What kind of a Board does this to an
organisation under its care? The new ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, starts
work tomorrow in an environment of misery, division and confusion at the senior
levels of the national broadcaster over the Chris Masters Jonestown book controversy.

ABC corporate relations man Peter Walsh
returns all calls to members of senior management and finds dozens of different
ways to say “no comment”. The ABC is apparently unable or unwilling
to explain its position.

How Scott handles the matter may well
define how people see his leadership.
His reputation is as someone who takes the middle path in a dispute and
seeks consensus. It’s hard to see how
this will be possible in the current climate.
One way or another he will surely have to make a stand or be defined by
his failure to do so.

The
ABC’s Media Watch program last night firmly pointed to the politically stacked ABC Board as the culprit
for the decision not to publish the Masters book. ABC Enterprises, headed by Robyn Watts,
backed publication in a report considered by the board last Thursday. Yet, by Thursday evening, Watts was claiming to Chris
Masters that the decision not to publish was hers, and hers alone.

Either Watts changed her mind very quickly, or she was less than honest to
Masters. ABC insiders suggest a little bit of both might be true. The decision was hers, but it was made in an
environment where she didn’t really have a choice because of board pressure and
lack of support from her fellow executives.
And she was not necessarily the only member of management making
submissions to the Board on the matter.

ABC board members are not the only forces hostile to publication. Members
of senior management, including Chief Operating Officer David Pendleton and
General Counsel Stephen Collins are seen as having been hostile to the project
for years.

This is part of the context in which Watts crumbled. It goes to the
culture of the national broadcaster at its most senior levels. After decades of
starvation, disruption and attack there are now people at senior levels of
management who are radically out of sympathy with the principles of editorial
independence that the news and current affairs division takes as its credo. Collegiate
– not.

The controversy is acting as a lightning
rod for tensions and disagreements that have been building for at least a
decade.

Watts was one of former managing director Jonathan Shier ‘s appointments. She came in as Director of Content Rights
Management in 2000 having previously been head of Southern Star sales, the global acquisition
and sales division of the Southern Star Group.
Her previous brush with controversy at the ABC was when she
refused to
make
historical footage available to independent documentary
makers.

Meanwhile this morning Chris Masters is
still in the process of trying to decide on a publisher in an environment of
bid and counterbid. Most of the likely
publishers still consider themselves to be in the race.

And if his experience is any guide, the
public are on his side rather than that of ABC management and board. Masters says he has been inundated with
e-mails offering amounts of between $1,000 and $100,000 from single donors
wanting to contribute to a “fighting fund” so that the book can be
published.

The public take the motto seriously: it’s
their ABC.

Responses please to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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