QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Death and departure at the ABC

May 17, 2017

The death of ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin on Thursday, May 11th, came as we were preparing to farewell religious broadcaster John Cleary from the ABC after a 37 year career. 

John wanted to cancel the function planned that afternoon for the Dot Strong Terrace at the ABC’s Ultimo, Sydney, headquarters.

But we all urged him to press on. It would therapeutically support everyone at the ABC and beyond as, collectively, we grieved for Mark Colvin. We could also reflect on John’s similar commitment to public broadcasting in Australia and to the ABC’s pursuit of quality in its staff and programming.

As an invited speaker at John Cleary’s farewell I also wanted to publicly reveal his role as a driving force behind the internal resistance to ABC management’s initiatives often considered hostile to public broadcasting, particularly when the ABC was under defunding pressure from Canberra.

The farewell was attended by more than 100 staffers and leaders and representatives of all of Australia’s religious denominations.

Here are my remarks.

“I acknowledge we meet on Aboriginal land. Always was … always will be.

It’s awfully sad to be farewelling John Cleary from the ABC on the day of the death of another great public broadcaster, Mark Colvin. In a phenomenon perhaps only the religious leaders assembled here today could explain, we’ve received a message from the late Mark Colvin via his @Colvinius Twitter account: “It’s all been bloody marvelous”.

But while we grieve over Mark’s death we celebrate his achievements along with those of John and recommit ourselves to follow and apply their inspirational life-long examples.

John Cleary was staff elected director on the ABC Board from 1988 to 1992, the first five years of what we call the David Hill era.

Remember? The Hawke government was in power and Hill promoted himself as a union-buster after his stoush with railway workers at the New South Wales State Rail Authority.

The Hawke and Keating Labor Party hated the ABC after Four Corners triggered the Wran royal commission into magistracy influence peddling, coincidentally defunding the ABC from 1986 and leaving Hill to pursue a commercial direction. Hill put on a show through the eight cents a day campaign when Gareth Evans wanted to break up the ABC into core and non-core functions. But the defunding continued apace. Full scale advertising was on the agenda, back-door sponsorship of programs was up and running: consortium partnerships with Hollywood and Fairfax in pay TV, commercially sponsored Australia Television International.

David Hill came to hate Radio National, where John then worked, believing it warehoused the trace elements for what he called its many bomb throwers. But John wasn’t a bomb thrower, or a Marxist class warfare-ist, or an inner city elitist from what the late Padraic McGuiness called “the chattering classes”. There was no ASIO file on Cleary. He was a teetotal brass-band’s man with known links to the Salvation Army. Since joining the ABC he had turned himself into an engaging, insightful ,inquisitive public broadcaster and from his own experience with his radio and television audiences he saw the great cultural, intellectual and even spiritual value of public broadcasting which held fast to its Charter ethos .. the ABC always had to regard its audiences as all of cognitive humanity, secular or religious, in diverse ethnicity .. citizens in a democracy … BUT not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers. .. to be informed, educated and entertained through high quality programming: news and current affairs, drama, documentary, the performing arts, music – country, orchestral, operatic, Australia rock, pop, jazz and (of course) brass band, comedy and satire, sport, and don’t forget … the arts. Cognition means the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses. As John often told us, even one chance encounter with an ABC program could transform a person’s life. There’s your job satisfaction.

Through that constancy to public purpose over the decades the ABC grew to be among the most trusted institutions in Australia. The ABC is part of our national identity. That dynamic, in a media dominated by the dogmatic prejudices of Rupert Murdoch tabloid-style shock jockery, has been what has sustained the public’s regard for the ABC. John Cleary has been at the core of that public trust: a teetotal euphonium player from the non-judgmental faction of the Salvation Army. Gerard Henderson, forever looking for reds under the bed, missed the truth of what was behind the ABC’s staff-led culture.

Inside the board John courageously held the line against Hill’s take-no-prisoners management. He held the line for the Reithian model of public broadcasting in Australia .. (that’s Lord Reith .. not Peter). He’d constantly say public broadcasting was a compact with the polity, available to everyone through the sublime cost effectiveness in reach through free to air radio and television transmission, paid for by the corpus of users – the taxpayers. Now in the digital revolution and the era of fake news that cost effective reach through online and multi-platforms, it is more important than ever to have a mainstream public broadcaster.

Every board decision, every management initiative, every triennial funding submission has been measured by John Cleary against that Charter ethos.

John is a strong unionist, but not of the thuggish stand-over variety. He’s been formed from freedom of association, civil society unionism. In the ABC context through John’s unionism, via the Staff Association, Staff Union and now the CPSU, his activism went beyond the log of claims and EBA negotiations for pay and conditions. He tactically developed and educated the ABC’s union members as an internal power base for the defence of Charter public broadcasting in Australia. ABC commercial ventures could have delivered much more work and more pay for union members but that wasn’t the objective – the defence and advancement of non-commercial public broadcasting itself became the altruistic objective.

To strive, to seek, to find … and not to yield. That, ladies and gentlemen, friends, comrades and colleagues, has been John Cleary’s great gift to the men and women of Australia through all his years as an employee, broadcaster, unionist and protector of the ABC and its public purpose.

The public has always been able to see the fights ABC staff have had about the direction of the ABC in Australian media and culture. To observe that passion one would be entitled to conclude that ABC staff are committed professionals worthy of the public’s trust.

Of course the debate has a multitude of facets, including program commissioning, mentoring, training and staff specialisation to secure unrivalled expertise in any subject to drive value for the taxpayer dollar, such value not necessarily measured by ratings. John’s particular specialisation has been in religion.

Those of us who are deeply secular have often questioned religious programming. But John would sit us down and explain the awesome power of religion where 90 percent of the world’s populations identify with a religion. It shapes geo-politics, wars, it is misappropriated by crusaders and terrorists, it shapes economics and humanitarianism as well as the bombast of our loveable local constituent politicians. Religion engages many minds. Just look at the latest domestic context through needs-based schools funding. There is more to it than the ABC dropping Divine Service on a Sunday morning or ending each night’s transmission with God Save the Church of England’s Queen.

Like science and medicine, law and justice, education, foreign policy, climate change and economics the ABC needs to demonstrate and invest in its distinctiveness through program and staff specialisation. And religion must remain prominent on that list.

As Michelle Guthrie and the current ABC board now grapple with the ABC’s survival through another debilitating round of defunding from Canberra, many of us hope that re-investment in specialisation will become a top priority in that strategy. And by heavens we need a winning strategy. Through universal wi fi the offshore video streamers, creating no local content, have increasing access to the eyeballs of Australians. And many use tax havens to avoid tax derived from revenue from our advertisers and consumers. To survive to its 100th anniversary in 2032 the ABC must become a high quality, distinctive and engaging broadcaster building and sustaining audiences and defining our national multi-cultural identity.

John, thanks for all you have done for your audiences over your long stint at the ABC. Thanks for your service above and beyond the call of career or daily duty. We all know you will continue to advocate for the public broadcaster. You’ve been my mentor and, on many occasions, my saviour, over the last quarter century. I thank you for your wisdom, tactical skills and friendship.

We wish you well in your next adventure and commit ourselves to join you again at the barricades, anywhere, anytime, in defence of the ABC.

We must never get tired.”

Quentin Dempster is a former ABC broadcaster, now contributing editor at The New Daily. 

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