Friendly words of advice for Janet Albrechtsen from our very own Terry Television.

The recent charging of a man over a series of claimed frauds inside the ABC should be a great, loud warning bell to the Corporation’s newest director, Janet Albrechtsen of what lies ahead of her and where she should be probing during her coming five years on the board.

As a former corporate lawyer she, more than a lot of other members of the board, both present and past, should have a better idea of the modern responsibilities of a director of a public or private corporation.

It is clear that many of her critics have little or no idea. There’s been a lot of hot-headed commentary about her appointment to the board of the ABC, with much of that comment misdirected.

Her opinions are well known. There was a good profile in Saturday’s Age, (not available online) and this from Paul Sheehan in The Sydney Morning Herald. It is typical of the concentration on the so-called cultural wars and issues. After reading it you feel you have some idea of who Albrechtsen is, but unfortunately no idea on how she sees her role as a director, not in a ‘cultural’ or political sense, but the way she will go about overseeing ALL the affairs of the ABC.

But the critical reaction to the appointment simply ignores what are the big issues at the moment for the ABC. It is to be hoped that Albrechtsen comes to understand that there are more vital issues at the national broadcaster than any of the so-called ‘cultural wars’ issues.

This is a discussion between Albrechtsen and Monica Attard on ABC Radio’s Sunday Profile last night:

Monica Attard: Do you resile from anything you’ve said about the ABC?

Janet Albrechtsen: No because I think they were issues that arose at the time as any of you might be watching the ABC they might question whether that was an impartial presentation of facts. So no I certainly don’t resile from what I’ve said in the past.

Monica Attard: So you join the board of the ABC still believing the ABC is biased organisation?

Janet Albrechtsen: ‘Biased organisation’ I think is an incorrect way to sum up my views. I have certainly commented on the ABC in relation to particular issues that the ABC has dealt with from time to time. And, you know I’ve raised concerns on how they presented those issues and facts and I don’t resile from making those comments at the meantime. Now where the ABC goes in the future, there may be times when it’s appropriate to be raising those issues at board level and I’ll certainly be partaking in any conversations on those kinds of issues and on any other kinds of issues that we need to be speaking on, but at board level, not publicly.

Monica Attard: But can I just get you to be a little clear on this point. At this point in time as you join the board, you don’t believe there’s systemic bias in the ABC?

Janet Albrechtsen: ‘Systemic’, I don’t know I’d want to have a closer look at that… (read on here).

Interesting, but as you can see the same old cultural wars issues and no discussion of Albrechtsen’s views on being a director and what she will do.

The real task for an ABC director isn’t ‘cultural’ although that remains vital, given the ABC Charter. It’s the old, boring objectives of greater financial accountability, transparency in all areas, and occupational health and safety issues, not to mention risk management.

There is a urgent need for the ABC boardroom to be shaken, for senior management to be pestered on these boring and seemingly mundane issues (far less glamorous than perceived notions of bias, plagiarism and the like!)

Like it or not, the important issues for any director of any organisation these days are whether:

  • the money is being spent appropriately
  • the disclosure adequate
  • the organisation’s risk management policies are adequate and in place
  • the staff work in the organisation confident they will be free of harassment of any kind
  • the wishes of the board and management being properly reflected throughout the organisation and not being diluted by wilful or obstructive employees.

In an ideal world the answers to all of these points would yes, in the real world of our ABC, the answers would vary.

In the case of the ABC in early 2005, you’d have to say that despite the ambitions of board and management, some things seem to be wrong inside the Corporation.

Financial accountability seems to be wanting. The fraud allegations and the fact that they apparently were around for so long and involved a significant amount of money (between $900,00 and $1 million), highlights that more needs to be done to improve accountability.

It’s not to say that the ABC is any different in this case than say the National Australian Bank was in its forex options losses of $360 million.

The principle is the same in both cases (and in all similar cases) inadequate supervision, checks and internal audit functions.

They were found wanting at the NAB and they are wanting at the ABC.

In the ABC’s case, despite what the board might think, it seems there are enough holes in the internal auditing functions and the way financial claims are processed for a new director, on joining the organisation, to be sufficiently worried to ask questions; and not be comforted by the assurance or excuse ‘we can’t say or do anything, charges are pending’.

Yep, they are, but the internal auditing and processing inadequacies can be looked at and repaired as a matter of priority and the convoluted way of sending material to Adelaide should replaced with something more direct and controllable.

A good question for a new director is why the ABC has not reported on these claims in its news services?

After all, the ABC is quick to reveal similar problems elsewhere in business and the media.

Talk to people from the news and current affairs area and you soon hear stories of problems in financial accountability, silly bureaucratic accounting methods that force unnatural structures to be created to allow new programs to be made and turf wars. The latter is especially so in ABC TV, ABC Radio and especially in News and Current Affairs.

There are budget problems in Radio National, first outlined a week ago in a Crikey sealed section and there’s also a series of complaints, at least one legal action, and other allegations of work place harassment and bullying.

There are at least three cases that have some link to the ABC in Victoria, there’s another larger case in Western Australia and there are claims that the board and top management have been unaware of what is going on.

The claims were raised in the Senate estimates a fortnight ago and reported by Crikey in Bullying claims at the ABC.

Employees have the right to be able to work free of any harassment, from workmates or managers and supervisors. Likewise, managers and supervisors have the right to manage, within the bounds of work place law, and not be frustrated by employee coercion or intransigence.

Work place agreements and contracts, performance reviews and other benchmarking should not to be used by managers to discriminate against employees. Employees should work and not try and frustrate managers by refusing to work shifts (within reason) or worse.

All this sounds airy fairy, but all are current issues inside the ABC around the country.

At times the ABC seems a dysfunctional bureaucratic organisation, unable to self correct or to impose discipline and controls to the satisfaction of all concerned, especially taxpayers, who fund it.

Public broadcasting has a role, regardless of what cultural warriors like Albrechtsen might think or want.

But that role in turn has to be carried out in a fully accountable and transparent way.

The best thing that Albrechtsen can do on the board is to ‘follow the money’. Ask whether all contracts in ABC TV for instance with independent producers, produce the best result for the Corporation, whether budgets in news and current affairs are properly adhered to and checked on a line by line item, whether all leased equipment, including telephones, mobiles and computers are properly paid and accounted for.

Ask about the introduction of the SAP enterprise accounting system, check the initial budget estimates against actual and make sure no one is capitalising or quietly accruing unexpected costs to reduce the rumoured budget overruns on the project.

There’s a lot of good in the ABC, there’s also a lot of bodginess that needs to be rooted out and corrected, simply to make the existing funding go further.

Finally, in The Age profile Albrechtsen did confess to liking British programs shown on the ABC, and so do I.

But I thought this was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with a charter to show Australia to Australians in all its diverse ways and not the BBC.

If there is one cultural issue Albrechtsen wants to tackle, she should ask the formidable Ms Sandra Levy at ABC TV for some explanation about why such small amounts of money have been spent on Australian drama in the past year or so and why so much foreign product is shown on our screens.

Ask Albrechtsen and don’t accept the answers, ask lots of questions about why, for all the millions of dollars that flows through the ABC, so little local product is made, and when it is, such as Spics and Specks (Wednesday evening 8.30pm) it is lightweight.

Also ask if it is true that ratings do not matter at the ABC, why so many programs with ‘low’ ratings (by commercial standards) feel threatened!