Is there room for 'idealists' on the ABC Board?

Whose ABC?, by K.S. Inglis. Black Inc, 2006. ISBN 186395189, RRP $39.95 website

Is there room for 'idealists' on the ABC Board?When I was appointed to the Board of the new ABC, I turned to the first volume of Ken Inglis' history, This is the ABC.

It was 1983, the year the Australian Broadcasting Commission became the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Inglis' book had just been published, and I read every word of it. It was an illuminating guide to the complicated and challenging institution with which I was briefly—and unsuccessfully— involved. Reading the second volume, which brings the story up to the present, is equally illuminating, though in a different way. Inglis is a magnificent historian, in full and sympathetic command of his subject. He is able to set the story of this particular institution in the context of our national history. He has done so lucidly and, on occasion, wittily.

I suppose the main difference in my reading of this volume is that for a brief time, as a member of the first Board, I was part of the story Inglis has to tell. Indeed, as he describes it, it was a turbulent time. I was part of a 'faction' unhappy with the policies and style of the Managing Director. The faction was also 'idealistic', and therefore ineffectual. All of this reflects the long perspective of the kind of history Inglis writes, and writes so admirably. He uses "observation with extensive view" to survey the whole, remarking on "each anxious toil, each eager strife", watching "the busy scenes of its crowded life".

Is there room for 'idealists' on the ABC Board?Characters parade across the stage. There are Managing Directors —Whitehead, "bull-in-the-china-shop" Hill, Shier, a one-man assault on tradition and traditionalists, Long, who "pressed all the right philosophical buttons", and Balding, a "brown cardigan man" and pacifier. They are all Chairmen—no Chairwomen—though tribute is paid to Wendy McCarthy's long and effective contribution as Deputy, like the dazzling and visionary Ken Myer at one end of the scale and the patient, effective and supportive Donald McDonald at the other. There's the passing parade of Ministers in Canberra, some supportive, some not, some intrusive, some not. Inglis also covers the ins and outs of Board politics, its impact and lack of impact of its members and the position of staff-elected member—abolished recently.

Members of staff figure also—policy makers, personalities like Phillip Adams, Geraldine Doogue and 'Macca' of Australia All Over. There are outstanding journalists like Kerry O'Brien, Chris Masters and Peter Manning. Their successes and failures, especially in the vexed area of news and current affairs are part of the story, as are international incidents such as the coverage of the first Gulf War and events in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. There are the ups-and-downs of Radio Australia, and the first ill-fated attempt to set up a television equivalent. There is also the constant pressure for ratings, bound up with the dependence on the Government of the day for funding and the perennial shortage of money which has lead to calls for advertising in the belief that it may be "a lesser evil than penury". Bound up with this are the financial and technical demands of new technology, the need to be 'all things to all people' and at the same time preserve standards, train broadcasters and provide leadership.

Is there room for 'idealists' on the ABC Board?This is no tame history, then. The ABC has always been a lively and sometimes ill-behaved beast—and Inglis captures it all. There is the tug-of-war between various interests and pressure groups and Government accusations of bias, at election times especially, or of 'left-wing bias' (which, Inglis remarks may come a failure to "distinguish between partisan political preference and watchdog vigilance"). Also included is the extraordinary, if often exasperated dedication of staff, and the respect and trust that, polls suggest, most Australians have for the ABC. That is why I would wish that, in the future, Inglis might turn sociologist or philosopher, and perhaps even theologian, and reflect more deeply on this strange institution, "like and unlike a church, a theatrical company, a newspaper business, and, on a drastic view, an asylum run by the inmates", which is nevertheless the "glue of the nation" and explore what its continuing existence against all the odds has to tell us about us and our values and purposes as a people?



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