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Informed citizens or contented consumers

There is great value in maintaining a national broadcaster that is publicly owned and funded, politically independent and fully accountable. Public ownership brings a distinct difference to the broadcasting system, with national broadcasters required and able to provide comprehensive, innovative programs not influenced by commercial imperatives.

But it seems the government’s appointees to the board of the ABC have a ‘new direction’. As Richard Ackland put it, they want to turn what was once “a bright shining jewel in an ocean of mediocrity” into “mainstream sludge.”

In October 2014, the government appointed Peter Lewis to the board of the ABC. This was a highly inappropriate appointment as Mr Lewis, who has a background in commercial media finance with Channel 7, was the author of a controversial, and secret, review of the ABC that was still under consideration by the board.

“Mr Lewis’s appointment appears to be a reward for him having devised a blueprint for how the ABC should be cut. It also looks to be an attempt by the Government to impose an agenda of commercialisation on the ABC.

Peter Lewis should never have been appointed to conduct a review of the ABC due to his recent employment in senior roles with media companies that are competitors of the ABC. It is even worse that someone with such a clear potential for conflict of interest has been appointed to the broadcaster’s governing board.”

A month later, Matt Peacock, 7:30 reporter and ABC staff-elected director, was told he faced redundancy after management placed him in pool of candidates to assess on ‘skills matrix’. At the time, he was one of the board members who had to decide where to make the $254m cuts from the broadcaster. One can only wonder how a threat like that would affect his ability to represent the staff on the board.

In November 2015, the government completely ignored the independent nominations panel who makes recommendations about ABC board appointments to appoint Donny Walford whose only qualification appears to be being a South Australian woman who owns a private company that helps women get on boards.

They also appointed Kirstin Ferguson, a Queensland woman whose background is mostly in the resources industry. Neither woman has experience in the media. They appear to have been chosen specifically for their gender and location to even things up.

In December 2015, it was announced that Michelle Guthrie, a former executive at Google and News Corp, would take over as Managing Director.

Under her watch, the ABC has announced a series of controversial changes starting with the abolition of the ABC Fact Check Unit. Then the closure of The Drum opinion and analysis website. In November the ABC announced it would make cuts to TV science program Catalyst that included redundancies for up to 9 staff, a decision that infuriated the scientific community. It then revealed significant programming changes to Radio National, including the removal of almost all music programs from the station.

Guthrie told the ace reporters, researchers and producers who put together Australia’s premier investigative current affairs TV show Four Corners that she would like to see in the lineup more stories about successful business people.

When it came to the program about children on Nauru speaking about their dire existence as captives of Australia’s offshore refugee policy, the managing director thought Four Corners should have found some happy children to interview.

Phillip Adams, who has presented Late Night Live on Radio National since 1991, says: “On the Richter scale of dread this is the most intense I’ve ever seen – and I lived through the Jonathan Shier years.”

Of Guthrie, Adams says: “She seems to talk to fellow bureaucrats, not program makers.”

In February this year, the government appointed Georgie Somerset to the board. She is a beef cattle farmer and member of lobby group AgForce Queensland which is “a peak organisation representing Queensland’s rural producers.”

AgForce lists as a policy success its continued “fight to ensure that the significant international scrutiny that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is attracting is informed by credible science and practical targets rather than emotion and politics.” They want “voluntary methods” rather than “mindless regulation.”

“I believe that agriculture is a cornerstone for the Australian economy and ensuring that the agricultural community has a voice in important decision making and policy setting forums is essential,” she said.

The government once again ignored the nominations panel to also appoint Vanessa Guthrie, chair of the Minerals Council, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the land. She has more than 30 years of experience in the mining and resources industries, holding a variety of senior executive roles at Alcoa, Woodside Energy and Goldfields Limited. Until last year, Guthrie was the managing director and chief executive officer of Toro Energy.

Simon Mordant, who was hired using the Gillard government’s merit-based appointment process and whose tenure runs out in November, said he was a “passionate believer in arts and current affairs, and a strong believer in the role of an independent public broadcaster. I was interested in the role in the context of public service. I also feel I can not only contribute to, but also learn a great deal from, an industry going through dramatic change.”

