May 2005


Fear & Loathing at the ABC

By Margaret Simons
Fear & Loathing at the ABC

Modern ABC buildings show their bones. Their innards seem exposed to the light. The architecture is a thing of soaring, light-filled atriums, the foyers like stripped down cathedrals or airport departure lounges, without the comings and goings. One is invited to awe. Move into the back offices, though, and you get beneath the skin. Here, there is no awe.

The working day is infused with the irony of the clever, their undercutting humour, and the slight sense of disappointment that always accompanies passion. Public broadcasting, a former ABC executive comments, is a thing built on intellect and emotion. This makes it precious, but hard to manage. The people are easy to love, but they can drive you mad.

The offices of the ABC are factories in which ideas and words are hammered out, industrial spaces for people who work with their minds. There are dozens of them all over Australia. They are utilitarian, often grey or blue-grey, with glancing stabs at beauty. A quirky postcard. An enamelled brooch pinned to a grey jumper filled with holes. “My thinking jumper,” its owner says. A dead pot-plant. Another one in flower. The workers are usually cramped, their desks covered in a thick fall of books. Guest couches are squeezed up against recycling bins with open maws, ready to take the reams of paper – read, written on, crumpled and thrown.

In an ABC regional radio station far to the west of the Great Dividing Range, the staff pinboard has a notice: “Duck when they say that regional radio will be the last to go.” In Sydney, the passages leading to the offices of The 7.30 Report are painted a deep purple. “I don’t know why,” says host Kerry O’Brien, and I remark that it is at least a very balanced colour – the mid-point between red and blue. He laughs his rich flirty laugh. On the walls of his office are maps of the Middle East, so he can pick out the battlefields. Above them are several years’ worth of Christmas cards from the former communications minister, Senator Richard Alston, and the prime minister, John Howard. Apparently O’Brien has not yet been crossed off the list. In Melbourne, the director of radio, Sue Howard, has a cartoon on her office wall. It shows a cage with the bars shattered and two people standing dismayed at the door. One says: “Oh Lord. The Right Wing Phillip Adams has escaped.”

One day I met a source, an ABC staff member, in one of the ABC’s soaring atriums. By prior arrangement we didn’t acknowledge each other. He walked past me. Moments later I followed. We regrouped at a coffee shop far enough away to make it unlikely that we would be seen.

“What are you afraid of?” I asked, rather fed up with the cloak and dagger. “What would happen if they knew you were talking to me?”

My source considered for a moment, then said: “I would be counselled.”

I almost laughed, it was such a benign little word. His face stopped me. “Counselled”, it seems, has become a very ABC word, and it does not mean what the dictionary says – to consult and to advise. It is more often employed as a threat, as in a recent memo sent out by the director of news and current affairs, John Cameron. He stated that departing from style guidelines would “lead to counselling and formal documentation. This, in turn, can have a major impact on career progression and, eventually, ongoing employment status.” The style guidelines he was referring to included a direction to avoid describing the federal government as “the Howard government” for fear of being seen to make “some unspecified editorial point”, and the need to make sure that government comment usually comes first in a news bulletin, opposition second.

Distrust between ABC management and staff is not new. Nine years ago, when the former Fairfax chief executive Bob Mansfield was brought in by the newly elected Howard government (sorry, federal government) to review the ABC, he reported that he was “very conscious” of a management–staff divide and a “lack of trust”. He also said managers needed to take more responsibilty for managing, rather than being at the behest of their staff. Some of this seems to have happened; ABC people will tell you it is a less consultative place than before, but that the distrust is worse than ever. Right or wrong, many think they will be punished if they question their bosses or step out of line. “The place has gone timid,” says one. Michael Duffy, an ABC critic who now has his own weekly Radio National program called Counterpoint, fears the ABC has “had the vigour squashed out of it … it is like a whipped dog. When you manage the ABC you are in the business of managing passion. Now there is a lot less passion to manage.”

During the month I spent stooging around the atriums and back offices, two questions recurred in my interviews.

One was: “What are you afraid of?”

The other was: “Who is leading the ABC?”

Kerry O’Brien says that after years of building up quality through the 1980s, “my fear is that we might edge back to the time when mediocrity ruled a long time ago. Mediocrity feeds off itself.” He says the greatest threat is “a compromised process at the heart”. By this he means the way the ABC board is appointed by the federal government of the day and has been stacked by successive governments. “If you believe in the need for a strong, genuinely independent public broadcaster of integrity then a fundamental part of that process has to be the integrity of the appointment of the board. It has to be free of political influence and seen to be free of political influence. If you just analyse the people who have been appointed, without reflecting on the character of individuals, it does go to a lack of integrity in the appointing process.”

Like many others, O’Brien fears the impact of constant compromise due to lack of resources. The 7.30 Report has lost a third of its editorial staff since it went national nine years ago. “You might shy away from a particular story because you know you simply won’t be able to do it justice,” he says. “There have been times when we have had to be very, very selective on overseas satellite crosses, and at times almost ban them. There have been times when our travel has almost come to a standstill. You are cutting corners all the time. Those things aren’t automatically clear in what is going to air, but you have to worry over time about a decline in quality. I am still confident that the compromises we make are acceptable in the circumstances. We have a strong team here now, perhaps the best we have ever had, but I guess one of the realities of life at the ABC is you can’t feel secure about that continuing.”

Meanwhile the director of television, Sandra Levy, says she fears the day is near when it will be close to impossible to commission Australian drama for the national broadcaster. “I think the future for ABC television is very bleak.”

There are two ways of telling the story of the ABC at the beginning of the 21st century. One is a success story, a story of excellence, resilience and hope. The other is about what happens to a cultural institution, and perhaps also to a society, subjected to constant change, pressure, criticism and lack of sustenance. This second story is about wearing things down, about people withdrawing and pulling down the blinds, about feeling threatened and desiring protection.

