John Howard’s legacy will include an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Board packed with rightwing radicals, linked to industry funded think tanks hostile to public enterprise.

Howard’s nepotism has encouraged a flowering of a web of influence. loaded information, and jobbery seeking to eliminate perceived leftist influences in the arts, the universities and most of all, the ABC.

His flagrant abuse of power to appoint his political allies to government posts, directly threatens the independence of the national broadcaster as never before.

If a new government is to be elected, it should examine whether its possible to spill the Board, so that a fair and open appointment process might be implemented in the public interest.

Centre for Independent Studies

Howard’s ABC chair, Maurice Newman, is a Mosman stockbroker who once got a nasty shock from Gough Whitlam. From his perspective on Sydney’s wealthy north shore, Newman apparently imagined the Whitlam government had embarked “on its own version of the Cultural Revolution”.

Whitlam’s “class warfare” prompted Newman to become a friend and advocate of the grand daddy of economic rationalism, Milton Friedman. It may tell you something about Newman that his intellectual mentor Friedman thought state enterprises like the ABC made more than bad economic sense. Friedman believed they were immoral!

Earlier this year, Newman made the Friedman memorial address at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a right wing think tank lavishly funded by sections of industry and much favoured by John Howard. Deutsche Bank executive and fellow ABC Board member, Steven Skala, like Newman before him, was also a CIS Director.

The Centre seeks to convert Australia from what was a mixed economy to an idealised free market system; focusing on education, health, family life and indigenous affairs as targets for radical right wing change. It cultivated links with the British Centre for Policy Studies, which launched Thatcherism on a Keynesian world.

CIS cadres who were employed in influential sections of the media and government, were sustained by Centre research. In this way, journalist Jennifer Buckingham, joined the Australian as Schools Editor, before returning to the Centre as Research Fellow with its Social Foundations programme. Meanwhile, the Centre actively proselytised its charter through more than 500 “independent” opinion pieces placed in mainstream newspapers including the Australian Financial Review, the West Australian, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Canberra Times and the Courier Mail. Speakers ranged from George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, to Fair Pay Commission chairman, Ian Harper.

The author of Inside Spin, Bob Burton, described right wing think tanks as the shock troops of the conservative revolution. Burton said that successful think tanks operated on a series of principles;

  • obscure the funding source behind the advocacy
  • court journalists with impressive looking research
  • offer ready to roll talking heads
  • dovetail advocacy with allies with allies in the media and politics to create “an echo chamber effect”. (Burton 2007, p130)

According to Burton, Australian think tanks could support selected politicians to implement policies which might otherwise be “too politically toxic to touch.”

The Institute for Public Affairs

The older, Melbourne centred, mining supported think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) pursued a similar media strategy to the CIS. The IPA employed current ABC Board member, Ron Brunton, to write articles for the Courier Mail and other News Corporation newspapers. In his other career as a columnist, Dr Brunton:

  • castigated liberal Catholics
  • dismissed “Green Illusions” that the environment was deteriorating
  • criticised “deluded” Labor policies on Indonesia
  • claimed Islamic ‘progressives’ overlooked the fact that individual Muslims were far safer and freer in places such as Australia and America than they would be in most Muslim nations
  • described journalist John Pilger as staking out ” the most demented niches of public discussion”, and claiming that he (Pilger) was the “darling of the ABC.

The IPA, founded during the cold war, enjoyed long standing links with the Liberal Party. IPA’s chair, Alan Stockdale, was a privatisation minded Liberal Party Treasurer in Victoria. while its Chief Executive, John Roskham, was executive director of the Menzies Institute. The IPA sought to influence politicians, policy makers and businesses on the environment, deregulation, workplace relations, energy, and governance. In 2003/2004, the IPA boasted of having 553 major media contacts and of organising 49 lectures. The topics ranged from climate change denial, tax cuts, de-unionisation and small government.

Ron Brunton was one of up to a dozen IPA Research fellows writing for the mainstream press as “independent” commentators.

Quadrant

Howard’s favoured right wing journal, Quadrant, provided a literary link for two high profile radical right commentators the Howard government placed on the ABC Board. Quadrant was founded in 1956, as a right wing foil to leftist ideas said to be sponsored by the Soviet Union. It was edited for a decade by Padraic McGuinness, a “controversialist” who the Howard government inserted into the Australian Research Council to to scrutinise grant applications.

McGuinness claimed Quadrant was non-ideological, but reserved his spite in recent years for what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies” of the left.

ABC Board member and historian, Keith Windschuttle, was scheduled to take over as Quadrant editor in 2008. (Australian 24.10.07) Windschuttle was one of the “brave voices” being raised against “the black-armband view of [Australia]”, according to John Howard. (Australian 4.4.2006). Howard told a Quadrant dinner the work of Windschuttle “served as a beacon of free and sceptical thought against fashionable leftist views on social, foreign policy and economic issues”.

Before joining the ABC Board, Windschuttle argued that the ABC and SBS be placed on “a commercial footing” as an economic solution to the Marxists who he seemed to believe had “captured the organisation”.

“Why should Derryn Hinch and Dave Gray be the only ones reduced to doing television commercials for toilet paper and erection problems, when the ABC’s Phillip Adams and Kerry O’Brien could do them just as well?” Windschuttle asked. (Windschuttle 2005)

Quadrant writer and Australian columnist, Janet Albrechtsen, bemoaned bias at the ABC before she joined the ABC Board. (Courier Mail 28.2.2005) “Bias shows in things like story selection and interviewee selection,” she said. “It has to do with how, for example, news that suits the ABC’s anti-Bush agenda.” Albrechtsen’s own agenda was explicitly clear. If her own definition of bias was applied to her own journalism, she might in danger of toppling off the far right of the political spectrum.

