For some fifteen years there has been a gradual expansion of the influence of Marxists and Marxist ideas in the ABC. The source and focus of this influence has been the ABC’s Department of Special Projects (Radio) which is now known as the Department of Radio Talks and Documentaries.
Incredibly, the main department in the ABC which concerns itself primarily with the role of ideas in our society, particularly the role of political ideas, has been, since its inception, a vehicle for Marxist and neo-Marxist propaganda clearly hostile to the values and institutions of liberal democracy. Over the years, the Marxist presence has spread throughout the ABC and is now a major force in many of the key areas of the ABC, including its union and management structures.
It is the contention of this article that this development has been assisted, no doubt unwittingly, by the abysmal failure of the ABC’s management and its Commission, over an extended period, to take the necessary action to halt a process which is obviously so destructive to the democratic well-being of our society. At the very least, it demonstrates a remarkably myopic evaluation of the importance of ideas to a healthy democracy on the part of management and the Commission.
It is important at this stage to get clear what is at issue. The primary problem with such radio programs as Lateline, Broadband and their successor programs Doubletake and Background Briefing, and to a lesser extent such television programs as Nationwide and Four Corners, is not their allegedly forthright and brave explorations of the world and the “frontiers of knowledge” but rather their persistent bias in favour of ideas, values and contributors whose primary function is to legitimise political values of the left to far left, while devaluing and discrediting ideas and values of a more moderate and conservative character.
This essay was first published in Quadrant‘s January-February 1983 edition
This left ideological influence has been reinforced by the manipulation of the bureaucratic and employment structures of the ABC which has had the net effect of precluding even the possibility, in many program areas of the ABC, of a regime of genuine intellectual pluralism and open debate. The clear antipathy to open debate in ABC programming (be it radio or TV, and TV is certainly the worst in that regard) is, I believe, directly explicable in terms of the successive failures of management and the Commission to provide intellectual leadership of any kind. This failure is especially reflected in the apparent lack of any genuine quality control in the recruitment and promotion of program makers.
Above all, there is precious little evidence that management or the Commission has shown any awareness of the overriding significance of program content. Far too much attention has been paid to grand schemes, the importance of appearances and the trivia of the moment. Much of this neglect can, I believe, be sheeted home to the haphazard choice of Commissioners in the past and the single-minded careerism of certain managers. Office politics and the political power games of the bureaucratic machine have had the effect of blinding senior management to the central importance of that other realm of politics which looks at the ideological content of programs, their depth, drift and range. This is especially the case in the crucial areas of current affairs, news and talks programs, the very areas of the ABC’s primary responsibility, as the Dix Inquiry recently, and very properly, reminded us.
But let us begin. In order to understand how the Marxist infiltration of our national broadcasting service came about it is necessary to go back in time. The key figure in the whole story is Allan Ashbolt. He is mainly responsible for creating and nurturing what I interpret as the Marxist ethos in so many program-making departments of the ABC, especially in his own department, now known as the Department of Radio Talks and Documentaries.
I PROPOSE here to tell the story as it developed and was reported in the press. The story begins with the career of Allan Ashbolt and proceeds apace as we follow his activities in the Special Projects Department, the consolidation of his power and influence and the spread of ideas which I argue can be properly designated “Marxist ideas” into a whole range of programs and departments throughout the ABC, all accompanied by the promotion and migration of his recruits, appropriately referred to in the National Times as “Ashbolt’s Kindergarten”, into positions of power and influence within the ABC’s program, union and management structures.
To make this complex story manageable, and to set out the context which allowed it to happen, I take the following issues in order:
- The importance of Allan Ashbolt, his ideological commitment and his influence;
- The importance of situating the home of this Marxist diaspora within Ashbolt’s Department of Special Projects and pinpointing the central role of the present Department of Radio Talks and Documentaries;
- The development by Ashbolt and his allies of techniques amounting to those of “worker control” within the ABC.
- Finally, what can be done to redress the damage.