The ABC has never been more loved. The corporation’s own surveys say nine in ten Australians believe it provides a valuable service. The Australian National University’s 2003 survey of social attitudes shows 66% of Australians have confidence in the ABC. That might not sound so stunning, until you compare it with other institutions. Only 40% have confidence in the government, 31% in the public service, 33% in churches and religious institutions.

The ABC has the best current affairs and news service in the country. Yet it is also true, says veteran broadcaster Quentin Dempster, that the journalism is under intense pressure. Four Corners is off screen for three months of the year and has to run 12 buy-ins to sustain its output. Foreign Correspondent is off air three months of the year. Lateline is off air for two months. All because of lack of money. Four Corners’ Chris Masters, the nation’s leading investigative journalist, says he signs off on stories of a lower quality than he used to. “I did bigger stories in the ’80s and the main reason was I had more flexible deadlines. I was able to go to my boss and say I need a few more weeks, and they would always say yes. It is not like that now.”

The ABC is doing more than ever before. Most of us only hear or watch parts of its output, so it is easy not to realise its vastness. There are four national and two international radio networks. There are nine metropolitan radio stations in capital cities plus Newcastle, and 51 regional radio studios. In TV, there is the main analog station and a new digital channel, which launched in March. The ABC leads the industry in new media. The ABC Online website contains more than 1.6 million pages and consistently rates in the top ten. Its newest radio station – “dig” – is delivered via the internet.

And yet the future of new media at the ABC, as we shall see, is threatened, hobbled by legal restrictions designed to protect commercial broadcasters and drastically under-funded. Underlying all the ABC’s problems – from the big to the trivial – is lack of money. Melbourne morning radio presenter Jon Faine says that even the quality of the pens in the stationery cupboards has dropped. He has taken to using the ones that come free with press releases instead.

Internally, among senior managers, there is some optimism. The new communications minister, Senator Helen Coonan, has assured them publicly and privately that she intends to be good for the ABC, a friend at court. She has indicated she did not support the attacks and the vitriol visited on the broadcaster by the minister for most of the last nine years, Senator Alston. But as far as many of the staff are concerned, Coonan has failed her first test by appointing newspaper columnist Janet Albrechtsen to the board – a person highly critical of the ABC and the latest in a string of politically loaded appointments.

The government entered the 2004 election campaign with a policy to join the ABC in conducting a review, not only of the adequacy of the ABC’s funding but also of its use. This means the ABC is at “a tilting point in its survival in the Australian media”, says Dempster, and the Albrechtsen appointment has “inflamed fears that the government will not be fair”. But what ABC staff don’t know – because they haven’t been told, and nor has it been reported – is that the ABC board actually asked for the review.

It seems a dangerous move – inviting a government that has shown its hostility to examine the detail of how the organisation uses its money. The fear is that giving the government too much control over budget management might ultimately yield control over programming decisions too. The chairman of the ABC board, Donald McDonald, acknowledges the risks but says: “We mustn’t be scared of the facts.” The review was requested because the board was totally confident it could lead only to the conclusion that the ABC needs and deserves more money.

The ABC claims to be our most important cultural institution, and it is hard to deny. What the ABC does is reflected in almost every area of Australian life, from the local and pedestrian to the nationwide. Bob Mansfield recounts with affection meeting a man in Cairns in 1996. “He came up to me and said: ‘You are not leaving this room until you give me an absolute assurance that the ABC is going to be able to tell me when I’ve got a fire in the district so I know whether I’ve got to jump on the bulldozer and knock down shrubs around the house.’”

It is not surprising, then, if the mood of the ABC reflects something of the mood of the country. After two decades of rapid change, there are many successes. On the other hand, there is insecurity. Distrust. From the senior management who believe there is no profit in fighting the government of the day, to the staff who fear they might be “counselled”, the mood at the national broadcaster can be summed up with three words. It is defensive. It is weary, and it is wary.

“Bullying”, like “counselling”, is another word that is heard a lot inside the ABC. When John Cameron’s memo threatening people with “counselling” for continued breaches of style was leaked to the email-based news service, a former ABC human resources manager, Karl Hughes, called it “bullying behaviour”. Cameron rejects the suggestion. “Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a bully.” The most visible bullying allegations have emerged in Victoria, where the former executive producer of Inside Business, Neheda Barakat, has taken a case before the Industrial Relations Commission alleging she was bullied by the Victorian editor for news and current affairs, Marco Bass. Bass has vigorously denied the allegations.

The unions claim the ABC has developed a culture of bullying, driven by the need to keep costs down. Graeme Thomson of the Community and Public Sector Union says: “It is not schoolyard bullying, although that happens too. It is a semi-legal bullying.” He says performance review systems are used to “manage” people out of the organisation, to penalise them, rather than to support and reward them. The ABC, he says, has become a place where bullying is seen as good management.

Last year a new course was introduced. In its early days it was known as the “anti-bullying course”, but in a deliciously ABC euphemism it quickly had a name change to “Creating a Better Place to Work”. All employees, from managing director Russell Balding down, are meant to complete it before the end of 2005. Bullying has been raised at board level too. Staff-elected director Ramona Koval reported last year that she had told the board a “question of worst practice human resource management” was emerging; in another section of her report, she said she had told the board that ABC managerial style had been described as a “vacuum with antagonism”.

Yet management denies there is a problem. Acting director of communications, Murray Green, says only 13 claims of bullying have been received from the corporation’s 5,000 employees since an anti-bullying policy was introduced last year. Of these, seven were resolved. Six were formally investigated. None were upheld. Psychological – or stress –injuries have gone up, but only in line with the public service generally. “The figures don’t support any suggestion that there is a bullying culture,” he says.

