The Melbourne Herald-Sun reported on May 23, 2006 that the Howard Government had announced the appointment of Mark Scott, former Fairfax executive, as managing director of the ABC for the next five years.
In fact the Howard Government had done no such thing. The chairman of the ABC’s board, Donald McDonald, had announced the appointment and John Howard’s Minister for Communications, Senator Helen Coonan, had welcomed it.
This mistake was not trivial. The report betrayed, and further disseminated, a serious misunderstanding of the ABC’s character as a statutory authority.
When the Australian Broadcasting Commission was constituted in 1932, parliament gave the governing body the power to choose the chief executive. The legislation turning the Commission into a Corporation, drafted for Malcolm Fraser’s Government and carried through by Bob Hawke’s in 1983, retained that provision.
The ABC has never enjoyed complete autonomy in its relationship with politicians, and never will, depending as it does almost entirely on public funding; but that clause in the Act is a precious protector of its freedom to broadcast without fear or favour.
Misunderstanding of the arrangement has long been remarkably widespread. Though the board’s choice of Brian Johns as managing director in 1995 was welcomed at the time within both the Labor Government and the Opposition, the Sydney Morning Herald nevertheless proclaimed Johns “Labor’s choice”; and later, in The Age, Ken Davidson named both Johns and his predecessor David Hill as cases in which “the Hawke-Keating Government appointed its men to the top job”.
The appointment of Jonathan Shier, managing director from March 2000 until the board induced him to resign less than 18 months later, also became in retrospect a government job. Having interviewed nearly everybody involved in the selection I can find little or no evidence of political pressure on Mr Shier’s behalf.
But Robert Manne in the Herald and The Age looks back on the appointment as the Howard Government’s “attempt to take control of the ABC”; the publisher Richard Walsh cites it among “a string of inappropriate appointments” made by the Howard Government; and Juliette Hughes in Eureka Street can say that Howard “installed as boss Jonathan Shier to run the organisation into the ground”.
Just how such misreadings have arisen and persisted is a puzzle I explore in my book. Sometimes they rest on pure ignorance. At other times they betray a suspicion, which mellows into a conviction, that the government must really have been the agent, whatever the formalities.
Appointing the managing director is not, however, as Gerald Henderson asserted in the Herald on June 20, the only important decision the board makes. Over the years, documents and reminiscences reveal a continuous negotiation, usually but not always amicable, between board and management over where the border is to be drawn between the territories for which each is responsible.
I devote a chapter to conflict in 1984 between managing director and board, and within the board, on whether an interview with a West Papuan rebel should go to air on Four Corners.
The ABC might have abandoned Radio Australia in 1997 but for the resistance of a narrow majority on the Board. In 1999 Brian Johns announced that subject to Board endorsement the ABC would do a lucrative deal licensing Telstra to take material from ABC Online. The board deferred endorsement, and eventually accepted Jonathan Shier’s recommendation that the deal be aborted.
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