September 2006

Arts & Letters

Everyone’s battleground

By Gideon Haigh

Ken Inglis’s ‘Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983–2006’

In their rip-roaring history of the BBC during the Thatcher years, Fuzzy Monsters, Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke report an encounter between the corporation's top brass and the Conservative Party in which the head of drama, Jonathan Powell, was buttonholed by Norman Tebbit. "I know about you," sneered Tebbit. "You're the man who makes all this bloody rubbish; all these left-wing plays. How can you justify them all?"

The men from English Aunty had been told to be on their best behaviour, but Powell reasoned that Tebbit, Torydom's heavy-booted headkicker, would not object to some plain speaking. "Bollocks," he said. "Absolute bollocks." He cited, inter alia, the drama Howard's Way: "That's not left-wing; that's right-wing. They're all Thatcherite people doing well for themselves." Powell asked if the politician had watched it. Of course not, Tebbit replied. He didn't believe Powell anyway: "You are lying," he said. "I know you are lying because you are from the BBC."

Well, of course: the last person from whom you would take advice on public broadcasting is a public broadcaster. They are all so ... biased. It is one of the bizarre features of public life that Australians are so inured to tendentiousness in the commercial media, unmoved by the lavish obsequies for Kerry Packer on Nine or the tongue-in-bum coverage of Rupert Murdoch in his newspapers. But a flicker of sarcasm from someone on AM or Four Corners, or a raised eyebrow from Kerry O'Brien or Tony Jones, whips critics into a frenzy of indignation. No point in the ABC defending itself. The defence itself will perforce be another lie.

That, it need be said immediately, is far from a recent development. Part of the value of the second volume of Ken Inglis's limpid and scrupulously even-handed history of the ABC (Black Inc., 645pp; $39.95), covering the period from its reconstitution as a statutory authority 23 years ago, is that it contains so much to embarrass all sides of politics. Consider the first stirring parliamentary defence of its autonomy, in May 1983: "More than ever before Australia needs an independent, fearless, professional ABC. And I would have thought that, at the very least, that is an issue on which this parliament might be able to achieve a bipartisan attitude." John Howard was then the ABC's defender against the barbs of the Hawke and Wran governments, which were enraged by Four Corners' investigations into the business affairs of Sir Peter Abeles and the judicial big-noting of Kevin Humphreys. "What's wrong with the ABC?" complained deputy prime minister Lionel Bowen. "They're so anti-Labor."

When managing director Geoffrey Whitehead told Paul Keating that further funding cuts might mean the removal of some programs, the treasurer sniped: "Now, don't go making rash promises." Calm heads were needed. Perhaps the most exquisite exchange in Whose ABC? involves Bob Hawke haranguing ABC chairman Bob Somervaille in August 1987 that Four Corners was "a nest of vipers", and lamenting that "public funds should be used to underwrite people whose purpose is to undermine the fabric of society". Somervaille replied with utmost grace: "I hear what you say, prime minister. But I know you would be the last person to want me to interfere in ABC programming."

Back then, it was the creative classes who most routinely disparaged the ABC, culminating in a public campaign in August 1985 by the likes of Patrick White, Tom Keneally, Frank Moorhouse and Lloyd Rees, who denounced the broadcaster's "clownish quest for popular relevance" under the influence of "purveyors of mediocrity" and "trendy hucksters". It was submitted to the usual searching criticism of the Fairfax press. "The ABC is inefficient," announced a leader in the Sydney Morning Herald around the 1989 federal budget; "The ABC has ... become leaner, more efficient and more professional," announced a leader in the Age the same day.

The stacking of the ABC board with perceived fellow travellers flourished in the Hawke and Keating years. Inglis reports a musing of the ABC's mid-'80s chairman: "When Mark Armstrong looked around the table he wondered whether he was the only director who didn't owe his place to some connection with Labor." (Armstrong also gets the loveliest line in Whose ABC?: "The idea of a commercial ABC is to me like a church full of atheists.") Crassness in politics being today something to deplore, then outdo, the practice was emulated with alacrity by the Howard government, despite Richard Alston's "solemn promise" before the 1996 election not to indulge in similar behaviour; but then, an oral contract not being worth the paper it isn't written on, Alston also thought nothing of reneging on a pledge to maintain ABC funding at current levels, and duly became the most minatory communications minister in history, once leering that it was the ABC's choice whether or not it "died in a ditch".

The result today is an ABC board despising the organisation that it purports to monitor - an institutional arrangement assuredly novel in the annals of corporate governance - appointed by a government that piously pleads for objectivity, balance and moderation while itself setting abysmal standards in each when dealing with the corporation. The Coalition's view of the ABC was put most pungently, and cynically, by Howard's quondam political adviser Grahame Morris, who described it as "our enemies talking to our friends".

It is not, of course, only in its relations with politicians that the ABC is contested ground. The other great value of Whose ABC? is the light it shines on how the ABC differs from commercial media - and how, also, it does not. Grappling with quotidian insecurities of funding and challenges of competition has coarsened the organisation; at the senior executive level, it is now arguably just another big, dumb, vulgar and nasty media group. No one is "boned" in Whose ABC?, but many are royally shafted. Shafter-in-chief is probably the mercurial David Hill, who once ignored wise counsel not to involve himself in a political slanging match by explaining: "The trouble is I'm bored and feel like a fight." Director Neville Bonner took his coat and headed for the door in the face of Hill's mockery: "Don't give us that sanctimonious garbage, Neville." Decorated foreign correspondent Philip Koch was compelled to do likewise when fired by Hill over the phone: "Pack your fucking bags right now and fucking well walk. You're finished."

