Bring up the bod­ies

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Viewpoint - By phillip adams

Poor old ABC. Post-mortems on the re­cent clus­ter of corpses at its har­ried Har­ris Street HQ con­tinue to pile up. As I type these words Four Cor­ners is con­duct­ing a coro­nial in­quiry of its own. Which led to a brief chat in the car park with the show’s for­mi­da­ble pre­sen­ter, Sarah Fer­gu­son. “What went wrong?” she asked me. As the old­est broad­caster in the build­ing, with a mem­ory of ABC pol­i­tics, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, stretch­ing back to the tur­bu­lent times of Tal­bot Duck­man­ton, and hav­ing wit­nessed more mur­ders in man­age­ment than you get in Mid­somer, my an­swer was: “When has it ever gone right?”

The only time I re­call an ABC chair­man get­ting on with an ABC man­ag­ing di­rec­tor was in the David Hill era. That was be­cause David filled both roles and got on quite well with him­self. Such har­mony evap­o­rated en­tirely when the fiendish Jonathan Shier and Don­ald McDon­ald were a duo. Even McDon­ald and the ami­able Brian Johns weren’t ex­actly Torvill and Dean.

Some of McDon­ald’s prob­lems with Johns were ide­o­log­i­cal, but more were sar­to­rial. On a good day Brian looked like an un­made bed – and Don­ald was a very neat and fas­tid­i­ous man. Try­ing to build a bridge of un­der­stand­ing be­tween this odd­est of cou­ples, I once asked Don­ald if I could help, not only to warm the re­la­tion­ship be­tween chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor but be­tween the ABC and Can­berra.

Yes, he replied, there were a cou­ple of things I might help with. Firstly, would a few La­bor-ap­pointed board mem­bers be good enough to re­sign so that the Govern­ment could re­place them with friends of the fam­ily? (I said such self-sac­ri­fices would be most un­likely.) Se­condly, and to Don­ald equally im­por­tant, the mat­ter of ap­pear­ances. “Could you pos­si­bly per­suade Brian to do up his shirt but­tons?”

This is a scout’s hon­our fair dinkum true story. Seems that Brian was in the habit of plonk­ing him­self down at meet­ings where, be­cause of an un­but­toned Pelaco, his tummy would emerge and be­come a pa­per­weight for board pa­pers.

While pass­ing on the mes­sage about bounc­ing board mem­bers, I just couldn’t bring my­self to re­lay the one about but­tons. There­fore I bear full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­tin­u­ing de­cline in man­age­rial har­mony. (While the ABC’s re­cently sacked man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Michelle Guthrie’s dress code is un­likely to have been a fac­tor in her prob­lems with her chair­man, I tell the but­ton story be­cause it shows how mighty events can of­ten turn on the tiny. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost…” and so on for the rider, the mes­sage, the bat­tle. That sort of thing.)

Dan­ger comes in many ways. I can­not re­mem­ber a mo­ment in the ABC’s mod­ern his­tory when all was sweet­ness and light, but per­haps it’s time to reread Ken Inglis’s mag­is­te­rial his­to­ries of the place. Vol­ume I, This is the ABC, cov­ers 1932 to 1983, with Vol­ume II, Whose ABC?, con­tin­u­ing the saga un­til 2006. As Hi­lary Man­tel did for Cromwell’s Eng­land, Ken knew how to bring up the bod­ies. But was there per­haps a tran­quil age of pub­lic broad­cast­ing that we’ve for­got­ten?

The past 10 years at the pub­lic broad­caster don’t need a his­to­rian. They need a psy­cho­an­a­lyst. Although the cur­rent govern­ment might pre­fer to call in a wrecker – as they have in the past. Re­mem­ber Mau­rice New­man?

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