PATRICIA EDGAR. The Circus that has been Government Policy on the ABC for Forty Years

Cross-posted from John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.

The ABC has been an extraordinarily resilient organisation. It has withstood management and Board upheavals, survived remorseless budget cuts and harassment. But the current attacks on staff and on its role are as overt and vicious as they have ever been. Many of those who were imbued with ABC values have died or moved on. The biggest fear to friends of the ABC today is inertia. This current attack will not be solved by quiet negotiation. The Government’s tactics are neither rational nor honest. This has to be a vocal public fight and once the dangers are understood the public will have to respond. What is there left to defend for our democracy to live on if the ABC is destroyed?  

There is a single, simple reason why the Liberal Coalition is persecuting the ABC: they believe it will be easier to remain in power if the ABC is nobbled.

The long and volatile history of governments, both Liberal and Labor, attacking and cutting the public broadcaster’s funding , ostensibly to achieve greater efficiency with public money , shows their motives over the past 45 years to be primarily political rather than in the public interest. This history is informative for the challenges the ABC and its supporters now face.

Until the mid 1970’s the ABC enjoyed an acknowledged and unchallenged role in Australian society reflected in the relatively stable relationships it had with Government, its agencies, other broadcasters and the audience. Liberal Governments had been in power for 23 years until Gough Whitlam won government in December 1972, which included the years since the introduction of television.

But the ABC played a central and controversial role in the politics of the 70’s and, following the Whitlam years (1972-5), and with the re-election of the conservatives under Malcolm Fraser, considerable debate began within government circles about the future role, structure and operations of the ABC and of broadcasting generally. The Liberal government believed that their time out of office had been made much more difficult by the ABC and that the broadcaster was biased toward a Labor government. They wanted to put the media in order generally, so as well as targeting the ABC they aimed to reward the commercial broadcasters with whom they were more comfortably aligned. This proved to be a very tricky agenda.

Early on, in May 1976 Fraser announced an internal Inquiry, to be chaired by the permanent head of the Department of Post and Telecommunications Fred Green to look at the broadcasting system as a whole but with ‘particular attention… to the structure, powers and functions of the ABC’. Green recommended that the ABC policies and performance be subject to review every 7 years. That never came to pass, but in July of that year the Parliament appointed Sir Henry Bland, a tough-minded career public servant, as ABC Chairman to ‘clean up’ the Commission. Sir Henry had been Permanent Head of the Defense Department where he had earned the nickname, ‘Sir Hatchet’ for shaking up the bureaucracy and cutting costs. He lasted 5 months as ABC Chairman, at war with ABC staff and ‘Friends’. He supported government cut-backs which, taking inflation into account amounted to an effective reduction of 17% of the ABC’s annual budget, more than most other government agencies or departments at that time. But his big mistake was to intervene in decisions about program content, the highlight being his attempt to censor the Alvin Purple sex comedy series. Sir Henry lost the war, resigning with a bitter attack on the Prime Minister.

The turmoil did not settle however with Sir Henry’s departure and low morale among creative staff was reflected in a series of strikes and staff meetings. Claims by politicians of bias in news and current affairs and the demand for greater efficiency imposed through cut backs have endured since that time.

Tony Staley did ease the turmoil when he became Minister for Posts and Communication in December 1978 by making statements supporting the political independence of the ABC, but there was no increase in funds forthcoming and in May 1979 Staley announced the Dix Inquiry, the first major external inquiry into public broadcasting in Australia since the ABC began broadcasting 47 years before.

Mr. Alex Dix was a pragmatic businessman who made clear in media interviews that his report had to be acceptable politically or it was a waste of time. The public response was considerable. It took Dix 18 months to unravel 2200 written comments and the evidence from 830 individuals which resulted in 5000 pages of transcripts.

The final Report described the ABC as ‘the most significant cultural institution in the country,’ yet its emphasis was on cost efficient remedies. The Dix Report lacked a philosophy; there were 270 recommendations which did nothing to clarify the role of a publicly-funded broadcasting institution. So an opportunity was missed to examine the purpose and role of the ABC half a century after it was established. The Bulletin at the time suggested it was a million dollar job application by Dix for the role of ABC Chairman.

The most controversial recommendation in the report was that the ABC should accept corporate underwriting to defray program costs. The ABC Board fought back with the Chairman, John Norgard accusing the Government of breaking its promise to maintain the level of funding: an all too familiar cry since.

The reason why the Government was reluctant to move too rapidly to curb the ABC further at that time was because of the vitriolic debate going on about the commercial television industry. Nothing went as the Government planned. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) was abolished by Fraser in December 1976, because of troublesome Labor government appointees who were supporting community broadcasting and the regulation of children’s programs. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) was established (1977) in its place with the commercial industry’s hand-picked favourite son, Bruce Gyngell appointed as Chairman. But once again the government misjudged the character of its chosen man.

