A month after the fuss over the ABC Board’s decision not to publish Chris Masters’s Jonestown book, ABC insiders are no closer to understanding the mechanics of the decision.

In the meantime there are quite a few people in publishing land who have now read either the whole of the manuscript or parts of it. The book, they say, contains not so much a single headline grabbing story as dozens of insights into the undertow of public life over the last decade.

The issue of Alan Jones’s homos-xuality, given such prominence by Mike Carlton last month, is part of the picture but not its focus. Masters reveals dozens of occasions on which Jones has been able to use his influence and network to alter the course of events on behalf of the people he knows and the causes he supports.

One of the reasons ABC insiders believe that Jones must have intervened to persuade the board not to publish is because such action would fit the pattern described the book. “It would not necessarily have been as direct as Jones ringing a board member. It could have been him ringing somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. It could have been some subtle threat.”

At the same time, insiders also acknowledge that the decision could be explained without postulating political interference. Management timidity combined with a board predisposed against publication could have been enough to kill the project.

The strongest evidence for political intervention is the speed with which the decision was made. The ABC was effectively without a managing director at the time, with Mark Scott appointed a week later. Was the aim to kill the project before he took up his position? We may never know.

ABC Enterprises has been engaging in some soul-searching. There have been meetings recently in which the question of how badly the affair has damaged the “brand” has been chewed over. Nothing firm has emerged other than a decision that ABC should continue to publish important books.

But will it get the chance? At least two of Australia’s leading literary agents are saying privately that they will not send contentious material to the ABC because of fear that the board will intervene.

Meanwhile, the publishers that won the Masters manuscript, Allen and Unwin, still expect to have the book out before Christmas.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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