Walking both sides of the street


ABC chairman Donald McDonald deeply resents the backhander he received from Labor leader Mark Latham during the federal election campaign.

Launching ABC’s Books’ latest publication Chester Wilmot Reports (reproducing scripts by the famous ABC war correspondent) at the State Library of NSW on Tuesday 12 October, McDonald said he found Latham’s remarks about the need to appoint an independent board at the ABC very insulting.

McDonald considers that in standing up to former Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston over eight years of sustained hostility he has demonstrated his own independence, particularly after he withstood intense pressure from Alston, Treasurer Peter Costello and then ABC board member Michael Kroger not to dispense with the services of Jonathan Shier as managing director of the ABC. Shier, who replaced Brian Johns, proved (on McDonald’s own public admission) to be a disastrous appointment, embroiling the ABC in front page controversy for two years until McDonald had to move against him in the weeks before the 2001 federal election.

With his board struggling to find consensus on Shier’s replacement, McDonald withstood further pressure from Kroger and then Telstra board member Sam Chisholm and declined to give the job to businessman Trevor Kennedy. Instead the job went to ABC finance head Russell Balding who from May 2002 has established the closest working relationship with the chairman.

While McDonald may have redeemed himself to some extent on protecting the ABC’s ‘independence’ when personally pushed, he and Balding now seem to have an established pattern of walking both sides of the street. This pattern does not demonstrate ‘independence’. It reveals political calculation. We insiders watch this process with considerable bemusement.

Example one: Balding’s unprecedented decision to establish 24-hour Rehame monitoring of bias and balance from the May federal budget to the issuing of the election writs, over the loud objections of staff elected director Ramona Koval. Koval publicly revealed the existence of a letter to the chairman from director Maurice Newman, who seemed to be moved by private suggestions from a former Alston staffer seeking external monitoring of ABC bias. Balding denied any connection and rejects any interpretation that the Rehame monitoring was designed to intimidate journalists into self-censorship when reporting the activities of the government. Balding says a rigorous accountability regime will protect, not diminish, the ABC’s independence. Newman quit the board over the incident blaming Koval for having breached board confidentiality and rejecting concerns that he may have allowed himself to be inappropriately influenced.

Example two: The disingenuous decision not to simulcast the Howard-Latham live TV debate on 12 September. Balding explained: ‘By presenting the program at 10 pm, rather than simultaneously with Channel Nine at 7.30 pm, the ABC has ensured the program will be available to the widest possible audience.’ Re-broadcasting the debate at 10 pm on the ABC outside prime time actually substantially diminished the available audience and could be seen as a political advantage to the incumbent government.

Example Three: Balding’s backing of a decision by Robyn Watts, the director of enterprises, denying a documentary maker’s access to contentious news footage on the basis that it would be used for an ‘advocacy or cause’. The documentary Punished Not Protected concerned the well canvassed government policy on asylum seekers and detention centres. Balding’s door has been closed to a staff deputation seeking to debate the decision with him and seeking to have decisions about such matters returned to ABC Archives under long standing use arrangements.

Example Four: An ABC Radio requirement in October that staff must complete a disclosure statement revealing any personal political affiliation or party membership. ‘Disclosures must be made where there is an actual, perceived or potential conflict of interest.’ Listed among the potential conflicts of interest: ‘Memberships of or relationships with political organisations’. A copy of a gossip column item on this by Amanda Meade in The Australian’s media section (7 October) was conspicuously absent from the ABC’s internal daily news clippings website. Balding has yet to respond to complaints about ABC Radio’s intrusion into individual privacy. One wag has suggested that the entire 4,000 staff of the ABC should now join and form the Ultimo branch of the Liberal Party. Reductio ad absurdum.

On a more positive note the McDonald/Balding regime has found $2 million to re-establish a digital channel using recycled ABC programs; re-established the cadet journalist intake and last week re-established the children’s educational program Behind The News. This was a belated acknowledgement that the board’s 2003 reaction to triennial funding rejection was a public, stakeholder and government-relations misjudgement.

The ABC’s funding and future is now in the hands of the re-elected Howard Government and its Communications Minister. The Minister is expected to indicate policy priority with cross-media and foreign ownership immediately on the agenda with a government controlled Senate from July 2005.

The Coalition’s 2004 election policy was for a formal funding review of ‘the adequacy’ of funding to the ABC, but with the rider that current levels of funding would be maintained in real terms until the expiry of the triennium (2006). Latham’s Labor Party offered an injection into ABC base operational funding of $100 million over three years from 2006 – the first real term lift in the appropriation since 1985.

The government has been under pressure from News Ltd to reduce the capacity of the ABC in Australia to the marginalised and sponsored PBS in the United States. We inside the ABC expect Howard to deliver to Murdoch and Packer on media policy following their strong editorial support for the government through the 2004 election campaign. If the government indicates an acceptance of their push to marginalise the ABC through the promised funding review we may get yet another demonstration of Donald McDonald’s capacity to fight for the ABC’s independence and survival as a viable mainstream public broadcaster. McDonald’s ten year term as ABC chairman expires in July 2006. Based on his performance as managing director to date we expect Russell Balding (contract term five years from 2002) to simply follow his chairman’s lead.

The government has three board appointments to make soon: the Newman vacancy and those expected when deputy chair Judith Sloan and Ross McLean finish their six month extensions early in 2005.

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