Gyngell chaired the Self Regulation Inquiry of commercial broadcasting in 1977, which was intended to pave the way for removing content regulatory requirements on the commercial networks, but he was persuaded by public submissions to support the regulation of children’s programs. This decision led to the quotas still in place today. His friend Kerry Packer was outraged. Then Gyngell conducted the first public commercial television license renewal hearings ever held and subjected his peers to cross examination and public scrutiny they had never been used to.

The public interest groups came out in force and the Government, fearing an electoral backlash, tried to restore calm. Gyngell was persuaded by Tony Staley not to continue at the ABT and David Jones, a lawyer and more cautious man, replaced him as Chairman. The public bun-fights with the commercial networks, which the media, including the ABC, covered extensively, diverted the government from its broadcasting reform agenda. It was proving just too hard.

Bob Hawke was elected in March 1983 and Labor governed until Paul Keating was defeated in March 1996.Yet Labor too had its concerns. The ABC’s relationship with these governments soured quickly, primarily because of its current affairs coverage. Four Corners, triggered the Street Royal Commission, in NSW in 1983 through claims Premier Neville Wran had tried to influence the magistracy. Labor didn’t like media critique of their actions any more than the Liberals.

Hawke appointed David Hill, as both Chairman and Managing Director in 1986, giving him authority to sort out the ABC. Hill had gained a reputation as a tough operator, having busted the power of the unions as boss of the NSW State Rail Authority. He relinquished the post of ABC Chairman in 1987, remaining as Managing Director. But despite his appointment the defunding continued with Gareth Evans calling for a break-up of the ABC to diminish its power.

Hill’s approach was to pursue an aggressive commercial agenda and he ran a successful campaign which grabbed public attention and support, stating the ABC cost each Australian only 8 cents a day. But he also pursued back-door sponsorship of programs and partnerships with Hollywood and Fairfax in pay TV. One proposal was to merge ABC Children’s with the US Nickelodeon Channel, a venture attacked as ‘McDonald’s Television’. This merger failed but ABC children’s programs were commercialised and merchandised nonetheless.

Such a commercial approach brought Hill into conflict with staff who were uncovering backdoor influence on life-style programs and who saw Hill as undermining the integrity of the broadcaster. Thus Hill became no more enamored of ABC current affairs journalists than Hawke and Keating. That did not mean they were brothers in arms. Alan Ramsay, a Fairfax journalist, reported Paul Keating allegedly told Hill, ‘We’ve had enough of you c_ts. We’ve f_ed up Fairfax, now it’s your turn’. (The Age, June 23, 2018).

Hill survived 8 years in the job but staff and public unease grew and in response the then Chairman Professor Mark Armstrong initiated an independent investigation into the commercial activity by ABC management, commissioning George Palmer QC for the task. Palmer established that several life-style programs had breached the ABC’s rules by accepting payment for favorable company exposure on those programs. There was evidence of deals in writing. Paddy Conroy, the director of ABC television, resigned along with David Hill.

A Senate Select Committee conducted its own inquiry into the scandal and its final report stated that the editorial integrity and independence of the ABC had been compromised. Richard Alston, who was to become Minister of Communications and the Arts following the March 1996 election, chaired the Committee. Shortly after his appointment, in July, with the Liberals back in business, Alston announced the Mansfield Inquiry. This inquiry, 15 years after the Dix Report, was meant to redefine and reposition the ABC for the 21stCentury.

At the same time the government announced further funding cuts to the ABC of 12% in 1996-97 which was to be followed by further cuts of 10 % in 1997-98. Bob Mansfield, a high profile successful businessman, but with no experience of broadcasting, was to sit alone and report in 18 weeks defining how the ABC might convert to the digital age while accepting significant funding cuts. Mansfield planned to read all submissions but found the task impractical. Public interest in the review was overwhelming: 10, 615 individuals, groups and organizations put their views in writing.

Mansfield’s response to his task was to recommend a new charter be adopted that would drop the word ‘comprehensive’ and, instead, set out the program areas that the ABC should be specifically obliged to provide; namely, news, current affairs, information, children’s, and youth. He recommended also the outsourcing of television production to the independent sector to save costs, the cessation of funding for international broadcasting, dropping the management of orchestras and rationalizing ABC properties, and despite his 21st Century brief, there was to be no expansion of services with digitization or funds to support the significant change that was to be part of the emerging media world.

The Report did however strongly oppose the ABC accepting advertising or sponsorship as a means of financing and on the issue of bias, recommended that the Board and management publish their methodologies for monitoring balance and address the need to train journalists for clear lines of editorial responsibility.

