Bring up the bodies
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?