It is easy to be sceptical about the bullying claims. Creative people are never easy to manage. Deadlines lead to stress. Newsrooms, in particular, are famously robust places to work, and “contented journalist” is almost a contradiction in terms. But over the month that I researched this article, interviewing dozens of staff at all levels, I became convinced that the ABC does have a problem. I came across doctors specialising in workplace stress who are seeing high numbers of ABC employees. I interviewed program-makers who had left the corporation, without official complaint, because they could no longer tolerate the conflicts. Most are now working in commercial media, which they describe as more benign. Whether it is bullying or just conflict, this seems to be the peak, the poisonous head, of the ABC’s stress.

During my research I was shown a confidential document – a report from psychologists who run the counselling service for ABC employees. The report shows that workplace problems, as opposed to personal issues, were the reason employees sought counselling in 40% of cases, well above the recognised benchmark of 20–30%. “Conflict with management” was the most common workplace problem. “Hot spots” for this conflict were radio, TV and, ironically, human resources. In news and current affairs there were particularly high levels of anxiety and depression. Job dissatisfaction and concerns about organisational change and workload were spread across divisions. In some support areas of the ABC, such as corporate affairs and human resources, the proportions of people seeking counselling were so high that to name the divisions and give the numbers in this article would be almost a breach of confidentiality.

The psychologists recommended several times that managers needed to be “trained in management skills” and more aware “of the impact of their own communication style on others”. The report was clearly intended as a management tool. Yet it seems most of the senior management do not know about it, or have received only summary information. Asked to comment on the report, the ABC’s managing director Russell Balding said he was not aware of it either.

So why has Auntie turned toxic for at least some of its employees? The reasons are bound to be complex, but the wisdom of the schoolyard might give us a clue. We know that bullies are usually themselves the victims of bullying, and recent history suggests the ABC knows all about being a victim.

In the 1920s a series of royal commissions wrestled with how Australia should cope with the new world of broadcasting, which had the potential to conquer distance and bind a nation. The Australian Broadcasting Commission was set up as statutory authority, at arm’s length from government, yet financed from consolidated revenue. Thus began the tensions that persist to this day – a broadcaster that bites the hand that feeds it.

Among the opening-day programs on July 1, 1932, were the Children‘s Session with Bobby Bluegum, a sports show, a calling of the Randwick races, British Wireless News sent by cable from London and the ABC Women‘s Association Session – including segments on “commonsense housekeeping” and looking after goldfish. The task, said Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, was to provide “information, entertainment, culture and gaiety”. Seventy-three years on, the ABC continues to exist, gaiety and all, surviving the small-government spirit of the times because of massive public support.

But for most of the last 20 years the corporation has been embattled, pervaded by a sense of perpetual crisis. Since the Hawke government’s first term the ABC’s funding has fallen $254.02 million in real terms, or by 29%. In the last days of Labor the ABC was the only major cultural institution not to get new funds from the Creative Nation cultural policy in 1994. There never was a golden age of government friendliness to the ABC. But most present-day staff date recent history as beginning on July 16, 1996, when the newly elected Howard government broke an election promise to maintain funding in real terms and announced that $65 million was to be cut over two years. It was the largest single cut in the corporation’s history, and the worst blow ever inflicted.

Memories of that day are still fresh. Diana Gribble was a board member at the time. “There were discussions at board level about what we were going to cut – Radio National or Classic FM.” But neither network closed. There were many redundancies, cuts to program budgets and, after the Mansfield inquiry, the outsourcing of most drama and documentary production. By 2000, Quentin Dempster was saying the ABC was in danger of being destroyed. More stormy weather was to come. That same year the ABC board appointed the little-known Jonathan Shier as managing director, to replace Brian Johns.

It could be said that the ABC is still recovering from the post-traumatic shock of the Shier regime. Today nobody speaks well of him. People use words like “megalomaniac”, “wild”, “bully”. Sue Howard, who became an executive director during his reign, remembers she survived by listening to his “crazy ideas” and doing nothing. Usually if she waited a few weeks, the idea would go away. Kerry O’Brien says “a sense of hostility infused the organisation”. One Hobart-based broadcaster remembers: “You feared for your job. You feared for your boss’s job, and then they kept getting you out into parks for these mad team-building exercises. Standing around falling backwards into each other’s arms. That kind of thing. Then you walked back into the fear.” Gribble, asked recently what she had to say about the appointment, had just one word: “Sorry.”

Almost immediately he arrived, Shier began a clearout of the senior ranks – then fell out with many of their replacements. Those who went included the heads of all the departments responsible for program content. In all there were 390 redundancies at a cost of $37.7 million, including leave entitlements. Shier has since acknowledged he also had plans to get rid of Kerry O’Brien and take on a “fiefdom” of journalists. It was this that led to the last of his many rows when the director of news and current events, Max Uechtritz, refused at an executive meeting to move against O’Brien. In late 2001 the senior management – many of them appointed by Shier – revolted. The board’s chairman Donald McDonald forced him to resign. Many thought McDonald should follow.

McDonald had been appointed chairman only a few days before the funding cuts were announced. A respected arts administrator, he was also a close personal friend of the prime minister. He had been joined by others with direct government connections, most notably Michael Kroger, former Victorian Liberal Party president and close ally of Treasurer Peter Costello. Gribble, one of the few remaining Labor appointees on the board that hired Shier, recalls that Kroger “expressed his political views and outside allegiances with total, sometimes astonishing, frankness”. Many people inside the ABC believe Shier was a political appointment and that he arrived with a government-influenced “hit list” of executives and journalists. It is an understandable perception. The Howard government had made it clear it wanted cultural change at the ABC. It seemed incomprehensible that the board was not complicit in Shier’s purge.

