How the left colonised the ABC

This week The Australian newspaper gave a page to an extract from Nick Cater’s forthcoming book The Lucky Culture – and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class. It dealt with the radicalisation of the ABC, one of the essential steps – along with the subversion of school curricula and the authority of the universities – in the progressive movement’s rise to  power.

In the extract, Nick expertly traced the process by which the young turks of Current Affairs achieved their goal, defeating a disinterested and bewildered management. But Nick wasn’t here when this happened; his analysis depended on working backwards from what he sees today. As a result he misses some crucial points – he doesn’t see how management fell into a trap of its own making; he doesn’t understand how the News Division, which was intended as the bulwark against the intrusion of subversive news techniques, was hobbled by policy and therefore contributed to the fall.

It can all be laid at the feet of Talbot Duckmanton – the urbane, pipe-smoking eminence grise who ruled the ABC with an iron hand in a kid glove from 1965 until 1982. Duckmanton had begun his career as a sporting commentator, but as I realised many years later at a reception in London, he had always wanted to be a journalist. He was almost pathetic in his admiration of peers such as the BBC’s Director General Charles Curran who had been a distinguished foreign correspondent.

In 1951, a year after I joined the ABC in Brisbane, Duckmanton was appointed Assistant Manager for Queensland. Despite my lowly status as a cadet, I came to his notice, leading to his assessment of me as "prickly" which he never thought necessary to review. Promotion to Manager Tasmania followed, and then a prestigious appointment to join the BBC commentary team for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Soon after was appointed a member of the three-man team sent around the world to study television, followed by the role of Co-ordinator of television. His career was already seen as on a fast track to senior management.

What Duckmanton brought back from that television study was a profound fear of the impact of television film on broadcast standards, especially in News. In staff lectures and policy statements, the warning was given that pictures of exciting but irrelevant events could easily distort news values. Techniques then current in BBC interview programmes, such as the "talking head" that filled the screen were to be banned. "Jump cuts" – rapid transition from one frame to another scene were also out. BBC programmes which had journalists interviewing, commenting and backgrounding had alarmed him as corrupting the purity of delivered reports. It was for the ABC to provide the facts, the public to make up its mind.

So when television began in Australia in 1956, television news on the ABC was launched as radio news in vision. The reports were read in the order dictated by news values set by the Controller of News for both radio and TV; Illustration was restricted to three minutes of film in the 15-minute bulletin, and there were graphic cards to convey headline facts and figures. These sometimes got out of order – one night as director of the 7pm bulletin, I called for a card with the Prime Minister’s name to be superimposed on his photograph, only to see a pair of ram’s horns sprout from Mr Menzies head!

Despite bulletin restrictions, News launched two programmes of film. The first, Newsreel, scripted on overseas newsfilm flown in daily from BCINA (the British Commonwealth Newsfilm Agency, later Visnews) ran immediately after the nightly news bulletin. (I have documented elsewhere that when Four Corners began in 1960, Michael Charlton or Bob Raymond would try to steal Newsreel film from the rack in the editing room). On Sunday evenings, News presented Weekend Magazine, a 15-minute programme produced, reported and scripted by News journalists from around Australia, and later, from overseas offices. Stuart Littlemore, who featured in The Australian’s photograph of the 1973 TDT team, cut his teeth in Australian television on W.E.M. This gives the lie to those – including the later current affairs teams and academics – who have promoted the false history that News journalists had no experience in broadcasting. As long ago as 1953 in Longreach, I compiled and read a daily 7-minute bulletin of regional news. I also recorded reports for News Review, the Talks Department programme on a Minifon wire recorder and later the first portable machine, the Emitape.

