In the thirty-five years since Alex Dix put his intellectual pipe-cleaner through the ABC, the national broadcaster’s intellectual, ethical and journalistic debasements have only grown worse. Alas, we cannot expect reform from a timid government and its Q&A-loving leader
Editor’s note: Retired ABC journalist Geoffrey Luck never held any real hope he would be called upon to deliver this year’s ABC memorial address, an honour that went to perpetual irritant and celebrated sophist Waleed Aly. Having never won a Gold Logie, the apogee of intellectual achievement for Australia’s low-rise luvvies, Luck just wasn’t in the running. Below, the speech he would have delivered.
Having left broadcasting so many years ago, being asked to give this lecture is utterly unexpected and about as humbling as it gets. Indeed, too intimidating a request to accept, too huge an honour to decline.
Lert me begin by saying that Andrew Olle and I weren’t contemporaries at the ABC; well, we were, but not for long. We passed, as it were, in the night. Some might say that as I left, I passed in his shadow; others hold a contrary view – that he passed in mine, and did not notice. The enduring memory I have of him is that expertly affected frown, as if his responsibility in front of the camera was to reflect, with exquisite sympathy, the world-weariness of us all. With that frown and the slightly sardonic curl of the lip, he brought gravitas to Four Corners. Until then the flagship programme had been struggling to overcome a dented reputation for juvenile exposures, sneering attacks on national icons and too frequent defamations.
But Andrew’s contribution to Four Corners was in fact only facadeism. An earlier sort of Caroline Jones (brought out of superannuation to front Australian Sob Story), he contributed nothing but the introductory lines, which could have been written by any cadet (they still existed then). His more substantial contribution was on radio, a medium I always preferred for its subtlety and ability to focus the mind on intellectually important issues, compared with the showbiz flashiness of television.
May I digress? When I was at school and studying Shakespeare, I used to listen to his plays on ABC radio with headphones on my crystal set. I tried to convince my English master that in the modern world, the Bard should best be thought of as writing for radio, instead of the stage. With radio, the imagination could be given full rein, as was required in the Globe, instead of having scenes created for you. I was right, of course, but the idea didn’t catch.
The point about Olle on radio is that the medium truly revealed his brilliance. Even the untrained ear could detect his sneer. When handling talkback callers on controversial subjects, his obvious partiality made typical ABC listeners feel comfortably at home. When a rare dissident opinion got to air, listeners at home bristled with Andrew and silently applauded his dismissive “Indeed!” as he shut down the conversation and moved to the next caller.
Every morning on 2BL Andrew would chat with his friend, Canberra political correspondent Paul Lyneham about parliamentary affairs. It was compulsory listening for anyone interested in the machinations of government. But Olle was merely the wall against which Paul launched his verbal volleys, lobs and occasional smashes. His sharp mind cut through the pretentiousness of politicians and brought a new dimension to Canberra coverage. We didn’t see anything like it until Matt Price started his column in The Australian.
The difference the daily 2BL exchanges underlined was Lyneham’s breadth, international experience and long practice as a journalist of integrity. And the contrast with Olle’s limited range. Paul had been one of my two reporters when I was the ABC’s London Editor, circa 1970 and 1971. That posting honed his television skills at a time when the News division offered few outlets for reporting in vision.
There’s an unknown story that illustrates Paul’s natural flair for just the right dramatic impact. When Australia was about to build a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay, there was a public outcry about radioactive risk. British Nuclear Fuels was awarded the contract and offered the ABC a tour of one of its reactors to report objectively on atomic power generation. I sent Paul to Sellafield, where he began his report with a piece to camera hile standing on the cap of the reactor to show there was nothing to be afraid of. Sadly, Billy McMahon killed the project and that Lyneham report never went to air.
Andrew Olle had begun his career as a cadet journalist, and in due course worked on the 7.30 Report, Nationwide and A Big Country, as well as the Radio 2BL morning programme. Undoubtedly he would have been sent on one of those prestigious overseas postings but for his tragic death from a malignant brain tumour at the age of 47.
I was living in Italy when I heard the news. What shocked me even more than his demise was the extravagance of grief by the ABC community. Programmes went into mourning for days, like the death of George VI. NSW Premier Bob Carr, once an ABC journalist, moved a condolence motion in the Parliament. The annual lecture was established a year later. Many of the twenty-one people who have delivered the lecture have been journalists, all of them more senior or accomplished than he, a notable tribute to his reputation and memory.
What made Olle so important to the ABC? There had been hundreds, perhaps thousands of better journalists, and more innovative broadcasters, in the organisation’s history. Certainly, his sudden tragic death came as a dramatic interruption to a promising career. But there had been other deaths in service – Tony Joyce, 33, ambushed in Zambia; Paul Moran killed in Iraq, Neil Davis, who survived Vietnam only to lose his life to random shrapnel in a petty Bangkok coup; director Patricia Ludford and cameraman Frank Parnell, who went down in a helicopter crash at Sydney’s Circular Quay. I’d worked with Frank. Professional to the end, he kept his camera running as the aircraft spun to his death. That footage is now on YouTube.
