PAUL COLLINS. There’s Movement at the (Radio) Station

It is not only ABC management that don’t take religion and specialist broadcasting seriously. What can you expect from a board that is made up of business people and technocrats. The fault here lies with the federal government that has appointed these people.  

I’m not usually a big consumer of the local Catholic media, but an article in Sydney’s Catholic Weekly (May 31, 2017) twigged my interest. Headed “Religion faces an uncertain future at the ABC with recent restructuring move”, the article revealed that Judith Whelan, recently appointed ABC’s head of spoken word, announced that the “Content Director of Religious Radio” was now to be entitled “Editor”. According to Ms. Whelan this would “elevate the status and gravitas of religion across the ABC.” Precisely how this gravitas was to be achieved was not spelt out by Ms. Whelan, whose career, ironically, has largely been in the written word at Fairfax, a rather different beast to spoken word.

As the last—and only—person ever to hold the title “Specialist Editor, Religion” I should have been impressed. I wasn’t. This is a “con job” if ever there was one.

First, over the past five years religion has been decimated in the ABC. The Religion Unit has lost more than 40% of staff, budget, resources and air time. Just last week I attended an extremely well attended farewell for John Cleary at ABC HQ in Ultimo. He left after more than three and a half decades in broadcasting with his Sunday Night Talk programme axed by management.

Second, despite reassurances to the contrary, there is real antagonism within ABC management to specialist broadcasting generally and to religion specifically. There is a conviction that anyone can cover any story; no one needs special qualifications to ask the right questions.

The worst aspect of this “elevated status” of religion is the way in which the religion content director, Jane Jeffes is being treated. Appointed in June 2013 with a strong background at the BBC and in film and television documentary making, Jeffes has been told by management that she will not be transiting straight into the new “editor” position.

Despite having won her job against other similarly qualified candidates through the usual external process, she will have to stand (she can’t even fight or argue) for her position against another broadcaster who was selected by management in a management-run administrative device. Managers will choose who they want; the other will be redundant. The person pitted against Jeffes is a respected and experienced broadcaster, but he has no specialist qualifications in religion.

The managers who will make the choice between Jeffes and the other broadcaster will apparently announce their “decision” on Friday. This is a most unusual way of operating for a publicly funded body like the ABC and one even wonders about its legality. Usually people aren’t appointed by management fiat, but jobs are advertised, applied for competitively and selected by an independent committee. Interestingly, this is not how things are being done in the Science Unit where the present content director is also going to be called “editor” and will change titles without challenge from anyone, let alone being subjected to management choice.

I don’t believe that the present management of the ABC takes specialist units and programmes seriously, despite Ms. Whelan’s erudite reference to the Latin gravitas—I love that word which has a range of meanings from “weight”, “heaviness” and “dullness” through “severity” to “dignity”, “gravity” and “presence”. In early-November last year experienced documentary maker Robyn Ravlich and I met with Michelle Guthrie, Michael Mason, Judith Whelan and Corporate Relations head Michael Millett for an hour to discuss specialist units and programs on behalf of a group of former broadcasters and media specialists.

They assured us several times that they were committed to specialization and that in fact they wanted to enhance this. At one stage Guthrie said that they were thinking of putting specialist topic broadcasters in News and Current Affairs, which seemed to contradict what Mason had told us earlier that he wanted to get Radio National’s specialists on the air across all networks to replace people like me—he noted that the ABC “uses me” (literally since they don’t pay) and that he looked forward to Rachael Kohn replacing me—joking, of course, he assured me!

I came away from the meeting still unconvinced that they take specialization seriously. Uniting Church minister, Rev. Elenie Poulos was part of a group representing the churches and religious bodies who had met with them that morning, and she accused them wanting to do “religion lite”. Poulos is on the money: RN’s new programme God Forbid (presented by James Carlton) certainly strikes me as “religion lite”.

It is not only ABC management that don’t take religion and specialist broadcasting seriously. What can you expect from a board that is made up of business people and technocrats. The fault here lies with the federal government that has appointed these people. They may well be very public-spirited personages, but that doesn’t mean they know anything about broadcasting, let alone have qualifications to run the most important and significant artistic and intellectual institution in the country.

The Vandals are not at the gates; they’re already in the citadel!

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6 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. There’s Movement at the (Radio) Station

  1. bushwalker says:

    The comment – “What can you expect from a board that is made up of business people and technocrats?” – is quite naive. These people are appointed for their “wisdom” not their familiarity with various specialty subjects. Do you think Josh Frydenberg or Chief Scientist Finkel (neuroscientist) know anything about the production of electricity?

    • Peter Kaye says:

      Naivety? Who is naive? Bushwhacker should know the difference between “gravitas” and “commercialitas”. The latter is what the ABC is pursuing now. Next we’ll be having advertisements or sponsorships as we slide down the LNP slippery slope towards a bland unquestioning national broadcaster. Politicians hate being questioned – hence the “spin doctors” and the learning by rote of the phrases for the day as they face the media for 30 seconds. Hence the accusation that the questioners are “left-wing”. How dare you question my wisdom? I remember discussing management styles and techniques with a former Manager of ABC Radio. He opined that you could as easily manage a lemonade factory as ABC radio. He had no idea of the management of creative people with all their talents and faults and biases. Media management is a unique skill and the ABC has very little of it at present. They are over a barrel with the “new” media and with a venomous Canberra. They have my sympathy on that score. But they are making the wrong choices and washing most values down the drain. They have lost sight of the CONTENT of their transmissions and are just moving around the deckchairs of management positions and the barrels of podcasts and blogs. Of course the Government should appoint Board Members with a firm grasp of the principles and practice of media. Otherwise we will get a lemonade factory of fizzy gas and artificial sweetness.

    • Richard Letts says:

      That reminds me of the fantasy in the business community that a good manager can manage any sort of enterprise equally well. What sort of wisdoms are best suited to the ABC board? Finkel may not be an expert in the production of electricity but there is a good chance that his discipline and experience in science would be a better preparation than for instance skill in marketing.

  2. Disgusted Mother of Four says:

    Bushwalker may have a point, but the “wisdom”should be relevant to running a large public broadcaster and not, for example, be expertise in cutting a sales workforce. Above all, they should be concerned for the public good, for the open and free and intelligent dissemination of information and views, and not for protecting any particular political party.
    Well said, Paul. It is all, tragically, true

  3. As the Fairfax empire crumbles, from the other vandals in the citadel, we only have the ABC left (sorry, and John Menadue). Good balanced internal government of the ABC is vital for our future.

  4. Kathy Heyne says:

    Australia has become more secular and less religious over time. We’re one of the least the religious nations on earth. Is it possible the ABC’s scaling back religion broadcasting – the author says it’s been decimated, not destroyed- is simply a reflection of society?

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