When Duckmanton was appointed General Manager in 1965 to succeed Sir Charles Moses, he was already acutely aware of the growing pressures to introduce a new way of backgrounding and interpreting the news. The BBC which was very much the ABC’s model for broadcasting had showed the way. He was also determined to get his hands on the levers of power in news matters. The changing of the guard gave him his chance. When the Controller of News, W.S. ("Wally") Hamilton was elevated to the position of Assistant General Manager (Administration), Duckmanton did not permit him to take responsibility for News with him (as we all hoped), but appointed himself Editor in Chief. Every Friday morning, the new Controller of News, Gil Oakley, and the Directors of Radio and TV News, Russ Handley and Jack Gulley, were summoned to Broadcast House for a review of the week’s output, and a briefing on policy. "The Friday Follies", they called it, and came back to their offices to pass on the latest petty dictates of a man with determined ideas, but no understanding.

It was there that Duckmanton ring-fenced the News Division, prohibiting it from expanding into the dangerous waters of what was then termed Public Affairs. News was to be the bulwark against the forces that could destroy the ABC’s credibility – programmes that introduced interpretation, comment, opinion and analysis. News bulletins were to be read, reporters’ voices were not to be heard. This misinterpretation of the social forces at work, and a complete inability to comprehend how to apply journalistic training, principles and ethics in the new age, resulted in the debacle that Cater describes. Duckmanton could not separate interpretation and background from opinion; when the crisis came he had no principle or theory of news on which to rely. These are facts that you won’t find in the official ABC histories, biased as they are in favour of the Current Affairs people who swayed the historians.

In radio, The Talks Department ran parallel to News, and their paths rarely crossed. News Commentary and Notes on the News had always been written and delivered by contract outsiders, academics and specialists. Their views had been kept quite separate from the evening News Review, a 15-minute collection of reports, mostly from around Australia, by Talks officers who had been trained as broadcasters, not journalists. These, like the news bulletins were factual and un-opinionated. They contained interviews, but the programme was pre-recorded and often stale.

The dam broke in 1967 with the launch of TDT. This came about from a management power play in head office, not from a journalistic revolt as commonly believed. Ken Watts, a former schoolteacher who had come up through education broadcasting won the powerful position of head of television programmes in the managerial shuffle that followed Duckmanton’s appointment. The Commission had become alarmed at the ABC’s poor market share and was demanding brighter, more attractive programmes.

Described by the ABC’s historian Ken Inglis as having a reputation “for being ruthless, for encouraging, drinking with and promoting clever young people, and for caring about the quality and popularity of programmes,” by 1964 Watts had already assumed control of Four Corners (which had got into serious political trouble for its bias and irresponsibility). Then in1966 he proposed a daily programme of current affairs, modelled on the BBC’s Tonight show. It went to air in 1967 as TDT –This Day Tonight.  TDT. It had a huge budget, resources denied to other divisions, especially News, and with Ken Watts, who knew nothing of news, its disciplines, responsibilities or ethics as editor-in-chief. The brief was to break the mould of news reporting; its first Executive Director, New Zealander Allan Martin was given free rein. Some News journalists such as John Crew and Ken Chown, appalled that the News Division was being hog-tied to bulletins, defected to TDT.

The resultant programme – chirpy, irreverent, critical, intrusive and rude, provided a confusing mix of serious items and interviews and undergraduate humour, but it quickly won a big audience. TDT took the mickey out of politicians and soon had both ministers and ABC management on the edge of their chairs each night. It was the beginning of the new era, when ABC staff first took it upon themselves to declare what was wrong with the country; “what needs changing” as Martin said at the time. The Vietnam War, which TDT opposed, directly in comment and indirectly through choice of interviewees, accelerated the process. By 1969 the Commission was heavily criticising Watts and his TDT baby for editorialising, and mistakes of taste and judgement.

News journalists could only look on aghast as TDT became embroiled in one crisis after another – most traceable to breaches of ethics or news principles in sensationalist pursuit of ratings. There is no doubt the News Division either could or would ever have mounted such a programme. Watts was funded to the extent of a fresh team of fifty people, hand-picked from newspapers and broadcasters in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Front man Bill Peach had been trained in the ABC but was poached from Channel 10 where he compered a current affairs programme that pre-dated TDT but like it, modelled on the BBC’s Tonight. TDT lasted until 1978, gradually smoothing its rough edges and increasing in respectability. Its contribution to broadcasting had been to crush the power of political interference in the ABC, and  making politicians answerable to the news cycle. But the other, more sinister enduring legacy had been the propensity to blur reporting and editorialising, interpreting and commenting, analysing and opinionising.