1. Allan Ashbolt first emerged as a controversial figure on the national stage after his return in 1961 from New York where he had spent three years as an ABC correspondent. A former actor, he joined the ABC in 1954 as a talks assistant. On his return from the United States he published, in 1966, An American Experience. The book is primarily a condemnation of the evils of American society. If nothing else, he clearly picked up in America, assuming he didn’t already have it, a profound disdain for American traditions and public values. At one stage in the book he suggests that America was on the verge of being swept away in a whirlwind of anti-Semitic hatred. He then draws a comparison between America and Russia in their treatment of Jews, with the former coming off unfavourably.
What stands out in that book, besides its unrelenting denigration of “the American Way of Life”, is its bias in favour of the Soviet Union and Soviet leaders when compared with their American counterparts. On the subject of disarmament, he tells us:
What cannot be denied is that the Soviet Union, through its mass communications media, puts continuing stress on the desirability of peace. I am not saying that the Soviet Union is more “peace loving” than the United States. I am rather saying that the Soviet Union seems to be less “war-oriented”.
This first book provides a fascinating insight into the nature of Ashbolt’s “world-view”. He clearly has a image of himself as a perennial dissenter, a reluctant sojourner in the bourgeois world of the West, forever aware that “authenticity” lies somewhere else.
There are several vignettes in the book in which he unwittingly suggests the home of his true sympathies. He makes great play, for instance, of a New York television discussion program in which he participated in the early ’sixties, with the Soviet leader Khrushchev as the guest of honour. The program, chaired by the well-known American talk show host David Susskind, was interrupted at one point by an advertisement for Radio Free Europe. Not surprisingly, this annoyed Khrushchev and obviously horrified Ashbolt. Ashbolt’s assessment of what happened is revealing:
Everyone claimed ignorance, even David Susskind himself. I can well believe that only the sponsors and the station’s management were in the know. This, the Russians should learn, is the way many of our Western type conspiracies occur. We get sucked unwittingly into intrigue. [my emphasis] (p. 225)
The devil theory of Communism was predominant that night. One contributor, James Weschler, gave me a far-off tolerant smile as though to suggest that he had discarded such wild, radical notions twenty years before, when he left the young Communist party. (p. 256)
Some other quotes from the book:
On the Cuban Missile crisis: “In the first vital showdown on anti-communism in the Western Hemisphere, the USA was the Champion of imperialism.” (p. 262)
On bias: “This raises the whole question of bias in the American press. I have no objection to bias, so long as the reporter or commentator is himself—and this is the point—unaware of his bias. If he believes in his own objectivity, that is enough. (p. 273)
Mr Ashbolt has a way with the press. From my researches for this article, I have no doubt that of all the 6000-odd individuals who work at the ABC, Ashbolt took up more column inches in the press then any other. Part of this is explained by the fact that he has been a most public and vocal “public servant”, greatly assisted by his habit of always having another “hat” other than his ABC one which he could use to justify his public outspokenness while employed as a “public servant”. His two most commonly used “hats” at public meetings were President of the ABC Senior Officers Association and President of the Returned Servicemen’s Human Rights Association.
In 1975 Ashbolt had another book published titled An Australian Experience which, like his earlier book, has the same mixture of crackerjack Marxism, radical chic polemics and unabashed self-importance.
In the book he gives us a clear idea of how he sees the American alliance:
The ANZUS Treaty of 1951 was, in my view, partly a neurotic hangover from the Korean war, partly an American payoff for Australian compliance with the Japanese Peace Treaty. (p. 76)
The US bases have for the first time turned Australia into a potential target and aggravated the chances of Australia becoming a nuclear target hostage. (p. 78)
The problem for Australia is that most American influence comes by way of business and the military, which scarcely represent the best in American life.
The historian Michael Cannon reviewed the book in the Age (April 5, 1975):
With the remaining citadels of South Vietnamese power now under daily attack, and a final communist victory in sight, we should face up to the hard question of whether we were right in demanding an Australian-American withdrawal. Ashbolt’s answer is unequivocal. Capitalism, he says, amounts in the end to murder. US forces were only in Vietnam as part of its worldwide economic imperialism. Australia was only hanging on to Uncle Sam’s coattails … The gathered forces of the Western World are surely just as entitled (as the communist world) to fight for the preservation of their methods, which in many ways have done more for mankind than most radical writers seem willing to admit … Under this system Mr Ashbolt himself can organise anti-Government movements without being shot, is able to write and publish his book without being treated like a Solzhenitsyn, and has been given a marked degree of economic security (although a Government employee, his sustenance ultimately comes from capitalist enterprise).