But it was far more than that. Andrew was no Keats, he left no things of beauty. No, he had become the poster-boy around whom all the fashionable post-modernist, politically correct and multiculturalist causes were beginning to coalesce. He was the prophet who showed the way to insinuate the cultural beliefs of progressives into programmes, and get away with it.
Back two decades ago, the ABC still had pretensions to integrity. There was still discipline of sorts, and training, and news bulletins went to air with traditional news values determining the headlines. For those who found fault, there was a comprehensive complaints system with an external panel of review.
Six months after Olle’s death, the Howard government’s communications minister, Richard Alston, announced a budget cut of 2%, to be followed by a further 10% for 1997-8. Militancy was ignited with a round of stop-work meetings. It was the beginning of the “Bolshie” period — aggressive staff action to challenge board and management decisions while insisting on programming independence. Its culmination was the campaign to force out reforming managing director Jonathan Shier and the first 24-hour strike to put the national broadcaster off the air.
In the bland, four-year stint of Russell Balding, promoted from chief accountant, the subversive forces made steady progress, assisted by the concentration of all staff in the new combined broadcasting centre at Ultimo. Incidents of bias and lack of balance, particularly in news and current affairs programmes increased. There were many outrages, but the highlight was Senator Alston’s 68-point complaint about bias in the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq war. Ultimately, despite fierce defensive fire, 25% of his complaints were upheld.
The ten years of Mark Scott’s management, from 2006 until this year, can be seen as an extraordinary period in which the surgeon not only failed to attack the cancers eating away at the ABC’s credibility, but actively encouraged their malignancy. Grandiosely proclaiming himself “Editor in Chief”, he never once used his authority to enforce the organisation’s Charter, its Code of Practice or its Editorial Guidelines. At times this reluctance trapped the broadcaster in futile and costly legal battles.
In his obsession with digital technology – from the ill-starred ABC Island in the 3D virtual reality Second Life to the click-bait stories at The Drum, his attempt to create an online newspaper, Scott presided over a complete melting of standards and integrity. From Four Corners programmes produced in cahoots with Fairfax reporters or animal-rights activists, to the trivialisation of news bulletins with live reports by a horde of bimbos and beardless youths straight out of university, News and Current Affairs have destroyed the ABC’s reputation and its main reason for existence.
Emblematic of the weakness of Scott and the power of the staff has been the dilution of the complaints procedure. No external panel exists to sift complaints. “Independent” review of complaints is promised by a unit staffed by Corporation employees! A new category called “resolved” has been invented to reduce the number of complaints that would have been classed as “upheld.” Corrections to programmes are not placed on the programme website, but in a separate bin where they’re unlikely to be found.
All the promises made by Mark Scott when he assumed office – to ensure balance, promote impartiality, eliminate bias, defend editorial values, and ask hard questions of itself – have been forgotten or repudiated.
At a time when new challenges to the world and the nation make journalism more difficult — challenges such as Islam’s objectives, climate change and marriage — ABC staff have taken obvious positions of commitment and activism, accurately described as “groupthink”. As anyone who has raised a complaint found, they are the “untouchables”, more powerful than Eliot Ness and corrupt any thug packing an agenda in his violin case.
Today in the ABC the bandwagon of pretentious morality rolls through all aspects of its output. Outrage and emotionalism have replaced facts and the seeking of truth. It is now thirty-five years since Alex Dix put his intellectual pipe-cleaner through the organisation, and much deterioration has been allowed in the interim. Many suggestions have been made on how to reform what has become a hydra-headed monster, but nothing short of Dix review, starting with the legislation and its charter and challenging its very purpose and claim on the public purse, will suffice. Can we expect it from this timid government and its Q&A loving leader?
Each year, the Andrew Olle lecturer dutifully reflects on the journalistic integrity of the man they come to honour. Last year university lecturer and celebrity broadcaster Waleed Aly (who had never known Olle) described him as “a kind of shorthand for journalistic values.” Then tried to associate himself with those values: “He’s revered because he has become a symbol of the best of what we do; of those ideas and principles that give our work meaning.” Humbug!
Aly unknowingly explained the lack of discipline in Australia’s public broadcaster when he observed that technology is never value-neutral; enabling him to justify radio and television having their own inherent values system. This he reduced, for the audience’s benefit, to the truism that “radio requires no pictures. Print requires no soundbytes.”
There was only one perceptive comment in Waleed Aly’s speech: “These days, you could be forgiven for wondering if anything is established on anything anymore.”
So I come to bury Andrew Olle, not to praise him. Were it not for his value as a martyr in the long march through the institutions, Olle would have been forgotten as just another hard-working employee. His importance, as Anronio Gramsci taught from prison on Ustica, was in activating Marxism’s potential for transforming society by spreading its ideology in a gradual, incremental, stealth manner by embedding it, largely without being noticed, in the popular mind.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist from 1950 until 1976. During that time he was the first ABC cadet, Queensland; Journalist in Charge, Longreach; Journalist in Charge, Mt Moresby; Sub-editor National Radio News; TV News scriptwriter & director; News Editor, Papua New Guinea; Chief of Staff National Newsroom; London Editor; Economics & Finance Correspondent