Albrechtsen’s appointment to the ABC Board was hailed in The Australian by former Liberal Party Communications Minister, Neil Brown, who saw her seeking his idea of “balance”. He cited as evidence his rather wild eyed belief that “the official ABC position is, first of all, against anything American”:

…On the ABC, all industry is bad, all chemicals are poisonous, all wilderness is pristine, all animals are gentle, all business is evil and all government is a conspiracy. Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether they are right or wrong. All I want is some balance and that is what we have not been getting. (Australian 25.2.2005)

Brown predicted that Albrechtsen’s appointment to the ABC Board would create a backlash. Brown said that Albrechtsen would “cause a real stir in the ranks of the intelligentsia”. “The luvvies and the bleeding hearts won’t like it,” Brown predicted.

Discussion

Many on the cultural right believe they are winning the culture wars, after a campaign driven by industry funding, relentless propaganda, covert organisation and key government appointments. Tom Switzer became Opinion Page Editor of the Australian after a cadetship at the American Enterprise Institute, a US based right wing think tank which helped bring George Bush to power.

In a speech to Quadrant supporters at the American Club in Sydney this year, Switzer said that these “cultural tremors” had been felt at the ABC, particularly since the appointment of Mark Scott (a former Liberal ministerial staffer) as Managing Director:

John Howard once expressed his desire for a “right-wing Phillip Adams” at the ABC. Well, there is now “a right-wing Phillip Adams” in the name of Michael Duffy, who along with Paul Comrie-Thomson provides a welcome corrective, albeit a small one, to the rest of Aunty every week on Radio National. When the provocative Canadian Mark Steyn visited Australia last August, the ABC broadcast up to ten programs featuring the right-wing polemicist, and treating him, in the most part, with respect and serious consideration. His discussion with Owen Harries at a Centre for Independent Studies forum was broadcast on Radio National. That would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Just as it would have been inconceivable a decade ago to see the likes of Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson on ABC television every Sunday morning. (Switzer 2007)

Switzer said that conservatives had felt betrayed by the former ABC Board Chair, Donald McDonald, who was regarded as the Liberals equivalent of John Kerr.

However, earlier radical right attacks on the ABC may have been blunted by popular opposition rather than betrayal. Former ABC CEO, Jonathan Shier attempted to break the ABC’s internal culture with a frontal assault, trumpeting a more market driven approach led by a string of new managers. As a result, ABC staff united and mobilised their external supporters. The ABC proved to be too popular with the public, which included rural conservatives as well as left wing “luvvies”, for radical right wing nostrums to win. Shier’s attack ultimately foundered on the rock of Donald MacDonald’s commitment to the arts, and the broader intellectual community which sustain them. MacDonald may have been a friend of the Howards, but he subsequently came to be characterised by the radical right as captured by ABC culture

The new chair, Maurice Newman comes from the floor of the stock exchange rather than the Opera House. Skala, Albrechtsen, Windschuttle and Brunton are fixtures on the right wing party circuit. Another Board member, Peter Hurley, made large donations to the Liberal Party. The other Board member, John Gallagher, could be described as a conservative business law barrister.

There is little to no experience in public broadcasting on the current ABC Board.

ABC Board decisions are made in secret. There is no annual shareholder’s meeting where Board members are held to account. ABC advisory panel members are selected by ABC management, With the removal of the staff elected Director, at Newman’s demand, ABC Board members were not subject to internal checks or monitoring.

There is no transparency in the current governance of the ABC.

Australia deserves better

A government which claims to represent all Australians should govern “Our” ABC through a representative and qualified board.

In 1995, John Major’s conservative government created the post of Commissioner for Public Appointments, which is both independent of the government and the civil service. The Commissioner’s office developed a seven point code of Practice for Ministerial appointments;

  • ministerial responsibility
  • merit
  • independent scrutiny
  • equal opportunities
  • probity
  • transparency
  • proportionality

The FABC demands a similar system, one which ensures that the Board are appointed on merit, and their commitment to an independent and comprehensive public broadcaster, which is independent of political parties and the government of the day. The Labor Party, the Greens and the Democrats support similar processes.

It’s time to recognise that the ABC belongs to all of us and not politicians and their shadowy backers.


References:

ABC News, (2006.06.15). Windschuttle’s ABC appointment unacceptable. Retrieved August 15, 2007, from ABC News online.

Burton, B. (2007). Inside Spin: the dark underbelly of the PR Industry. Sydney: Allen&Unwin.

Coleman, P. (2006.05.04). Happy Anniversary. Retrieved August 19, 2007, from The Australian Web site.

Howard, J. (2006.10.04). Address to the Quadrant Magazine . Retrieved August 14, 2007, from Prime Minister’s Media Centre.

Howard, J. (2007.05.14). Address to the Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved August 15, 2007, from Prime Minister’s Media Centre.

Newman, M. (2007.3.12). Speech by Maurice Newman. Retrieved August 15, 2007, from Milton Friedman Tribute Web site.

Quadrant, (2000, 12). Editorial. Retrieved August 15, 2007, from Quadrant web site.

Switzer, Tom (2007). Conservatives Are No Longer Losing the Culture Wars. Quadrant. LI/10.

Windschuttle, K. (2005). Topics. Retrieved August 15, 2007, from The Sydney Line Web site: http://www.sydneyline.com/About.htm

Windschuttle, K. (2005.06.22). Vilifying Australia. Retrieved August 19, 2007, from The Sydney Line Web site.