Professor Henry Mayer, in an otherwise curiously favourable review of Ashbolt’s book, could write in the Australian (March 17, 1975) (referring to one essay in the book addressed to Ashbolt’s son):
It is full of what Ashbolt vaguely believes to be some kind of neo-Hegelian Marxism or neo-Marxist Hegelianism, historical destinies, false consciousness and guilt feelings about the old car while the masses starve in Asia, all get mixed into indigestible goo … Dr Cairns recently called it the best book of political analysis for a very long time or words to that effect. That is an absurd judgment. As you read, you cannot but wonder what sort of world Ashbolt thinks he is living in. There is something grotesque about his basic inability to differentiate between the importance and meaning of death rates among Aboriginal babies, a cut in a letter to a newspaper, an attack on demonstrators by the police, the censoring of Four Corners and the position of despair of most of the globe. [My emphasis]
In the early 1960s Ashbolt worked as a program director for Four Corners but was removed in 1964 after he put on a controversial report on the RSL. He later claimed his removal was an example of how the ABC censors program makers. On leaving Four Corners Ashbolt was Federal Talks Supervisor (Topical) and for some years from 1964 was President of the Senior Officers Association. In his latter capacity he spoke regularly at anti‑Vietnam and anti-conscription rallies.
In March 1967, shortly after being made Head of Special Projects (Television), Ashbolt made a speech attacking the Government’s Vietnam policy. According to the report in the Melbourne Sun (March 28, 1967), Ashbolt said that the war had become one symbolised by the killing and mutilation of women and children and that militarism had gained such a grip on Australian society that government was becoming a military activity. He also claimed that “ASIO [was] one of the main props of militarist government.” The ABC general manager, Talbot Duckmanton, expressed concern and then forgiveness: “I intend to look into the whole matter … I want to make it clear that whatever Mr Ashbolt said had nothing at all to do with his official position with the Commission.”
The following month he spoke to a “peace rally” in Sydney; large extracts of his speech were reported in the Communist party newspaper Tribune (April 12, 1967). He was quoted as telling the audience that “We should not be surprised that the United States has found ways of burning the image of Western man on the bodies of Asian peasants”.
In 1969, after a few more controversies, Ashbolt was “kicked sideways” from Television Special Projects to the position of Director Radio Special Projects.
Although there was the occasional row with the management, overall he seems to have got on well with Duckmanton. According to the Advertiser (October 10, 1976), Ashbolt was issued with a notice of dismissal from Duckmanton for continuing to write for the New Statesman against ABC rules but Duckmanton “withdrew it when Ashbolt told [Duckmanton] his writing was part of his political activity and the ABC had no right to interfere with it … Since then [Ashbolt] and Duckmanton have managed to co-exist.”
It is interesting, and possibly revealing, that Ashbolt has of late (particularly in two long articles in the Age review section) heaped great praise on Duckmanton’s record as ABC general manager, noting his “flexibility” and “tolerance”. “By comparison with [Clement] Semmler, his [Duckmanton’s] academic qualifications were meagre, but he had worked successfully in sports, special events (eg the Coronation) and general announcing.” (Age, May 9, 1981)
But for all these brushes with authority, Ashbolt never let up on his outside political activities and was for several years in the 1970s an active member of the ALP’s Arts and Media Policy Committee. (According to Ashbolt, in the Age article quoted above, it was the intervention on his behalf of two members of that committee, Neville Wran and Senator James McClelland, which “settled” Ashbolt’s “conflict” with the ABC Commissioners in the early 1970s.) He continued to speak out at public meetings. On October 3, 1976, for instance, he spoke in Melbourne for an organisation calling itself the National Conference for an Independent and Non-Aligned Australia.
