It’s a measure of the mess that the
national broadcaster has been in that nobody was able or willing to say
soothing things before the new managing director Mark Scott spoke last Friday,
three days after taking up his new job. There
are manuals on the public relations of crisis management. They include the necessity of being open to
the public and explaining yourself. In
the aftermath of the decision not to publish the Jonestown book, the ABC broke every rule.
Apart from a two paragraph press release on
the day of the decision not to publish the Chris Masters book, the only
statement made by management was in a letter to staff responding to a
petition. It was left to those staff to
give this document to the media. Nobody in
a senior position – board or management – was available for comment.. There was no explanation, no reassurance, no
comfort for a shell-shocked staff and public. It seemed those who made the
decision were too rigid with ideological self-righteousness to speak, and those
forced to cover for them were too compromised and sick at heart to put on a
decent front. Meanwhile the lower levels of the organisation leaked like a
sieve. Try to find a better way of
damaging your “brand”.
Scott, a good diplomat, said what he had to
say to try and settle things down. He promised that the organisation’s
journalism would not be compromised on his watch, and he ruled out advertising
on the ABC’s radio and television channels.
Also significant was what he did not say: asked whether he would have
made the same decision about the Jonestown
book, he refused to comment.
None of this disposes of the conflicts and
compromises involved in the ABC’s commercial operations.
The truth is that the ABC is already half a
virgin. Not only does it advertise its
own commercial products, but its content is also licensed to private
organisations such as Hutchison Three mobile phones and Telstra Bigpond, who
often surround it with advertising. We
don’t know, because The Board won’t tell us, how the ABC is paid under these
licensing deals. It may be that Aunty
is already getting money based on advertising revenue.
The other way of commercialising the ABC is
for it to sell its content to the public, as it already does in the form of
books, CDs, and DVDs, but as the Chris Masters controversy shows, this can
create problems as well. And with media convergence, the question is what to
sell, and what to give away for free. Podcasts, for example, may eventually
replace conventional broadcasting for some types of programs. Are they core
content paid for with our taxes, or an “adjunct” that can be sold for a
is no way for a public broadcaster to raise money without creating compromises
and conflicts. Possibly such conflicts
and compromises could be managed, but this would take principled, sensitive, intelligent
and strong leadership. These are the very things that have been lacking in the
The Jonestown saga has been a lightning rod
for tensions that have been building for years.
Is Mark Scott the man to fix it? Actions speak louder than words. Watch this space.