He will also probably become a victim of the Coalition’s reckless need to purge all things Gillard.

Last month, the Prime Minister appointed his long-time friend Justin Milne to be the chair of the ABC board.

Milne and Turnbull worked together at internet service provider Ozemail in the 1990s and Turnbull appointed Milne to the NBN board in 2013. He also sits on the board of Tabcorp Holdings.

Outgoing Chairman James Spigelman was disappointed to not have his term extended but his parting words show he was fighting a losing battle against the ‘new direction’.

“The ABC has a great future. I tried when I was first appointed to give a framework to what I thought was important to the role of the ABC, that the ABC has to treat its audiences as citizens not as consumers.

It’s a big difference. Treating them as citizens means not only treating them with respect but treating them as people with rights and duties, not as people with wants and needs.”

Unfortunately, it is doubtful this current board even understood what he meant.


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  1. Arthur Tarry

    A sad story of stooges being used by ideological warriors who really have no idea about the quality and needs of our comminity beyond their grubby pursuit of the destruction of the ABC and the making or saving of a buck. And a lot of it is based on the totally unsubstantiated notion of bias within the ABC and pulling down a tall poppy to the base level of the rest of the MSM. Friends of ABC unite.

  2. Matters Not

    While everyone in Australia is a taxpayer not every taxpayer is a citizen. Choosing to define oneself as one or the other involves a different mindset. If the emphasis is on being a taxpayer, your role in the nation is defined by your economic and legal status. Your primary identity is individual. You’re perfectly within your rights to do everything you legally can to look after your self-interest. Thus you accept that a billionaire paying no taxes is fine and legal. End of story.

    On the other hand, citizens have different considerations. For taxpayers, it’s all about saving money; for citizens, the well-being of the community is more important.

    taxpayers do not see themselves as citizens of the community engaged in democratic and communal self-governance, but rather as individuals paying tribute in exchange for services. Or, as summed up by American journalist Robert Herold: “Taxpayers seek always to reduce public life to a balance sheet.”

    From this perspective, proposed programs and projects of the community are not evaluated on the basis of whether they provide value to the community, but solely and simply on the basis of individual cost in exchange for services to a particular individual, known as the “taxpayer.” The relevant question thus becomes: How has this benefited me personally? Similarly, the highest social good, the preeminent political goal, is simply reduced to one element: lower taxes. Benefit to a neighbour without equal benefit to me is seen as poor value for my tax dollar

    The citizen mentality is different:

    citizens understand that they are important participants in and responsible for the democratic governance of their society. Citizens are rooted in their community and evaluate all of their contributions from the perspective of contributing to the building and well-being of the total community — of which they are an important part. A citizen seeks to work at building a community founded upon pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) communal values. The operative question for a citizen thus becomes: What contribution am I making to build and strengthen the community for my family and for my neighbours — for my fellow citizens? Citizens will see taxes as a positive contribution to broader society, whether city, province or country.

    We should value citizenship above our taxpaying role. Always! And we should ensure that those who control the levers of power are current citizens. Goodbye Rupert.

  3. Peter F

    “”If only the interests of the ‘taxpayer’ were applied to the ‘free to air’ TV networks: Their income is supported by the taxpayer by being a tax deductible expense for advertisers. That’s right, we pay up to 30% of the income of the networks.

  4. philgorman2014

    Murdoch and IPA – 6, Public interest – nil. Vale public broadcasting.