Before an audience of several hundred, the ABC’s Director of Special Projects, responsible for most of the political discussion programs on ABC radio, gave the following reading of our history and constitution:
I think we should beware of arguments, even now sponsored by some legalists on the left, that Kerr’s action was in essence a betrayal of the intentions of the Founding Fathers. In my view, Kerr’s action carried out those intentions with a clarity and ruthlessness of purpose that the so-called Founding Fathers (who were, for the most part, a ripe old bourgeois bunch of political scallywags, scoundrels, hypocrites, careerists, tainted idealists and bargain-basement visionaries) would have commended. Make no mistake, the Constitution was devised to protect the interests, property, business and commerce of the ruling class. Significantly, about the only freedom it guarantees is the freedom of interstate trade …
If there is to be any continuing expression of rage, it needs to he directed not only against the Governor-General and the monarchical principle which he enshrines but against the ruling class conspiracy, of which the Governor-General’s coup was the culmination. The threat to democratic rights emanates, as always, from the ruling class, and one of our tasks in the immediate future should be to identify its elements, expose its contradictions and attack its weaknesses. [My emphasis] (Tharunka, October 27, 1976)
So that the reader has no doubt as to the ideological thrust of that speech, it is instructive to note that towards the end of it he praises North Korea, “a country I know fairly well and for which I have some affection and admiration. Also, it is a country which has tried to make a social philosophy out of self-reliance and non-alignment.”
2. It would appear that Ashbolt assumed the role of guru for a team of acolytes which diffused a particular brand of redemptive Marxism. From its formation in 1969, the Department of Special Projects was the home of a thrust within the ABC which, when analysed, is of a Marxist character. Out of this department came the ABC’s most radical programs, as well as the individual program makers and presenters, some of whom took their radicalism to other departments, and almost all of whom, following the classic principles of “worker control”, became some of the most prominent members of the ABC Staff Association (the staff union) as well as providing the dominant influence on the ABC’s Boards of Management.
In a long and most revealing article on the Special Projects Department in the National Times (July 22-27, 1974), that organ of the trendy left and the closest equivalent of the Department of Special Projects in the contemporary Australian print media, it is clear that the whole of that Department was dedicated to roughly similar goals. By recruiting most of his own producers, Ashbolt ended up with a de facto intellectual closed shop, a situation which continues to a lesser extent in its successor department, Radio Talks and Documentaries. From their own statements and their comments on air, there seems little doubt that the Department’s program makers found themselves, generally, ideologically compatible, and to the perceptive observer they appear on a scale from far left Trotskyite, taking in staid Stalinism, and ending up with simple, common or garden virulent anti-Americanism.
Most of them have stayed in the ABC and many have risen to positions of considerable influence and status. In order to convey the ideological flavour of those days, I will quote a selection of comments from that discussion with the producers of Special Projects in the National Times:
Peter Fry (Executive Producer of Lateline): “The left wing bias charge is an old cliché. I’d concede that Lateline wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Labor Government, but I’d rather Allan Ashbolt told you that. For that matter it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Allan Ashbolt.
Yes, if Lateline is still innovative in two years, that will be a tragedy for ABC radio. I see Lateline as having another year, then its type of material will be spread over the whole range of programs. [My emphasis]
Ashbolt: “We can discuss on Lateline ideas that three years ago would have been regarded not only as heretical, but subversive. And Lateline has broken down the ABC convention—and it was always a false convention—of balance. Five years ago it would have been unthinkable to have three people discussing an issue, and all of them to be left-wingers …”
Mark Aarons: “I don’t think any of us here would tend to think we want to be ‘balanced’. Because of this Ashbolt thing within the ABC establishment, it would be madness for us to put on right-wingers except in exceptional circumstances.”
Liz Fell: “Make sure you get all the speakers right because we’ve got a Maoist, a communist, an anarchist and Heaven knows what here, so don’t mix them up …” (This, by the way, was when the department had a Sydney establishment of six producers.)
