three criticism drawing thirty million dollars and Chairman Milne’s instruction to Ms Guthrie to “shoot” Andrew Probyn because his old partner Malcolm Turnbull “hated him” would be a grade 5. All fines would go to the ABC budget on top of the new indexed fixed budget to be commissioned post election 2019.
    The value of television and movie industries has not been fully recognised. Back in the mid fifties Menzies pondered the regulation of the coming television industry and opted for no regulation, resulting in American content predominating. Whitlam created the film and television school, the Council for the Arts and the Film Development Corporation but he was cruelly cut short and the movie industry just got off the ground akin to Lawrence Hargrave’s Stanwell Park flight. Australia had the first flight in 1894 and the first film, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. We have some local production requirements on free to air TV but no obligations applied to Stan or Netflix. Somehow we have to overcome our self-doubt and confidently back our own inventions and ability.

  4. Terry Moloney says:

    I don’t disagree with Paul’s piece except in one small particular. The Chairman at the time of Guthrie’s appointment was Jim Spiegelman a man who most certainly does not fit “It’s the bevy of management and business clones appointed by government to the Board of the ABC and the kind of person they chose to run the organization.”

  5. Jim Kable says:

    Even as you wrote this Paul it appears that Morrison is hell-bent (apt imagery when speaking of this happy-clapper fundanentalist) on appointing his pick/s to replace Milne/Guthrie and others of the IPA twisted ideological anti-ABC intent. This must be countermanded by the ALP and cross-bench declaring right now that they will not approve/support – or will otherwise promise to rescind – the moment they take office from this bunch of crooks and rorters – the LNP.

  6. John O'Callaghan says:

    Yes the new Government should sweep a big new broom through the ABC and clean out all the deadwood and give the broadcaster back to the people where it truly belongs!

    • Peter Meeker says:

      Given that “the people” split pretty much 50/50, does that mean having equal voices Lib/Lab leaning?

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