Today we have a great illustration of the problem with the politicisation of the ABC Board. Hardly a muscle can be twitched within the ABC without the Board being suspect.
Even if they aren’t interfering, everyone thinks that they are. That suspicion has the potential to undermine what should be relationships of trust throughout the organisation.
Despite headlines in The Age today, nobody is actually accusing the ABC Board of interfering over the decision to screen a controversial British documentary on climate change. They are just asking whether or not it is so.
The basis for The Age headline is, it seems, a slightly cryptic conversation between ABC insiders and a rueful smile from head of ABC TV Kim Dalton.
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So did the board interfere to see the screening of what has been described as “the definitive retort to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.”? Crikey understands that while there was no “top down direction”, some board members may have showed interest in whether or not the national broadcaster would buy the program.
Meanwhile ABC management sees screening the show as an example of presenting a “plurality of views”, as promised by Managing Director Mark Scott last year. The ABC plans to make special arrangements to provide forums for the documentary to be discussed and criticised. “Watch to see how we air it,” says one senior source.
The Age story today is headlined ‘ABC Board accused of interference on climate documentary’ but that’s not quite right, according to the key source, eminent ABC science broadcaster Robyn Williams.
Williams is highly critical of the decision to screen “this flaky piece of propaganda” but said this morning that whether or not the board had interfered was a question, rather than an answer.
The key conversation on which The Age story is based took place last month at a meeting with ABC TV director Kim Dalton attended by Williams and Four Corners reporter Jonathan Holmes.
Williams says there was discussion about whether or not the documentary should be screened, and Holmes asked Dalton: “So Janet Albrechtsen wants it on, does she?”
According to Williams Dalton did not reply but smiled awkwardly. That was enough to inflame suspicion.
“From that I gathered that it was a non-answer to a question worth asking,” says Williams.
Dalton was in meetings this morning and unable to return calls asking for comment. Holmes also did not return calls.
ABC sources say that the show was first purchased by Channel Nine for more than the ABC was willing to pay, and only when that deal fell through did Auntie enter the bidding.
Suspicion is understandable. As already reported by The Australian, last month the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne was subjected to a breach of hotel security when hundreds of DVDs of the documentary were pushed under journalists’ doors accompanied by a newsletter from Lyndon LaRouche’s extreme rightist Citizens Electoral Council of Australia.
At the conference, Williams asked Australian of the Year Tim Flannery whether the ABC should screen the show, and Flannery replied that it would depend on whether it was labelled as science, fiction or a piece of entertainment. Most scientific commentators dismiss the documentary as propaganda.
But ABC management is taking the view that the debate is worth having, and should be had at the ABC. Announcing the purchase of the show this week, Dalton said “There are people who still question the link between human activity and global warming. I believe it’s important that these views are heard and debated.”