The reporter for that story, John Edwards, wrote the following sympathetic but shrewd assessment of Ashbolt within the ABC:
Allan Ashbolt is the lion of the ABC left. He was mauled in the bad old days before December 1972. The ABC blunted his claws by putting him in charge of Radio Special Projects, and giving special projects minuscule air time. But Allan Ashbolt is a wily old cat who could claim, with some satisfaction, to have inflicted a great deal more damage on the ABC establishment than they have been able to inflict on him … The Ashbolt pride of intelligent left-wingers who have, over the years, stalked out of radio special projects into the ABC is a great achievement in effecting his own idea of “balance”, not in his programs but in the ABC as a whole. [My emphasis]
The really striking measure of the absurd “tolerance” of ABC management towards the Marxist hegemony in the production of talks and ideas programs in the ABC is the career of Mr Jon “Darce” Cassidy, a Maoist and former revolutionary activist with secondary students and university students in Sydney and Melbourne in the late ’sixties and early ’seventies, all of which he engaged in while on the ABC payroll. No doubt he has calmed down a good bit since those heady days but his recent signature in support for the “Gang of Four”, and his membership on the committee of 3CR radio station in Melbourne, “the voice of terrorism”, suggests that he is still a curious chap to be making radio programs on the ABC, especially ideas programs. It is, presumably, a measure of senior management’s estimation of the importance of ideas programs, and of Melbourne listeners, that Mr Cassidy should have held the position of Supervisor, Radio Talks, Melbourne, for seven years now.
As with so many other things, we have Ashbolt to thank for the recruitment of Cassidy, of whom he speaks so warmly in his book An Australian Experience. According to Ashbolt, writing in 1974, “Cassidy himself has since become a target for right-wing vilification because of his closeness to the Worker Student Alliance.” (p. 17) The Alliance was a Maoist group led by Cassidy during the Moratorium days.
As Ashbolt put it in an interview, “I think I would call myself a Marxist” (Herald, October 8, 1976); it is not surprising, therefore, that he should have been one of the first directors of the radical think-tank in Sydney that specialises in the publication of neo-Marxist anti-American propaganda, the Transnational Co-operative, linked to the left-wing Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies, the source of so many ideas and contributors to past Broadband programs and present Doubletake programs. The NSW Staff Association is a group member of the Transnational Co-operative and sends a delegate to its meetings.
3. At the heart of the problem posed by the left hegemony within the ABC is the chaotic state of statutory boards and appeals systems which frustrate any attempt at change in the crucial area of appointments, promotions and transfers. Of particular concern is the power of the Staff Association within the ABC, which has become an increasingly politicised organisation permeated as it is with political activists who have, for the most part, served their political apprenticeship in Ashbolt’s department.
At the end of a strike in 1978, the Federal Council of ABC Staff Association, the main industrial union for ABC employees, announced that:
Whenever we work, whatever we do, we have recognised that in the end, the ABC does not belong to the Commission, to the management, to the government. The ABC is for the public and the custodians are the staff.
The “Worker Control” idea, as understood by the left, is primarily a tool for political change rather than industrial arbitration and, as far as the Conciliation and Arbitration Act is concerned, it is an improper priority for any union registered under that Act. What’s more, “worker control” is diametrically opposed to the provisions of the Broadcasting and Television Act which clearly stipulates that the Commissioners are the ABC.
The radicalisation of the ABC Staff Association started in the early 1970s. In June 1970 a meeting of some 400 members of the three main organisations of ABC employees, the AJA (members of which can also belong to the Staff Association), the Staff Association and the ABC Senior Officers Association, met in Sydney. According to the description of the meeting, as reported in the Communist newspaper Tribune (June 3, 1970):
What must be noted by every section of the democratic movement is that a powerful body of mass media employees are setting their sights on a struggle, an intervention, aimed at weakening the bureaucratic grip of the ABC and carving out a struggle that relates to the possibilities of development of counter culture, in opposition to the dominant culture of capitalism.
Two years later Canberra Survey (October 20, 1972), noted that
one … factor important in the whole operation of the ABC is the role of the revitalised union, the ABC Staff Association, which has long been rather tame and dominated by clerks and engineers … [however] midway through last year general frustration with management and the staff association spawned a new mini union called RAM, or Radio Active Movement, centred on Special Projects Radio Department. RAM seems to have taken over the Staff Association. RAM’s Marius Webb has become President and there are three other RAM men on the executive. Mr Webb, who is in his mid-twenties, started with the ABC a few years ago as a trainee in Current Affairs, but by an administrative accident found himself working for Mr Allan Ashbolt. (Note: Webb became the first and only staff representative on the Commission in the ’seventies. Webb was very much in the Ashbolt camp and in 1978 went on record with an irreverent assessment of his then fellow Commissioners. One remark is of particular interest: “Management basically controls the [Commission’s] agenda, which is very cunning.) [National Times, September 23, 1978].