Historian Ken Inglis, who is writing a history of the ABC, has interviewed all members of the board that appointed Shier and concluded: “I’m not convinced that the choice was made on political grounds or that anybody in government intervened on his behalf.” Inglis believes, as does Gribble, that McDonald worked to protect the ABC’s independence. Andy Lloyd-James, as head of national networks, was one of Shier’s first victims. Today he doubts if there was an actual hit list but says the real issue is why the board allowed Shier to wreak such havoc. “You cannot make massive change to the ABC without their support. So the issue is not whether there was a list or not … the question is what the board actually did. Either the board knew what it was doing and precisely why it was doing it or, worse, it just let it happen.”

The legacy, Lloyd-James believes, is clear. “Has there been significant change to the culture? Yes. ABC television is a much more timid painter of the world around it. When did we last see a consistent presence of innovative, challenging and contentious Australian dramas and documentaries? Second, and most particularly, you hear no significant and consistent vision from the ABC laying out new roles for public broadcasting in a complex and commercially influenced media future. Those who wished to damage the ABC have won a large slice of what they hoped for.”

In the wake of Shier’s departure various names were raised as possible successors. Kroger was said to back a former execu-tive of Kerry Packer’s media empire, Trevor Kennedy. McDonald is said to have opposed this, and in the end the board opted for safe hands – Balding, the ABC’s former director of finance, and an accountant with a distinguished career in public sector management. Some in government were furious – Kroger in particular made his views known. But the ABC breathed a sigh of relief. Balding was welcomed. He was a known quantity and, most importantly, he was not Jonathan Shier. But now, as one ABC insider put it to me: “We are coming to terms with all the other things that Russell is not.”

Quentin Dempster, always courageous, does not hesitate to criticise his boss. He says: “I give Russell Balding about five out of ten.” Dempster says Balding has restored stability, which means staff can concentrate on putting out programs. He has also made sure, despite the shortage of money, that the ABC remains a player in digital broadcasting. “But Russell’s problem,” says Dempster, “is he won’t assertively engage in public advocacy of the ABC’s case. While Murdoch, Packer, Stokes and the other players are pushing their barrows in Canberra, the ABC is mute. The reason for that, I suppose, is because of the highly political nature of the ABC board that appointed Russell. His contract is with the board and he would read all their nuances and prejudices. This is a big problem for the ABC’s survival. The politics infects the ABC in many ways.”

It was suggested to me that when history is written, the current period will be seen as of a piece with the Shier era – that the organisation is still recovering, that bullying and political interference still carry on. “The ghost walks,” says one broadcaster, “every single day.” Balding insists he is an effective advocate. He points to the extra $4.2 million a year for program purchases he gained last financial year, despite it being in the middle of the usual triennial funding arrangement. He has succeeded in ensuring the continuation of funding gained during the Shier era and aimed at rural services. So why doesn’t he make more noise? Why doesn’t he rally public support in the ABC’s corner as managing directors before him have done? “You never win those sorts of campaigns,” Balding says. “There is no gain in embarrassing the government.” He says the ABC is still paying – financially and politically – for the “eight cents a day” campaign mounted by one of his predecessors, David Hill.

The ABC’s annual report indicates that in real terms, ABC funding has returned to the level it was at before the 1996 cuts. But the figures tell only part of the story. Today’s funding covers far more than it used to, including the ABC’s entry into digital broadcasting. The significant figure is that this financial year, the ABC has $35 million less in real terms for program-making than it did before the cuts of 1996, yet is trying to do more. Hence the lack of TV drama, the corner-cutting in current affairs, the short-staffing in radio, the ability of senior management to claim that funding is at crisis levels.

Calm was restored after Shier left, but the ABC’s problems were far from over. Acid correspondence flowed from Senator Alston, to McDonald, and back. Senior ABC staff remember the hostility. When they briefed Alston, he seemed mostly uninterested. If he engaged at all, it was to fire aggressive questions at them, to cross-examine. Finally, in May 2003, something extraordinary happened. The minister responsible for the ABC filed 68 com-plaints of bias with its managing director. “We felt bullied,” says one senior broadcaster. “No doubt about it.” And another says: “After all we had been through it was hard not to lose hope.”

Moving from the crowded back offices of the ABC’s Sydney headquarters to the top of the building is like switching from talkback radio to an advertisement for Classic FM. Up here, everything is clean and light, serenity and charm. Donald McDonald, the man who knows so much and says so little about the ABC’s recent history, sits with a view over the roofs of Ultimo, with well-chosen paintings on the walls, a shelf of excellent books and a collection of ABC classical music CDs.

“What’s he like?” I ask former board member Diana Gribble. “He is cunning as a shithouse rat – a very nice one. Very urbane,” she says. “He plays his cards close to his chest. He has strong opinions about people which he mostly keeps to himself.” When he arrived, she says, the chairman of the board became a much more overtly powerful figure. Gribble was quickly convinced he had his own agenda and was not a slave of government. “I think he walks a delicate political tightrope very adroitly. I think he’s been quite courageous in resisting the wilder end of government desire to control the ABC.” But someone else who has worked with McDonald says merely: “He is the perfect courtier.”

McDonald tells me he was lonely up here at first. He had come straight from being chief executive of the Australian Opera after 30 years in arts organisations. There, his colleagues were his good friends. “We would just wander out to lunch together. At the ABC, as chairman, you don’t do that. It is hierarchical in that sense. I had to find other modes to meet those needs in my life.” He had to learn to stand back a bit and not interfere. Even today, he acknowledges, there is a part of him that would like to be down there, amidst all the paper and noise and creativity. He must not, he will not, do it.

McDonald says that when he was appointed, he and his close friend John Howard made a rule. “He said to me: ‘I will never talk to you about the ABC and if you want to talk to me about an ABC matter, make an appointment with my office.’” On a handful of occasions they have met, formally, to talk about matters related to the budget. Other than that, the only thing McDonald knows about Howard’s views on the ABC are that he likes the line-up on Sunday evening – the only time he gets to watch TV. (Therefore we can assume the prime minister is presently watching The Einstein Factor, Battlefield Detectives and after that a special, often from the BBC.)