A new Chairman, Donald McDonald, a high profile arts administrator, member of the Liberal Party and friend of Prime Minister John Howard, was appointed Chairman of the ABC in 1996. He would remain for 10 years. During his tenure he worked with three Managing Directors – Brian Johns, Jonathan Shier (March 2000- Dec 2001), and Russell Balding. Johns had been appointed by the Labor Government just prior to their electoral defeat and he had a tense but workable relationship with McDonald as he attempted to negotiate the digital revolution with his plan for technological convergence: One ABC.

When Johns’ term expired in March 2000 the Liberals saw their chance to bring in another hard-head to ‘clean up’ the ABC. This time Jonathan Shier was their chosen man. He could be described as the ABC’s Donald Trump. Metaphorically speaking he came in swinging, restructuring and producing redundancies. One ABC went by the wayside as executives came and went and department heads were expected to come up with lists of expendable people. Senior staff were forced to re-apply for their jobs and Shier once called in the federal police over a leaked memo. At one point off the top of his head he initiated a discussion with me about outsourcing all ABC children’s programs to the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF). In April 2001, a protest rally organized by Friends of the ABC and the Community and Public Sector Union, about what was happening to the ABC drew about 11,000 people.

Shier proved to be so out of step with the culture and purpose of a public broadcaster he lasted just nineteen months, resigning with a million dollar payout because Donald McDonald, who had been party to his selection, couldn’t work with him. It was said however that he did streamline some of the labyrinthine processes of the ABC. A comparatively calm period followed under the partnership between McDonald and Russell Balding who wanted to settle the place down. Within twelve months of Shier’s departure, staff morale turned around and ratings increased – up 7.5 per cent for TV, five per cent for local radio, and 25 per cent for ABC Online.

Mark Scott, appointed July 2006 by McDonald, followed Balding and he was MD for 10 years. He came in under a Liberal government a year before Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister and he proved to be a canny negotiator bridging the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull administrations. He also had to deal with some very conservative Board members including Maurice Newman who became Chairman, following McDonald’s departure. Scott charted a reasonably steady course seizing opportunities when they presented to grow the digital expansion of the ABC. He persuaded Rudd to finance the expansion of a children’s digital channel although the result did not live up to his rhetoric and was badly mistimed as the child audience was by then departing scheduled television. (This story is told elsewhere

Although Abbott famously declared ‘No cuts to the ABC’ during his election campaign, that promise was promptly ignored by Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister. The government commissioned a review from Peter Lewis, the former chief financial officer of Seven West Media, one of the ABC’s commercial competitors, which resulted in a $254 million funding reduction over five years on top of a $47 million ‘efficiency saving’ already imposed in the May 2014 budget. Lewis claimed all such savings should not affect content. As well the ABC’s contract to provide news overseas through the Australia Network (worth about $220 million over 10 years) would not be funded. Its cancellation cost about 80 jobs.

Scott argued that while it was no comfort to the 400 ABC staff who would lose their jobs, things could have been worse. Turnbull agreed to back-end the cuts, allowing more financial room to come up with redundancy payments. But what followed transformed the broadcaster. The budget for Four Corners was cut , overseas bureaus were restructured and in some cases closed. State-based 7.30 programs all over the country were axed, (ABC studios closed in South Australia as they had already in Perth and Tasmania) a number of regional radio posts were closed, the Foreign Correspondent program was cut, local sports coverage scrapped, and other radio and television programs either chopped or moved, as was Lateline. About 100 journalists were made redundant. Some critics claimed the cuts played into Scott’s hands allowing him to make changes he wanted to make.

Before he departed, having made the cuts the Government required, Scott declared ‘We need to fulfil a charter of public broadcasting that has essentially held true for decades. We need to inform, educate and entertain – we need to deliver content that others will not be able or willing to deliver – we need to have programs of wide appeal and specialist interest. But we need to think through again and again, how best we fulfill that unchanging mandate in a world that is changing’.

That task fell to Michelle Guthrie, appointed as Managing Director in May 2016 to an organization still struggling with its role in the digital world, facing further financial cutbacks and a government obsessed to the point of paranoia about so called left-wing bias, and with some politicians determined to close down the public broadcaster to silence its journalists. Most recently there has been the ridiculous, but sinister motion, voted at the Federal Liberal Party Council, to sell the ABC, followed by a quick denial by Prime Minister Turnbull.

We have learnt over time we trust politicians at our peril. The Public Service has been knackered. Once there to serve and offer fearless advice and independent policy options to Ministers, its role has become managerial and one of its functions is to see that no agency or organization that seeks government funding criticizes government. This threat has tamed welfare agencies and a range of organizations across the community who used to contribute to a lively debate about where we were headed as a democracy. Statutory Authorities that were set up to offer arms-length policy advice to government such as the commonwealth Schools Commission, the Australian Institute of Criminology and the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, have been abolished across the years. Others, like the Law Reform Commission are publicly castigated and the Australian Institute of Family Studies is now subject to ministerial oversight that permits no independent voice. These agencies have been abolished or muzzled because their independent research often contradicted political claims.