Members of “Ashbolt’s kindergarten” first started moving into the Staff Association in 1971 and by the mid-1970s were in virtually complete control. We observe the steady politicisation of the Staff Association, from an industrial union primarily concerned with pay and conditions of its members, into a highly active vehicle for the radical left to push their schemes of “worker control”, total autonomy for producers over program content and a confrontationalist stance vis-à-vis management and the Commission.
Ashbolt, who had himself been President of the Senior Officers Association in the ’sixties and an occasional industrial advocate for that Association, had very definite ideas on the subject of “worker control”. In 1974, he wrote in The Australian Experience (p.58):
Essentially, journalistic standards are made by employers, who may or may not be journalists. I would like to see the union venturing into job control, spearheaded by professionals concerned with the dissemination of ideas and values …
For too long the union principle has been one of merely reacting to the decisions of employers; now is the moment for a more creative role. Meanwhile, the fight against the penal clauses must be continued, not only by words and protests but by the action of those unionists who are courageous enough knowingly to break the law … Perhaps unionism will be revitalised, intellectually and tactically, by today’s student activists. [My emphasis]
In the light of this, it is interesting to consider some of the career of one of those former student activists, Jon “Darce” Cassidy, acting Supervisor of Radio Talks, Melbourne. Formerly Secretary of the NSW Staff Association, Cassidy was elected to the key post of Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the ABC Staff Association three months ago. A few months before that he was elected staff representative on the Victorian Management Committee. Cassidy is now part of the ABC management structure in Victoria, privy to the decision-making process at the highest level; still, I believe, acting Supervisor of Talks in Melbourne and thus in an executive management position; and, for good measure, as Secretary of the Victorian branch of the Staff Association, he is the most important officer of the ABC’s main industrial union in Victoria. For the record, in November 1975 Cassidy addressed a leaflet to all ABC staff in Victoria and called for a general strike to bring the ABC to a stop in protest over the Whitlam sacking, falsely claiming that the NSW branch of the Staff Association had voted for a strike.
Another Ashbolt protégé, Michael Cosby, has also been active (Delegate to the Federal Council, NSW Branch Treasurer 1976, President NSW Branch 1976-78, presently Deputy Officer’s Representative on the Disciplinary Appeals Board). In June 1976 Cosby told the union Federal Council that he saw the long-term aim of the Staff Association to be that of partner with the Commission, with management as an arm of the Commission.
It is important to note that the radical left who dominate the ABC Staff Association have been quite explicit about their strategic intentions. During the Special Federal Conference in 1974, the following resolution was passed:
That this Conference recommends to Staff Association members a policy of positive and widespread campaign to introduce worker control throughout all branches of the ABC. These include:
1 Staff’s right to vote on all Executive appointments including the General Manager;
2 Staff’s right to vote on program or departmental policy decisions made at the Executive level;
3 The Staff Association to provide at least half of the members of all committees, working parties, boards or any other type of decision-making body that may be set up by the ABC.
The Staff Association representatives to be elected by their peers.
4 The Staff of the ABC to elect at least 50% of the membership of the Commission. The Chairman to be elected by the Commission.
5 Any representatives as elected in (3) and (4) above to have equal powers and rights with other members;
6 Such representatives to have complete access to all relevant information; and
7 Such representatives to be subject to recall and obliged to report back to their electors.
If one looks at the make-up of the Staff Association in NSW, the largest and most important branch, given that Sydney is the ABC’s Head Office, the branch executive has been dominated since the early 1970s by Ashbolt protégés who had all at one time been through the Special Projects (or Talks) Department. Two of the most political Ashbolt protégés, Cassidy and Mark Aarons, both producers in the Talks Department, are now the most politically prominent members of the management boards as well as holding high office in the Staff Association (Cassidy as Secretary in Victoria, Aarons as Vice-President in NSW). The two main branches of the Staff Association, Victoria than two-thirds of the total membership, are now dominated by the far left.