So what does McDonald think of what Kerry O’Brien describes as the “compromised process at the heart” – the way in which the ABC board is appointed? McDonald is sanguine. The ABC board is important, he says, but no more so than the bench of the High Court, or the governor-general, or the heads of government departments, all of whom are appointed by the democratically elected government of the day. “I don’t think anybody can point to an example in the last nearly nine years that I’ve been chairman where the board has behaved in a way that has indicated it is captive to government policy.”

But what about Michael Kroger’s notorious activism? What about the failure to gain more funding? And what about the reign of Jonathan Shier? “You can have your view of Michael Kroger or anyone else. They are individuals. Look to the behaviour of the board as a group, and I would challenge anyone to find an example where the board has failed in its protection of the independence of the ABC or has acted in a way that could be seen as responding to actual or imagined government pressure.”

Brian Johns thinks he can answer that challenge. He was managing director immediately before Shier. He believes the board has failed the ABC by not being an effective advocate. The board “went along silently, passively” in the face of Minister Alston’s criticisms. “Ironically, in spite of the fact that the board has been stacked with government supporters, there are absolutely no signs of increased trust or respect for the ABC’s responsibility as a national broadcaster.”

So why was Shier chosen? McDonald says you have to remember the spirit of five-and-a-half years ago. There was great passion and concern about convergence and new media. “Shier had been in Europe for a considerable length of time and seemed to have a handle on a great deal of this. I think it was the attraction of the new.” Gribble remembers slightly differently. Shier was “very plausible. He was a salesman. He was well-briefed and well-targeted, well-informed about where the buttons were that need to be pressed, and he pressed them.” If any board members had doubts, they apparently didn’t take it to a fight. McDonald says Shier’s appointment was unanimous, despite reports to the contrary. One senior manager who observed the board at the time quotes W.B. Yeats in describing what happened: “The best lacked all conviction. The worst were full of passionate intensity.”

Today McDonald says: “It’s easy looking back to say it didn’t work, did it? I’m not at all embarrassed by his appointment. I wish it had worked better. Of course I wish it had worked better.” He flatly denies that the board had a hit list. That is not the board’s job. “That doesn’t mean board members take a vow of silence. People can have views which they are entitled to express over lunch or a drink, but they don’t manifest them--selves in board decisions.” So what went wrong? McDonald uses a metaphor from his great loves, opera and drama. Shier, he says, was “miscast”.

“Miscasting is as much a fault of the directors and producers as it is of the performer,” says McDonald. “But from long experience I can tell you that if somebody is miscast you may or may not know quite early in the production. You will do whatever you can to make them look as good as you can and paper over the cracks and sometimes you get away with it, and the public can think it is fine, and you know it is not nearly as good as it should be, but sometimes you have to make a decision to withdraw the person from that part and that’s a pity for them and a pity for the organisation. Sometimes you have to make a decision that there has been a mistake and, awkward and embarrassing as it is, it must be dealt with.”

So much for the board’s past decisions. Why has it now invited the government to review the ABC’s funding? McDonald says he believes it is the only way the corporation can make itself heard. In 2001 the ABC commissioned the Macquarie Bank to compare the ABC’s funding levels with those of its commercial peers and other international public broadcasters. The conclusions were clear: the ABC was drastically under-funded. The Macquarie Bank report was a vital attachment to the ABC’s triennial funding submission in 2003. McDonald believes it was ignored. “I doubt that anyone in government took it at all seriously, and why? Because we had commissioned it, and therefore it was to that extent tainted.”

Is the government so hostile, then, to anything coming from the ABC? McDonald backtracks. Governments are always sceptical of the many passionately committed people who come looking for money, he says. The government has promised that the new review will not result in cuts to ABC funding and that any savings identified will be kept by the ABC. McDonald believes he can trust the promises. He wants the government review, looks forward to it. But already the review is running late. It will not be completed, as the board had hoped, in time for the next triennial funding submission. McDonald is now unsure whether it will go ahead at all. Why not? It is government policy, an election promise.

“Well. Yes. It is policy,” he says, and smiles a Mona Lisa smile.

I put to McDonald what I have heard elsewhere – that the government’s hostility comes more from the Liberal forces allied to Peter Costello than from the prime minister. It was Costello’s old friend, Michael Kroger, who was most famously hostile on the board and who made no secret of his frustration with McDonald. At the same time as Minister Alston’s hostility was growing, he too was becoming closer to Costello.

Mona Lisa again. “That is for other commentators to examine,” McDonald says.

The Alston period, which others describe as open war-fare, McDonald agrees was “challenging”. He points out that governments throughout the history of the ABC have always been passionate about news and current affairs reporting. He cites Bob Hawke’s response to the coverage of the first Iraq war. “What was at least healthy about the Alston complaints was that they were in writing in the public arena … There were never phone calls to me raging about some program or anything like that.”

McDonald believes Senator Coonan “has sought in a quite deliberate way to change the climate of the relationship”. He adds there is now more “continuity” between the minister’s attitude and John Howard’s. McDonald believes the ABC has recovered entirely from Shier. As for the impact of Alston’s hostilities? “I think that’s for other people to assess.”

And what of the future? What is the vision from the top floor of Ultimo? McDonald says drily that it is all there in the corporate plan. I remark that I have read the corporate plan and remain unclear.

He is charm itself. “Yes, they are fabulously opaque documents aren’t they? It’s absolutely useless for a person with clarity to say ‘our vision is to do what we do’, but at one level I think that’s it. We keep on with what the ABC has been doing since 1932. The way we do the job evolves, but if the ABC keeps being useful to a large number of people it will survive.”

I tell him it has been suggested to me that the government is disappointed in him for defending the ABC. “Well. There you go,” he says. And this time he laughs. He sees me out to the lift and I descend, away from Classic FM and down to talkback: to the noise, the push and pull, the gossip, and the passion. And all the other fears.