The Universities are compromised by vulnerability to overseas fee-paying students, (who now make up 40% of intake) to stay afloat and they are attacked by conservatives for alleged left-wing bias. The Church has been exposed as corrupt. Corporations including the banks, power companies, Telstra and the NBN are grossly inefficient and exploitative of their customers. The commercial media, press and television, now compete for attention in a 24/7 news cycle and care only for ratings. They resent public subsidy of the ABC with Rupert Murdoch the most vocal. The multiple and diverse voices promised by digital media perpetrate fake news and ‘the most powerful man in the world ‘ tweets lies.

We need the ABC for it is the only Australian institution in which we can put our trust. It is the one national institution that can reach most Australians, interpret Australia to the world and the world to Australia, in a way that is common to all. It is there to foster national communication, national cultural understanding and national identity, representing social diversity while unifying the nation through comprehensive programming. To destroy this institution is to threaten the unity of the nation, to fragment different social groups and foster disharmony.

As Peter Manning, former producer of Four Corners, wrote recently, ‘It is cloud-cuckoo land to believe that a huge institution like the ABC, with so many checks and balances within it, with such a public ambit, annually called to account by the Parliament, regulated as to its purposes and values by law, with professional employees bound by Codes of Ethics, would have one political bias…. The ABC’s editorial independence is its major gift to the nation. It makes our democracy richer’.

This endorsement does not mean the ABC is beyond criticism. There is another story about the ABC’s arrogance in its relationships with producers in the independent sector. I have been a critic of its commercialised and often banal children’s programs. But the purpose of such critique is to attempt to make the organisation stronger, not to destroy it. And the bigger issue now is the insidious attempts to undermine and intimidate the news and current affairs division.

Michelle Guthrie and the current ABC Board must fight strongly for the ABC’s survival in the face of another $84 million cut. An occasional speech or opinion piece in the Fairfax press is not enough. History shows that when the Chairman, Board members, Managing Director and staff fight for the values of the ABC the public respond. Now is definitely the time to remount the barricades.

The ABC is on its own, and always has been in leading the defence of freedom of speech and investigative reporting. But it has so far had the wider public behind it – a voting strength the ABC’s critics can’t ignore. Country voters who may be National Party members rely on the ABC. So has the ABC undermined itself by cutting regional services and becoming Sydney/ Melbourne centric? Guthrie is attempting to correct this drift. Is the public voice weaker as people opt out into their own digital spaces? We need to find out.

The ABC has been an extraordinarily resilient organisation. It has withstood management and Board upheavals, survived remorseless budget cuts and harassment. But the current attacks on staff and on its role are as overt and vicious as they have ever been. Many of those who were imbued with ABC values have died or moved on. The biggest fear to friends of the ABC today is inertia. This current attack will not be solved by quiet negotiation. The Government’s tactics are neither rational nor honest. This has to be a vocal public fight and once the dangers are understood the public will have to respond. What is there left to defend for our democracy to live on if the ABC is destroyed?


Patricia Edgar was a member of The Australian Broadcasting Control Board 1975-76; Chair of the ABT’s Children’s Program Committee 1979-1983; Founder and Director of the ACTF 1982-2002

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Films and TV, History, Information, IT and Internet, Journalism, Media. Bookmark the permalink.
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Kien Choong
Kien Choong
5 years ago

Hi, thank you for this interesting and illuminating account of the ABC. I would be sorry to lose the ABC, even though (as an Asian Australian) I often find the ABC somewhat parochial. (The ABC’s reporting on Asia is very parochial compared to its reporting on American and European affairs.)

It occurs to me that the ABC’s funding issues could be settled (permanently?!) by taxing Facebook, and perhaps Google. As I understand it, Facebook and Google are thought to earn “monopoly rents”, and so the “deadweight loss” from taxation doesn’t apply to Facebook and Google. If I’m not mistaken, this same rationale applies to the “resource tax” that mining companies pay.

The reason I’d tax Facebook rather than Google (although it’s perfectly fine to tax both) is that the ABC and social media arguably (in my view) are complements in terms of their social impact. For example, the ABC could perform the “fact checking” role and “investigative journalism” role that the social media fails to perform adequately. On the other hand, the social media gives ABC journalists a feedback channel connecting the journalists to their audience.

Anyway, I would be interested in what others think about: (i) the pro’s and con’s of funding the ABC by taxing Facebook (and possibly Google) revenues, and (ii) whether the ABC and social media are complements in their social impact.