Before Hill, ABC management was chiefly defined as bureaucratic and obstructive; Hill's attempts to recast the ABC in his own pugilistic image stripped away the last vestiges of gentility. On one memorable occasion reported by Inglis, executive Tony Ferguson became so incandescent with rage at the staff-elected director John Cleary that he grabbed him by the tie and "tightened the knot with such force that a flushed Cleary had to have it cut off". Jonathan Shier subsequently repatriated his own form of four-letter management, most memorably raging that a Cambridge-educated Four Corners producer "was the stupidest producer he had ever come across, calling him a Pom and asking if he had taken his O-level examinations".

At the program-making level, differences have remained more pronounced - not, perhaps, because the ABC is so outstanding, but because everywhere else is so wretched. Chris Masters' experiences during his brief defection from Four Corners to Ten's Page One show this in starkest relief. Masters' first story in his new role, concerning the wrongful conviction of an Aboriginal man for murder, was left on the shelf for two months. "Who cares about boongs?" asked a superior. The difference between the ABC and elsewhere, Masters concluded, was that the reporter in commercial media was "quietly taught to despise the public". The ABC, then, offers a value system not so much exquisitely virtuous as not completely deranged. Likewise do, say, Labor in Power or Australian Story, The Games or Frontline, Blue Murder or Janus appear all the more striking for the fact that they could hardly have occurred elsewhere.

When creative talent falls out with the ABC, disillusionment is bitter, producing a local version of what at the BBC they call the "Viking funeral": the process of sinking beneath the waves in a blaze of glory. Inglis quotes parting remarks from, among others, Michael Carson, who quit after 17 years, in which he had been involved in such dramas as Scales of Justice: "I have been in love with the ABC as a public broadcaster of high standing, but I decided to leave because I felt that my lover had been whoring round with cheap men." But such plaints are themselves artefacts of difference. The ABC is embattled by nature; when it falls short, it is as though a last line of resistance has yielded.

So why is the ABC such a battleground? Why is such abiding anger nursed about its content? Why does it engender such fervent attachment, and such abject disappointment? When an organisation is meant to be so diversely representative, no one is likely to feel adequately served. When an organisation pays less than market rates, and this the ABC assuredly does, it will attract people for other reasons. Some of these other motivations may involve commitment to a craft, to a genre, to an idea - even, mirabile dictu, to the quaint, old-fashioned notion of public service. This is the mother of unexpected outcomes. No commercial organisation could make NewsRadio or ABC Online work with such threadbare resources; an outstanding example of gold spun from straw, cited by Inglis, was Radio National's A Thousand Years in a Day to usher in the millennium, produced by broadcasters and producers in their spare time, on a budget of zero.

If there is, among some members of such a community, a disinclination to hew to a government line, especially when those governments are so routinely carping and vindictive, should that really surprise anyone? Perhaps if you really wanted to cow the ABC, you would shower it with money and praise, pay tribute to its independence, describe it as a bulwark against government's natural tendency toward authoritarianism. Pardon such a ludicrous fantasia.

The chief gripe about the ABC, that it peddles wishy-washy liberal platitudes, is hardly groundless. But, well, so what? The media is a platitude machine. What platitudes might the ABC disseminate instead? What values should it espouse? Religious quietism? Unbridled hedonism? Free-market dogma? This might give Michael Kroger the horn, but who else? The ABC's liberalism - or "leftism", as it is often meaninglessly rendered - is boring rather than seriously objectionable. Plenty of counterexamples come to mind, too: Australia All Over may be the most reactionary program on any radio station in Australia; and imagine, if you will, Andrew Bolt or Piers Akerman turning up for a regular gig at Nine after assailing it in print, in the same way that they routinely pop up on Insiders having savaged the ABC for miscellaneous ideological misdeeds during the week.

Inglis hardly puts a foot wrong in Whose ABC?. He misspells "Carolyn Baum"; it's Caroline. He thinks James Hardie ran the Wittenoom asbestos mine; it was CSR. He asserts that Backberner was a comedy; I'm not sure what it was, but it sure as hell wasn't funny. What he doesn't really get to grips with - and perhaps, with the necessity to take the historian's long view, he cannot - is the modern ABC's sheer blandness. Nor is this any longer the blandness of conservatism; it is the dreariness of professionalism in a media age of "content" and "product". This is especially conspicuous and cloying in that part of the ABC reaching most citizens, the big metro-radio stations, now dominated by the strained hilarity of presenters pretending to have fun within rigidly formulaic formats, the white noise of talkback, the invariable trivialisation of serious issues, the endless parade of people promoting "stuff", the on-the-one-hand-this-but-on-the-other-hand-that nothingness of legislated "balance", the unblinking aim for the steadily descending middlebrow. I should know: I work at the ABC. But then, of course, I'm biased.

Cover: September 2006
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