The full text of Acting ABC Managing
Director Murray Green’s letter responding to a petition from staff on the
Chris Masters Jonestown decision has now been released. It reads:

Thank you for your letter of 30 June outlining concerns about the decision not
to proceed with the publication, by ABC Enterprises, of a biography of Alan Jones.

You argue that this decision represents censorship, management failure and
damage to the ABC’s reputation and integrity. You further argue that ABC
journalism cannot be influenced by legal or commercial pressure.

The decision by ABC Enterprises not to proceed with this publication is not
based on any of these considerations. The Director of Enterprises has explained
that the reason the project did not continue was the real possibility that the
book would incur a significant loss. This would impact on the resources
available for ABC content on radio, television and online.

ABC Enterprises is quite different in its means of operation from the publicly
funded content in the rest of the ABC. For an Enterprises project to be viable,
there has to be reasonable certainty that it is commercially profitable. In
this case the judgement was that considering the known costs prior to
publication and the likely costs following publication, the viability of the
project was doubtful and placed the ABC at significant financial risk. Our
legal advice is that unrecoverable post-publication legal expenses could amount
to several hundred thousand dollars. This is regardless of confidence in the
strength of the manuscript.

ABC Enterprises, like other divisions, reports to the ABC Board on a regular
basis. The Jones project was appraised by the Board at a recent meeting, in the
context of Enterprises’ overall revenue raising objectives.

ABC journalism and other content on radio, television and online is evaluated
quite differently from Enterprises projects. Commercial viability is an
entirely inappropriate criteria in assessing content on radio, television and
online. In fact, such consideration is expressly prohibited by legislation and
editorial policies.

The ABC remains committed to rigorous and independent journalism.

Basically Green’s argument is that ABC Enterprises exists to earn money for the
rest of the ABC, and therefore should not invest in likely commercial losses.
He says it runs by different rules than the rest of the ABC.

It is a reasonable argument up to a point.
But only if you are an accountant and nothing else.

First, it must be doubtful whether there would
have been a loss. The ABC is said to have spent $100,000 so far on
advice. Let’s suppose there is another $2-300,000 to spend. Publishers
week have estimated they would sell at least 30,000 copies of the
Masters book,
and at 170,000 words it will probably sell for at least $50 a copy. 10%
of cover price goes to the author under standard publishing contracts,
40% goes to the bookshop. That leaves considerable revenue for the ABC.
Might they not at least have broken even, even on pessimistic estimates?

But the broader point is that by failing to
publish, ABC Enterprises has now affected the self image and reputation of the
entire operation. It was not a decision that could be made on the figures
alone. It was not a decision that could be made by an accountant. Other values
than the purely financial had to be taken into account.

If ABC Enterprises exists to support the
ABC as a whole, then it cannot do so by undermining the organisation’s core
values and image – no matter how many dollars it contributes.

Peter Fray

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