The Howard Government has waged a long campaign to rein in what it
regards as institutional bias at the ABC and the resignation of
managing director Russell Balding provides another big opportunity to
attack that culture.

The original appointment of John Howard’s mate Donald McDonald as
chairman in 1996 was meant to kick-start the process, but it didn’t take long
for him to go native and become a passionate advocate for the ABC.

However, McDonald and his board, including new Crikey publisher Di Gribble, did appoint Jonathan Shier as managing director in January 1999 in what amounted to the biggest attempt to shake up the culture.

The former Young Liberal turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and
was fired on the eve of the 2001 Federal election. After that, McDonald
and his board went for the safe option of Russell Balding despite the
Howard Government preferring another outsider, like disgraced Swiss
bank account customer Trevor Kennedy.

Since then the stacking of the ABC board with conservatives has
continued, most notably with the appointment of former IPA ideologue
Ron Brunton in May 2003 and The Australian’s conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen in February 2005.

The other members of the board
at the moment include respected Melbourne lawyer Stephen Skala, John
Gallagher QC and the staff-elected director Ramona Koval, whose
on-going presence demonstrates how hard it is to control what many still
regard as a staff-captured organisation.

Some critics regard the presence of Gough Whitlam’s press secretary Kerry O’Brien presenting The 7.30 Report
as the ultimate yardstick of the ABC’s on-going editorial independence.
The new CEO would have a good deal of difficulty moving on O’Brien
because
it would require John Cameron, the head of news and current affairs, to
support the move.

However, that doesn’t mean the government won’t press for an outsider
to take on this vital media position and attempt another shake-up. Importantly, Donald McDonald’s second five year term
as chairman expires on July 24 this year.

It some respects it is a shame that Russell Balding didn’t foreshadow
his departure earlier, rather than proceeding with last week’s
appointment of Kim Dalton as Sandra Levy’s replacement as
director of television.

Perhaps the government should install its new chairman before a
decision is made on replacing Balding. Peter Reith would certainly make
a controversial choice given he was seriously considered as a director
two year ago. Or what about Sam Chisholm as the CEO? He’ll soon have
some time on his hands and would really shake things up.

A Reith-Chisholm combination would cause a fire-storm but the
government would then discover that ABC audiences are happy with what
they’re getting and there simply aren’t the ring wing journalists or
commentators prepared to work for the pittance that Aunty pays.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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