If one looks at the larger list of Ashbolt’s kindergarten—Peter Fry, Robyn Ravlich, Aarons, Malcolm Long (Ashbolt’s successor as Head of Talks and now Head of Radio, Victoria), Patti Orofino, Liz Fell, Julie Rigge, Cosby, Tom Molomby (currently President NSW Branch, Rep. Disciplinary Appeals Board), Marius Webb, Cassidy, Kathy Gollan, Alexandra Butler, Sue Slamen—all of them have held elected office at some time and many of them have held several offices almost continuously. For one of the smallest departments in the ABC, approximately twelve producers nationwide, Special Projects (now Radio Talks and Documentaries), has had a truly remarkable impact especially when one remembers that the Staff Association has a membership of some 4000 throughout the ABC.
It is not as if the Staff Association in the ABC was just any old union. Compared with almost any other branch of the public service, the ABC has handed over more power to the Staff Association than has any other public body to any union. For instance, whenever applicants for a position in the ABC include a permanent employee of the ABC and a temporary employee or an external applicant, the Staff Association provides a nominee for that interviewing or selection board. With two other members of the selection board, selections are made by majority decision and their recommendations go forward to the approving delegate and are usually accepted without fuss.
The Promotions Appeal Board also has a nominee from the Staff Association, or the Senior Officers Association when appropriate, along with two other members. The Disciplinary Appeal Board is another of these statutory bodies; its function is to adjudicate on matters involving breaches of conduct and can include dismissals. It has an outside chairman, a permanent employee of the ABC appointed by the ABC and a permanent employee elected for a three-year term by ABC permanent employees. Talks Department people haven’t lost any time here either. Tom Molomby, presently a talks officer and one of the more prominent left-wing activists in the ABC, is presently the employee representative, with Michael Cosby, of Talks, in place as Deputy Officer’s Representative. The Board may deal with appeals by employees against 1) management findings of misconduct and 2) management decisions to transfer or dismiss a permanent employee. It is virtually impossible, for instance, to transfer an unwilling employee to another job within the ABC (at the same pay) without facing the distinct probability of a procedural nightmare of tribunals and hearings. The ABC rarely ever tries. The last two cases heard in the Victorian Branch of the ABC took place about fifteen years ago.
The ABC’s Board of Management also has elected staff representatives. These representatives usually know more about what is happening in the ABC, even in the management sphere, than the Commission and sometimes they know even more than senior management itself. Needless to say, their strategic position gives them considerable power to influence decisions. The current elected representative for radio on the Board, Mark Aarons, “reports back” to staff by way of a monthly newsletter which is often used to fire off broadsides at the Commission. The ABC house journal, Scan, also provides a page for the elected representatives of the management Board. Aarons, as a result of all of this elaborate apparatus is, at the age of thirty, one of the most powerful men in the ABC. Presumably he must now see at least some merit in “bourgeois democracy”, despite his regular anti-American, anti-Western and anti-capitalist contributions to Radio Talks programming. He has, at least since 1977, ceased his financial contributions to the Communist newspaper Tribune.
4. What is to be done? The Government has a golden opportunity at the moment to perform the major operation on old Aunty that has been long overdue, that is, if it is prepared to grasp the nettle. Alas, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Bill (1982), which is presently before Parliament, is quite inadequate given the seriousness of the problem.
What ails the ABC, above all, is legalistic and bureaucratic strangulation. Staff are no longer effectively accountable to management, nor is management to the Commission. As much as the Commission might like to think it can impose its will on the organisation, the sad but inescapable truth is, it can’t. It hasn’t the means by which to give effect to its policies and, even when it tries, it is invariably subverted by the deathly inertia bred by a truly horrific maze of procedural and legal obstacles. No genuinely creative and imaginative broadcasting system can long survive without the administrative flexibility which such creativity demands and which the present ABC so obviously lacks.
The story which I have just outlined is just one consequence, albeit an extremely serious one, of the glaring inadequacies of the present structures and procedures of the ABC.