In the staff coffee shop at the ABC’s Melbourne head-quarters, there is a wooden sculpture of a woman dining alone. Look out the corner of your eye and you are likely to think a real person is there. She is dining, closer examination reveals, on a bottle of wine, a cup of tea and what looks like a raw fish. But her meatier and more bitter diet must be the gossip. To her, the ABC must seem not like one organisation but a series of fiefdoms. Here is some of what she hears.

Local radio resents Radio National. “For God’s sake, some of the people there take a whole week to produce half an hour of radio that hardly anyone listens to. Some of them have been there for 25 years!” The coffee cups are cleared, and the Radio National people come in. “Why is the ABC spending so much money on local radio?” some of them say. “What does local radio do that the commercial stations don’t do?” And now the lady hears that Radio National is the heart of the ABC, its cultural memory, the best example of why we need a national broadcaster.

If there are happy campers at the ABC, they tend to be those in metropolitan local radio. Sue Howard, who has a reputation as one of the ABC’s better people-managers, gives them clear direction. They are geographically finessed: there is more gravitas in Melbourne, and a lighter feel for Sydney. Ratings are high. On the other hand, some of those involved in Radio National’s specialist programs appear to be the most depressed ABC employees. Almost annually for the last 20 years, there have been rumours that Radio National will be closed down. Workloads have gone up, staffing has been cut. Many Radio National staff feel unloved and unappreciated.

Howard is astonished when I tell her this. “I love Radio National,” she says. She loves the expertise and passion of the people who have been presenting for so many years. Radio National, she says “has got it about right. Most of what I hear I am very happy with.” I tell her that some of her staff would be surprised to hear that these are her views. “That alarms me,” she says. “That actually makes me quite depressed.”

At the entrance to the Sydney staff cafeteria a slightly faded, out-of-kilter photograph of Andrew Olle, one of the ABC’s best known and loved journalists until his death in 1995, smiles benignly on the gossip in the canteen queue. He hears a lot about Sandra Levy, the director of television. Some call her the dragon lady. She has become easily the most dominant ABC executive director. Levy is much admired, much feared and seems to have a talent for making enemies. There are people in her division who hate her. She protests that she doesn’t know why. “I never raise my voice. I never swear at people. I’m always extremely mild-mannered,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald last year. One of her enemies says: “I’ve seen people shout and rage in this place, but I’ve never seen anyone able to fillet you quietly the way Sandra Levy can.” Levy has lifted TV ratings from the low points of the Shier regime to record levels. This success, and her personality, have led to a change in the balance of power. Once, news and current affairs were dominant. Now people think Levy is on the front foot.

Not everyone is sorry. Andrew Olle hears about how everyone hates Newscaff (as news and current affairs are known), how they are arrogant, how they blow budgets and how everyone else is expected to absorb the result. Meanwhile Newscaff staff can seem sullen. In their view Newscaff is – or ought to be – the heart of the ABC. But the golden era is over, they mutter. They gossip about Levy, and the TV schedule, and how lightweight it is. “Spicks and Specks, for heaven’s sake. And why is Lateline forced to wait on Friday night until after The Kumars at No. 42?” There are constant rumours of “blow-ups” between Newscaff director John Cameron and Levy over scheduling and live crosses to big news events. Levy says it’s rubbish, that she has granted every Newscaff request. In the cases that get gossiped about, she says Newscaff made no request. “Television has been the scapegoat … for decisions made by the director of news and current affairs.” Cameron just wants to move on. There was a “misunderstanding” once, he says, over a failure to cross live to John Howard announcing the 2004 election. Since then there have been no blow-ups. “I think it is unnecessary and undignified to say more.”

Levy is probably the most pessimistic member of senior management. What riches she could give Australia, if only she had more money. People are constantly attacking her for what she doesn’t do – “as if we are sitting on a pot of gold and thumbing our noses at the world. But we are desperately short of funds.” Even cheap drama costs $450,000–500,000 per hour to make, and at the top end the cost is about $3 million an hour. “If we were to replace The Bill with an Australian show,” says Levy, “we would probably have to allow about $50 million.” Not only does this affect what we see – or fail to see – it has knock-on effects throughout the film-making industry. Nevertheless she vigorously defends her cheap and cheerful programs. “Spicks and Specks,” she says, “is not a quiz show. It is a celebration of music.” The ABC sought $64.5 million for drama and comedy in its last funding submission, claiming it had been forced to focus on “less expensive genres”. It was knocked back.

Down in the canteen, the Newscaff people laugh and say: “Get her to tell you about the money she wasted on the History Detectives.” This was a series of history programs that began with grand vision, failed and became the less ambitious but modestly successful Rewind. Levy acknowledges that the show was harder than anticipated, that it didn’t come off. But it cost just $1.9 million, which would only buy about three hours of quality drama anyway.

Rumours and bitterness don’t die at the ABC. They live on over the cappuccino. Sometimes it seems as though everyone envies everyone else. Everyone thinks their own patch deserves more of the money and is the real ABC. This is the national broadcaster at its least lovable, and at its weakest – the backbiting, the paranoia, the personal politics, the petty jealousies, the feral gossip. It would be wrong to say the ABC is united. And this, in the end, must be a question of leadership.

“Who would you say is leading the ABC?” I ask Sue Howard. Her face goes rigid. “That’s an interesting question. That’s as distinct from managing the ABC?” she says at last. I agree this is the distinction I am trying to draw. Another pause, and she says: “I would say the executive group. We take a robust view of leading our own patch.” She doesn’t name Russell Balding.

A few days later I ask the same question of Howard’s good friend, Lynley Marshall, director of new media and digital services. This time the answer comes as smooth as glass. “The executive group leads the ABC, under the direction of the managing director.” Sure enough, she and Howard have been talking. And so it goes on, through the executive directors, each making it clear that they are “bolshie” about running their own areas and that together they run the place.