If Four Corners and TDT showed that the ABC had been careless about allowing two parallel news organisations to flourish, the launch of radio’s AM, five months after TDT, and PM two years later, proved that management did not know what it was doing. It provoked a demarcation issue that wasted resources, set off decades of hostility within the ABC over broadcast news that took the first strike by journalists to begin a rationalisation and integration.

The ABC needed a programme like AM, to bring actuality and voices to the reporting of news. It was under the command of Selwyn (“Dan”) Speight a seasoned newspaper man – a type that critics of the News Division like Tim Bowden later condescendingly described as not broadcasters. Speight however had studied the BBC’s Today programme and was sound enough a journalist to adapt to audio practices without compromising principles. He quickly saw the value of high-quality circuits available from new undersea cables to deliver voice reports and interviews about the major world events to Australian breakfast-time audiences. At the political level, a major turf war had begun – a war which the News Division’s incompetent management was unable to fight. They had missed the bus.

Wally Hamilton, no longer working from his power base as head of News, saw his journalists being side-lined. He fought against Duckmanton’s objections to establish the principle of reporters’ voice reports in radio bulletins. The grudging concession was a limited number of News circuits from overseas offices, mainly London and New York.

In 1968 I was appointed London Editor and sent off with a strong message from Hamilton to develop voice reporting for radio and increase contributions to television’s Weekend Magazine.

When I arrived, I found that the separate Current Affairs group had a nightly circuit to Sydney at 8pm and refused to allow News to send reports on it. At 8.30pm the BBC used the Sydney circuit to transmit World RoundUp, a quarter-hour collection of correspondents’ reports specially produced for the ABC. These two bookings effectively blocked News reporting. We had only two booked circuits a week – on Sunday and Tuesday nights. My protests that it was absurd to expect news to happen to our convenience on those two days met apologies, but no success in gaining access to the Current Affairs circuits when necessary.

I solved the problem by persuading the BBC to transmit World RoundUp an hour earlier, a solution that suited them since its programme was produced live, exclusively for Australia. The change meant that Current Affairs could no longer refuse to extend the circuit time for my reporters to send their voice reports. This became vital as major news stories developed – the Northern Ireland troubles, the first terrorist hi-jacking of aircraft, the 1970 British elections, the Common Market negotiations and much more.

The so-called studio in London had been built by a contractor specialising in public address systems and could not handle live broadcasts. Current Affairs staff had to first record their items, and then play the tape down the line to Sydney. The first time Wally Hamilton visited London, I persuaded him of the impracticability of a studio that couldn’t broadcast. He found me £3000 from his budget, I found a couple of moonlighting BBC engineers, and we re-built the studio to the latest standards. I was pretty sure most of the cabling and switchgear came from a BBC warehouse somewhere, but I didn’t ask.

The change in direction was not without problems. As we pumped more and more reports down the cable to Sydney, Duckmanton rebelled. Famously, he passed the message back up the line through News executives: “There’s too much talking in the bulletins!” In Sydney, the money spent leasing a new building and installing new studios with the latest switching equipment for Current Affairs had been denied to News, which had to struggle with antiquated recording gear in an inadequate booth. It could not record telephone calls. Sydney sub-editors didn’t adapt well either. Used to handling news on paper, they were incapable of editing tape on the run as inserts for the morning bulletins. So an instruction was issued that no voice report could be put to air until it had first been transcribed! Few of our London reports got to air before the 7.45am bulletin.

I returned from London in 1971 to report economic and financial news for both radio and television, and broadcast a weekly radio programme The Week in Business (TWIB). I was the only finance or economic reporter in the ABC, and Russell Warner, who had taken over the running of Public Affairs Radio in 1972, tried to attract me to work for AM and PM. So much for News journalists not being broadcasters!

