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

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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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