Balding, meanwhile, has willingly entered the maze of accountability that engulfs the ABC and makes it unlike any other media organisation. He has made it efficient, lean and buttressed against attack. Reading through all the reports – the Australian National Audit Office, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the independent consultants, the Senate estimates committee – one fancies you can almost feel the creative spine of the ABC snapping under the weight. Everyone wants to stick their oar into the national broadcaster, and plenty of people can. If it wearies Balding, he doesn’t show it.

Balding was one of the first people I contacted for interview. At first I was told he didn’t want to speak – that his executive directors, his seconds in command, could speak instead. I remonstrated. It would look extraordinary if the leader of the ABC was not prepared to be interviewed. I was asked to provide a list of questions. “It will be much easier to get him to agree if you do.” Finally, word came through. Balding would be interviewed on one condition – that he was the very last person from the ABC that I spoke to. We finally talked close to the deadline for this article. His personal assistant told me I had only half an hour. Balding let me know he was tape-recording our phone conversation, and that his PR person was at his elbow. He showed no signs of having read my written questions, and he didn’t have all the answers to hand. For the head of a media organisation, the whole episode was an extraordinarily inept piece of media management. Maybe mine was one oar Russell Balding saw no reason to tolerate.

Asked to name an area where Balding has given a strong lead, his executive team talk about new media and digital TV. Here the corporation faces its biggest and most important challenge – the one that puts all the gossip and backbiting in their proper perspective. In March the ABC launched a new digital TV channel, ABC2. The event was a landmark, a step towards the future. It was at this launch, held in Parliament House in Canberra, that Senator Coonan impressed senior management with her warmth, her enthusiasm for the ABC. But beneath the optimism lay an awkward truth. The newest member of the ABC family is hobbled at birth. The reason is the government’s protection of the pay-TV industry.

Digital TV would seem the natural future for public broad-casting. Unlike commercial stations, the ABC and SBS do not have to deliver mass audiences to advertisers. They can embrace the fragmentation of the audience, using multi-channelling to serve different groups in different ways. But in 1998 the government passed legislation that all but closed the door on public broadcasters. They were allowed to multi-channel but would be limited by heavy “genre restrictions” to prevent them from competing with pay-TV. Greens leader Bob Brown said at the time: “Kerry Packer couldn’t have written the legislation better himself.” The genre restrictions prevent ABC2 from broadcasting sport, drama, national news and current affairs, comedy or entertainment. The new channel is, in the words of one of Lynley Marshall’s staffers, “a cake made with flour and water”. Its schedule is dominated by children’s programs, Stateline repeats, international news, science and education. Even with this the ABC is pushing the limits. There is potential for a challenge from commer-cial pay-TV stations.

A government review is underway into multi-channelling and digital media. Marshall is hopeful the result will be a lifting of genre restrictions. ABC2 would then become rich with material from the ABC archives, with telecasts of sport not covered elsewhere, such as women’s cricket and netball. The ABC’s strengths in current affairs would be exploited. For this to happen, the government must go against the interests of the big media players of pay-TV. Senator Coonan, for all her warmth and friendliness, is keeping quiet. Her office says only that “a response to the review will be made in due course”. Nobody believes the decision will be left to her alone.

Brian Johns, former ABC managing director, argues that this is the central failure of the ABC board and the price of political stacking. Board members, he says, lack the understanding of the future of media to advocate with vision. “The real cost of the board’s failure is one of a tragic loss of opportunity. When have you heard from the board about media regulations? Yet they are vital … The board doesn’t have the courage, the imagination, or the knowledge it needs to press the legitimate claims of the ABC.”

Amid all the more ephemeral gossip in the ABC canteens, a conspiracy theory is doing the rounds. It goes like this. The government plans to kill the national broadcaster by stifling its entry into the digital age. As Quentin Dempster puts it: “We will be stuffed, marooned, marginalised and irrelevant.” The audiences will drift away and at some future time it might be possible to close down the ABC without huge political cost. Lynley Marshall has heard the theory. “If you had a look at the funding restrictions and the genre restrictions in isolation you can under-stand why people run with that.” But she believes the government does value what the ABC is doing. In any case, conspiracy theories are almost always wrong.

Meanwhile Russell Balding says he is lobbying hard behind the scenes. But he will not campaign to educate the ABC’s audiences on the issue, or to rally support. “You never win those kind of battles,” he says. Sometime late this year, we will find out whether his tactics have been successful.

Is the ABC biased? Has it, through its own actions, brought government antagonism down on its head? Does it deserve what it gets? Surveys show eight out of ten respondents believe the ABC’s reporting is even-handed. Only 0.7% of complaints received by the ABC concern allegations of party political bias. But these sorts of figures have never been enough to satisfy the ABC’s critics, least of all Richard Alston. In the lead-up to the last election Balding hired media monitors Rehame to measure the “share of voice” given to each political party, and whether the mentions they received were favourable or unfavourable.

Former Media Watch presenter David Marr has pointed out that such surveys can have nothing to do with fairness. They can only measure the attention each side is getting. One side or the other might get more unfavourable mentions because they deserve it. “Balanced” is not the same thing as “impartial”. Nevertheless the Rehame results showed the ABC’s coverage was very balanced, with a difference in mentions of only 1.1% in the Coalition’s favour. The last election was the first in which the ABC received no written complaints from the campaign headquarters of any party. And yet the allegations of bias from politicians and commentators don’t go away.

The ABC’s code of editorial conduct requires staff to “present a wide range or perspectives and not unduly favour one over the others”. But staff are also told they must not be unquestioning; nor do they have to give all sides of an issue the same amount of time. It is a set of requirements fraught with implied contradiction. Kerry O’Brien says: “I am not going to defend sight unseen every single word broadcast, but I will argue until the cows come home that there is no systemic bias in this place, nor has it ever been proven, although there have been many sustained attempts to do so.”