News continued to train its cadets in microphone and recorder work and send its experienced reporters to overseas posts from which they broadcast – radio and television reports, special mid-year and year-end roundups and increasingly hard-hitting Weekend Magazine essays. The News/Current Affairs divide was simmering in the background.

Then came The Dismissal, November 11, 1975, and war broke out. Warner got approval from Ken Watts (who was by then Controller of Programmes) to seize the two landlines from Canberra to “cover” the event, preventing News journalists in Canberra filing copy or voicepieces. Duckmanton, self-proclaimed editor-in-chief stood idly by while this hijacking of a breaking news story by a programme unit designated as providing depth and analysis excluded the very people trained and responsible for such coverage. The three and a half hours broadcast has gone down in ABC mythology as a triumph of modern broadcasting. However, for listeners, it was a disastrous breach of the most basic rules of broadcasting, because it failed to tell them what had happened.

I was on study leave at the time and driving back into town from a field trip. On the car radio I heard an endless list of academics, constitutional experts and psephologists pontificating about the significance of something which they never stopped to explain or recap. It was hugely unintelligible. A brief news bulletin on the half hour reported that the Whitlam Government had been dismissed, but without explanation or details. The Canberra bureau could not update, political correspondent Ken Begg got one brief report out. There was no actuality sound. The event lit the fuse for a major confrontation over the responsibilities of the two sections, and in effect, the right to report news. A four-hour stop-work of journalists ensued, the first in the history of the ABC. Viewed impartially, the Dismissal broadcast was a demonstration of the power of fiefdoms, and a colossal failure of senior management.

Earlier that same year News had launched Newsvoice, a belated attempt to show how reporters around Australia and overseas could present a broadcast programme that was not a read bulletin. It was developed by Duncan Fairweather, and Terry Brown, who had reported from New York as an ABC correspondent. With no studio in the News building, they had to run up the hill with their tapes to the main Forbes Street studios – as I had to do every Friday night with TWIB.  But management quarantined Newsvoice at the dead hour of 5pm where it languished without proper support or facilities.

The crisis point was reached in 1976 when management, under Warner’s influence, decreed that Current Affairs would broadcast the National Wage Case decision. Journalists around Australia threatened to strike. It took ten days of negotiations and heated meetings to hammer out a compromise. News Division specialist reporters won the right to break the story live on air and explain the judgement; Current Affairs then interviewed politicians, unionists and businessmen. At last a sensible definition of roles was emerging, and the power of Current Affairs was broken.

Later that year, I persuaded one of Australia’s leading behavioural scientists Dr John Hunt, to conduct a seminar for News journalists to consider their future in broadcast news. Overwhelmingly, they supported the integration of News and Current Affairs; demanded the right of News journalists to report in voice and vision, and a clear delineation of the roles. They called for the Commission to recognise the initiative and endorse the principles. But the Commissioners never saw the document. Talbot Duckmanton, ever the bureaucratic manipulator, headed it off. It was to be many years before News and Current Affairs were rationalised, all ABC recruits were trained as broadcasters, and the organisation caught up, thirty or forty years late, with the rest of the world.

But the damage had been done. There is not space here to detail all the stages of insidious penetration of the ABC’s integrity: Alan Ashbolt’s Marxist influence on the young impressionables of his Special Projects Unit; the recruitment of graduates and others without the discipline of news training; the incompetence of News executives in failing to train and fight for the right, in a changing world, to provide news interpretation without opinion. Yet the principal blame falls on senior management – Talbot Duckmanton the wily mandarin intent on manipulating the Commission and keeping his nose clean; Clem Semmler the effete intellectual who wanted the ABC to remain stuck in radio aspic, Daryl Miley, the old stager of programme shuffling, Keith Mackriell and Graham White the ultimate fence-sitters, and Ken Watts, the aggressive ambitious game-changer who created programmes that trampled balance, fairness and impartiality to death in the name of news entertainment. 

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

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