They really don’t care that we are laughing
at them. That is, once we have finished gasping. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn
from the appointment of Keith Windschuttle to the ABC board, the latest in
a series of appointments that adds up to one of the most ludicrous and tragic
board stacks in Australian history.

This is not necessarily a comment on the
integrity or abilities of individual appointees, although much could be said.
But the last few appointments have been so blatantly political that eye-rolling
is the only possible response. It is almost impossible to consider the merits
of the individuals in any dispassionate fashion, because the politics so
clearly dominates.

Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton and now
Keith Windschuttle are three of the most rancorous and vituperative
cultural
warriors in Australia. None of them have marked
themselves out as experts on broadcasting. All of them are best known
as polemicists: people of bruising rather than
subtle or supple intellect. Yet all three are on the ABC board. One
would be fine, even sensible. Three in a row is simply provocative.

The
real tragedy is the loss of opportunity. The most pressing question is not the
board members’ political sympathies, but whether they have the necessary
understanding and expertise to be visionaries and advocates for the ABC at a
time of unprecedented media change. This is a time when the whole rationale and
the role of public broadcasting is open to question and up for grabs. What can the recent appointees contribute?

With this appointment the Howard Government
displays not so much hostility as indifference to the future of this unique public
asset. They just want to change “the culture”, rather than seriously
think through the opportunities and threats faced by the organisation.

At least Windschuttle has worked as a
journalist – but it was a very long time ago.
He also knows a bit about the media.
In his 1984 book The Media he identified why his own
appointment to the board is not so much damaging as wasted opportunity. Windschuttle
(who was emerging from his Marxist phase at the time) wrote that the ABC
hierarchy was dominated by right-wingers but: “The hierarchy does not
however see its values reflected in every program because the nature of radio
and television broadcasting means that production staff always have some room
to exercise their judgment and opinion and this can never be controlled
completely.”

Windschuttle once knew something about
media, but any reading of his recent work can only lead to the conclusion that
he is rather out of date. Does Windschuttle
know anything about the BBC’s initiatives in new media, about DVB-H or IPTV? Has he had a look at Myspace.com recently? If so, he has yet to grace the
public with his opinions.

As for the other appointment announced
yesterday, that of Peter Hurley, it is inexplicable. Hurley is a leading Adelaide hotelier, currently
National Senior Vice-President and State President of the Australian Hotels
Association. He is a big noise in his
home town of Adelaide, having interests in some of that city’s landmark hotels and
business connections with the Adelaide Crows.

Those who know him say he is “hale fellow
well met”, “nobody’s fool” and “a notorious hard arse in negotiations”. His sympathies are undoubtedly with the Liberal
Party, but he smooches with all sides.
Expertise in media or broadcasting?
There are none, other than a keen understanding of the negotiating and
booking of advertising. Is it these
skills that he is to bring to the ABC board?

Looking at the decisions the government has
made about the ABC over the last few months, one is left with the impression of
a tussle between the ABC friendly forces associated with Communications
Minister Helen Coonan, and the hostile forces associated with Treasurer Peter
Costello. On the one hand the ABC gets a
bit more money, and a reasonable appointment in Mark Scott for Managing
Director. On the other hand, the staff
elected director is nobbled, and the board appointees are largely ideological
warriors.

The next important appointment will be
McDonald’s replacement as chairman. Ultimately this and the appointment of Mark
Scott, are more important than individual board members. But you have to weep for the lost
opportunities.

Declaration: Margaret Simons wrote
critically of Ron Brunton’s role in the Hindmarsh Island affair
in her book “The Meeting of the Waters”, and has been criticised by
him since.

Peter Fray

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