Quentin Dempster describes the constant bias allegations as “a campaign to demonise and smear public broadcasters. We have been subjected to stereotyping and vilification.” Sue Howard says if there is any bias it is a vague “middle-classness” brought about by the background of the presenters and program-makers. “It is not party political bias.” Michael Duffy is one of very few ABC employees who argue that there is systemic bias. It comes, he believes, in program selection. Where is the Radio National show on business, for example, to balance all those that deal with social welfare? But even Duffy thinks it is nowhere near as bad as it was five years ago.

Bias is discussed, one hears, at nearly every ABC board meeting. For most of the past three years the conversation has been dominated by the slow and exhausting progress of Richard Alston’s 68 complaints of bias in the AM radio program’s Iraq war coverage. Tens of thousands of words have been written about a few words said on AM. In the wash-up, 16 of Alston’s complaints were upheld by one or other of the three-level complaints review process. At every stage, the review bodies confirmed the majority of the coverage was even-handed. “What was the point in the end?” says O’Brien. “He [Alston] expended a great deal of energy to prove very little, if anything at all.”

John Cameron, the director of news and current affairs, believes the impact of Alston’s complaints about how reporters do their work has been minimal. He concedes that reporters may be more “aware and wary”, and that some of his memos on style issues are aimed at combating lazy practices which might make the ABC open to attack. O’Brien doesn’t believe reporters have been cowed or are self-censoring, but acknowledges: “Self-censorship can be very hard to measure, and that’s why it’s insidious.”

It is impossible to point to one single occasion on which there has been clear and direct political influence on the ABC’s coverage of news and current affairs. Sometimes, though, perception is everything. People speculate about how the board influences management decisions; about the reasons for dumping particular broadcasters; about certain changes of schedule. It seems fair to say that very few ABC people feel safe.

Nor is it possible to say: here is the damage caused by lack of funding; here is the damage caused by political pressure; here is the havoc wreaked by Jonathan Shier. The ABC is a complicated organism, shrinking from discomfort here, driving forward there, with no hard lines to be drawn between passion and intellect, belief and knowledge, between rumoured and actual cases of fear and intimidation.

But since the Alston complaints, there is a new awareness of weighing words and tone of voice. I have heard that a reporter in one ABC newsroom was told recently: “What we want is bland.” I have been unable to confirm this story but it is talked about in the staff canteens. Perhaps the most significant thing about it is that it is believed.

It is hard to escape the ABC. Travelling the country, researching this story, I couldn’t switch off even when I wanted to. The car radio. My kids watching TV in the morning while I wrote. A Google search on any topic turning up pages from ABC Online. The ABC is so much a part of the landscape it is almost possible to take it for granted, to forget that it is there, and that behind those soaring atriums and in offices all over the country, there are microphones open and people behind them, TV studios, offices, word and idea factories. It is sobering to stop and reflect on how the nation would be changed if the ABC was not there.

Broadcasting services provided by an arm of government have proved more durable than banks, airlines, telephone companies and medical insurance. Some say this makes the ABC a dinosaur, in the throes of extinction. But the reason why it survives, and why politicians are cautious in dealing with it, is its massive public support. At every turn of its history, the public has shown that it values what the ABC provides. Sadly, it is probably true to say there is more quality Australian drama on commercial stations than on the ABC at present – but it is also true that the quality current events programs on commercial media can be counted on one’s thumbs. The ABC is not the only provider of quality broadcasting but it has always been the yardstick against which others are measured. Even at its weakest, the ABC reaches into every part of the Australian cultural and intellectual landscape, so that often even the lines between broadcaster and audience cannot be drawn with confidence. This is why the ABC matters. The cold way of putting it is to say it is our most important cultural institution. The truth is that it is ourselves reflected and refracted. Its problems, its strengths, mirror our own.

How does one read the entrails of the ABC and attempt to predict its future? Almost nothing can be said with confidence. By this time next year, either the funding review will be underway – perhaps even completed – or abandoned. Either the government will have lifted or modified the genre restrictions, or the ABC will remain hobbled well into the new century. Some former ABC broadcasters believe the totality of the damage done to the ABC over the past few decades is fatal, that it cannot rebound. Others point to the ABC’s many strengths, the way in which quality content is still broadcast, every hour of every day, by dedicated program-makers. “It will bounce back,” says one former executive. “It is far tougher than anyone can understand.”

As I peered behind the facades of the ABC, and as I listened to its output, three feelings dominated. There was gratitude. There was compassion. And there was a hunger for the things that aren’t there now, but could be.

One night in March I gave a talk, with others, at the Victorian Writers’ Centre. Only nine people were in the audience but Radio National was there – just. A single tired sound technician sat in the corner with a battered tape recorder, and we did our best to speak into the microphones. He apologised for the modesty of his set-up, for the fact that he needed our help. They were short-staffed, he said. Given the tinyness of our audience, I wondered if even he should be there. After all, not many people were interested. Donald McDonald had urged me to remember that the ABC is a big picture. “Not just a big picture but a whole gallery of pictures,” he said. This, too, was one of the images – a rather sad miniature.

What would it look like, I wondered, in another ten years? Perhaps little talks like mine would be available to microscopic audiences, broadcast on the internet. Or perhaps they would disappear from broadcasting altogether. Would Four Corners still exist? Would there be an ABC to commission drama and documentaries? Would there still be the ABC buildings, cathedrals to public broadcasting, the soaring ceilings, the power and the potential?

At the end of the talk, the sound technician had a problem. There was no means of getting his equipment back to the studio. A taxi was out of the question. He decided to board a tram. He wound up his cables, put his equipment into a large suitcase and disappeared, into the city night.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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