  5. kristapet

    The story of a “stacked deck” and the demise of the ABC as we have known it
    What a very sad, unsuitable, biased, uncultured, self interested, and destructive set of decisions and appointments to the ABC Board
    The make up of the Board is frightening, particularly, the appointment Vanessa Guthrie, chair of the Minerals Council, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the land.
    Peter Lewis’s appointment is very suspect and corrupt
    None of these new members know or understand the importance to the role of the ABC
    None of them are “passionate believers in arts and current affairs,” or have a strong belief in the role of an independent public broadcaster, or an appreciation, in the role of the ABC
    in the context of public service.
    I can’t see how any of the new member additions to the Board or staff will respect or do justice to this concept of what the ABC’s value is:
    “There is great value in maintaining a national broadcaster that is publicly owned and funded, politically independent and fully accountable. Public ownership brings a distinct difference to the broadcasting system, with national broadcasters required and able to provide comprehensive, innovative programs not influenced by commercial imperatives.”
    I hate that the way that the Matt Peacock, 7:30 reporter and ABC staff-elected director was treated
    I hate the way the government completely ignored the independent nominations panel who makes recommendations about ABC board appointments
    I hate the appointment of Michelle Guthrie, a former executive at Google and News Corp, would take over as Managing Director.
    I do not like the changes Michelle Guthrie has made
    And worse still, is, this, appointment, by the Prime Minister, when he appointed his long-time friend Justin Milne to be the chair of the ABC board.
    A sneaky LNP, and Liberal Party & Corporate friends take over – their swamp, tentacles crushing the public broadcaster
    A nightmare

  6. Terry2

    I find this dismemberment and ideological indoctrination of the ABC very sad and, frankly, under this prevailing regime , I don’t see a solution.

    On ABC RN Sunday Extra with Tom Switzer, guest Janet Albrechtsen (Columnist for The Australian) accused Peter McEvoy (Executive producer of the Q&A program on ABC TV) of the heinous crime of “busing” people into the Q&A studios for the program, obviously she was implying that this is some sort of insidious ABC move to stack the audience with Lefties : Peter McEvoy patiently responded that ABC did make buses available in outlying suburbs to bring in people who are interested in joining the audience and who would not otherwise be able to attend – it includes High School kids – the reason is to promote plurality and diversity precisely what the ABC is all about.

    You just can’t win with these people of the Right, they are always seeing a Left Wing conspiracy.

  7. Harquebus

    If the ABC’s news reporting wasn’t so sanitized and shallow, I wouldn’t mind the expense. Considering the deteriorating state of just about everything, the ABC has by not holding those responsible to account, proved themselves to be useless.

  8. Ricardo29

    The insidious commercialisation of the ABC is visible everywhere. The increasing banality of news coverage, a preponderance of ambulance-chaser stories, or those sad ‘human interest’ stories which have, until now, been the staples of the commercial news cafe programs but now making their way into 7.30, with consequent falling ratings. One of my major concerns is the diminution in the quality of reporting, ‘so and so has “fronted” court’, or ‘so and so has been “hit with” a fine/suspension/penalty. Sloppy writing, sloppy language and inappropriate for an organisation which should be a guardian of the language. I realise how pompous that sounds but as a former employee I despair for the organisation I loved and of which I was proud. Kaye Lee your piece only adds to my despair.

  9. helvityni

    Tom Switzer interviewing Janet Albrechtsen, says it all.

    The one thing I watched yesterday on ABC was the program about John Clarke. We are losing OUR (fair, unbiased) ABC like we lost Clarke…

  10. Kaye Lee

    In case you were wondering who was on the independent nominations panel for ABC board appointments….

    Janet Albrechtsen was replaced last year by Anne Fulwood – news anchor for both the Ten and Seven Networks and columnist in the Australian Financial Review and for News Limited.

    She joins Ted Evans who was head of Treasury from 1993 to 2001, former Liberal Party deputy leader Neil Brown who thinks the ABC should be sold, and Star Entertainment director Sally Pitkin.

  11. Michael Taylor

    Anne Fulwood!

    I hope it’s not the same Anne Fulwood who read the sports report on the evening news in Adelaide in the 80s. She moved east for bigger things. And there I was thinking that reading the sports report was above her.

  12. Jaquix

    Stay on the case Kaye – and thankyou for the work you have done so far. If we can get through the next couple of years, the ABC can slowly but surely be restored to its rightful position. Board members come, and they go.

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