When Government provides a vacuum, Crikey absolutely must step in. In the post culture war lull, today we float some names for possible appointment to the Board of Australia’s most important cultural institution, the ABC.

Two ABC Board positions become vacant early in the new year – that of John Gallagher QC and Dr Ron Brunton. Their terms expire in February and May respectively.

This represents a quarter of the Board, and could shift the centre of gravity of the organisation. So how will the new Government prove itself in the making of these vital appointments?

The ALP has promised to set up an arms length apolitical process for these appointments, but even if they are as good as their word, surely time is too short for this to be done before Gallagher and Brunton’s terms expire. Will their terms be extended? What will happen? Questions to Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, got a nothing response yesterday. The Minister is still getting departmental briefings, we were told, and is not in a position to comment.

As all ABC watchers know the Howard Government stacked the Board not merely with political fellow travellers but with cultural warriors of the first water. The result is not a complete disaster, due to some wise and sober heads in the mix – namely the newish chairman, Maurice Newman, and banker, man about town and shrewd operator Steven Skala. Then there is the Managing Director, Mark Scott, whose stocks are high and who is proving himself an adept politician – indeed, a man for all seasons.

Peter Hurley, the Adelaide publican who is close to Liberal politics in that town, is by all accounts not your average listener to Radio National’s more esoteric programs, but a knockabout bloke with business nous. Then there are Janet Albrechtsen, Brunton and Keith Windshuttle, all of whom can be understood as having gone on to the board with a brief to take on the culture – but now the givers of the brief have gone. The new appointments are therefore the opportunity for a big change of direction.

The real cost of the political stacking has been lost opportunity. Apart from Scott, there is not a single person on the board with experience in running a media organisation, or depth of understanding of journalism or new media. Extraordinary, but true.

So who should be considered? Crikey has been asking the well connected, and has come up with the following.

Finding high level people with media experience and without obvious conflicts of interest is difficult, but the names suggested to us that fall somewhere close to that category are:

Julianne Schultz – editor of the Griffith Review, often described as the best of Australia’s small periodicals. Schultz is also a former ABC General Manger of Corporate Strategy. This is a double edged sword. Should former ABC executives be considered? On the other hand Schultz was at the cutting edge of digital media back then and has maintained an interest, with a meaty piece on the ABC published just last month in the Australian Financial Review.

Peter Bartlett – media lawyer par excellence and partner and past chairman of Minter Ellison. Not a journalist, but Bartlett has been hanging out in the newsrooms of the nation for so long that he deeply understands how media organisations run, and best of all, likes getting stories published, rather than thinking of reasons for them to be suppressed.

Patrick Gallagher – Boss of Australia’s largest independent publishers, Allen and Unwin, having set the company up single handed in 1976. Allen and Unwin have been at the forefront of wheels and deals on books in the new digital world – and, of course, picked up Chris Masters’ Jonestown after the ABC decided not to publish it.

Tony or Maureen Wheeler – co-founders of Lonely Planet books, which claims to be the largest independently-owned travel guidebook publisher in the world. Lonely Planet was recently purchased by the BBC Worldwide, but the Wheelers retain a 25 per cent stake. The travel business being what it is, the Wheelers understand the digital world.

There is another potential name, but Crikey being what it is, it would ill behove us to float it. Well, okay then (blush). He is an internet based publisher and recent winner of the Walkley for journalistic leadership and chair of the steering committee for Melbourne’s bid to become a UNESCO city of literature.

There are some others, but there are reasons why they would be howled down. Former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie might actually be quite good – but any Government wanting to end political partisanship could hardly consider him. John Clarke was also suggested, but the risk of a future mockumentary called The Board is probably too high.

On second thoughts, that possibility might be enough to justify advocating his instant appointment.

Anyone got comments or other suggestions? Send them to [email protected]