The Bill before Parliament has been lauded by the Minister for its break with the Public Service Board. But what has been missed by almost everyone is the plethora of public-service-type provisions and constraints that are still to be found in the Bill and which will ensure that Aunty’s present terminal ailments will simply be disguised rather than cured.
The Bill should be radically rewritten before being passed. The Government should scrap all provisions for staff-elected representatives relating to appointments, promotions, transfers and dismissals. These decisions should rest with management, and particularly with the Commission, which, unlike management, is accountable to Parliament and the public.
The quality of senior management will also have to be improved, and the most effective way of doing that is to advertise openly for candidates outside the ABC with a preference for people who can demonstrate intellectual agility and seriousness and maybe even a touch of adventurousness. Also, there is a strong argument for appointing such people on five-year renewable contracts.
The same should apply for positions lower down the scale. Positions for such crucial positions as producers should also be openly advertised, initially with an eye to breaking up the ideological “group-think” quality of far too many departments in the ABC, most obviously found in the Department of Talks and Documentaries but also characteristic of other departments such as the Religious department, Drama and Features, and Television Public Affairs. Only then are we likely to see a real break in the cycle of intellectual sterility and mediocrity which characterises so many program and administrative departments in the present ABC.
Interestingly enough, the only aspect of the new ABC Bill which has come in for sustained criticism from the far-left-dominated staff associations and pressure groups is that part of the Bill dealing with a proposed Commissioner of Complaints (Part 8), and it is the only section that has undergone major change in its passage through Parliament so far. If nothing else, the left’s apparent satisfaction with the rest of the Bill should give pause for thought.
But what stands out as the most disturbing aspect of the new ABC Bill is the clear shift in the balance of power from the Commission (or Board) to the ABC’s chief executive and public servant, designated Managing Director (MD) in the Bill. As recently as July 4 of last year the Minister for Communications, Mr Neil Brown, assured us that “The Government is of the view that it is for the Board to determine which officers should be appointed by it, and which should be appointed to senior management.” (Scan, July 12-August 2, 1982).
The ABC Bill now before Parliament reverses this stated position. It clearly vests enormous new powers with the proposed Managing Director over a wide range of area, most importantly in the area of appointments, powers presently vested in the Commission. Sections 33, 36, 38, 42 and 45 of the Bill bestow powers over appointments to the MD which are presently within the power of the Commission. The MD’s, or chief executive’s, position is most notably enhanced in the new Bill by his inclusion on the Board as a voting member, making him the only “executive Director” on the Board. Given his full-time managerial status, plus his new statutory powers, he will without doubt have the preponderance of effective power within the new ABC structure.
So what’s wrong with all that, one might ask? What is wrong, I would suggest, is that the enhanced powers of the Managing Director go close to rendering the new Board even more constrained and remote from the power realities of the ABC than the present Commission, which is already too constrained and remote.
More importantly, and this is a consideration that should concern all true democrats in the Parliament regardless of party, the new provisions undermine the whole principle of the democratic accountability of the ABC by divesting the Board, which is directly accountable to Parliament, of many of its key powers and prerogatives and investing them in a bureaucracy which has, in the past, shown itself to be effectively unaccountable and distinctly secretive. If the record is anything to go by, the ABC’s management has always followed the course of least resistance when faced with a challenge from the militant staff associations within the ABC.
I would suggest that the MD should not be on the Board; rather, the Board should be more closely involved and informed of the day-to-day running of the ABC through a secretariat directly accountable to the Board, a proposal put forward by the Minister for Communications in July but not, I notice, explicitly provided for in the new Bill (“The Government believes that the ABC should create a secretariat to serve the Board and report directly to the Chairman.” Scan, July 12-August 2, 1982).
Finally, if we are ever to get on top of the ABC, its Marxist-dominated staff associations and its lack-lustre senior management, and ensure its accountability to Parliament and the public in the central area of programming content, the first priority must be to democratise its structures by making the Board, and preferably a smaller and more flexible Board than the one envisaged, unreservedly the ABC’s supreme policy maker. Such a desired result requires the urgent amendment of the present ABC Bill.