The appointment of Ron Brunton to the ABC Board in 2003 marked a turning point in the Howard Government’s approach to the national broadcaster. It had already tried systematically politicising the Board, every bit as much as previous Labor Government — which had shamelessly appointed union hacks and Labor politicians — had done.

It had failed miserably. In Brunton the Government adopted a new approach, of making as many extreme appointments as possible in order to somehow make a difference.

In fact, public broadcasting appointments thereafter almost became a sort of extended in-joke by John Howard’s office, each time trying to see just how outrageous they could be in the people appointed to oversee ABC and SBS. Within months, right-wing Catholic and Howard speechwriter Christopher Pearson had joined the SBS Board, and within a couple of years News Ltd’s conservative dullard Janet Albrechtsen and right-winger Keith Windschuttle had been dispatched to Ultimo.

Each time such appointments were announced, the Friends of the ABC would inevitably splutter on their herbal teas and Fair Trade coffees and scream about politicisation. The froth-mouthed fury of the FABC crowd — for whom the best ABC Board member would have been a mixture of Sir Talbot Duckmanton, Michael Leunig and Caroline Jones — was one of the few pleasures for those of us working on national broadcasting issues at the time.

But they needn’t have bothered. The appointments signally failed to achieve any change at the ABC. All they meant was that three critics of the ABC were taken out of the debate over the broadcaster’s balance, but that’s another story.

However, Dr Brunton’s article for the Sydney Institute Quarterly about his time at Ultimo is required reading for those interested in public broadcasting and its future.

It’s fair to say Brunton wasn’t overly happy with his time on the Board. To a large extent he blames ABC management, in particular he makes the quite serious allegation that, although ABC management never explicitly lied to the Board, they snowed it and withheld critical information from it. This is the aspect that has attracted most media comment, especially from anti-ABC types like Andrew Bolt. However, Brunton frustratingly fails to provide specific instances, presumably out of concern that he not breach Board confidentiality.

In his account, Brunton’s ordeal starts to look like that of a hostage at one point, when he is forced to rely on coded messages to signal that all is not well. The sentence that the Board was satisfied that it had fulfilled its duties under s.8 of the ABC Act is removed from the 2004-05 annual report, with the expectation that the Government will notice the omission. Tragically, public service standards have declined since the days of William Cole — who advises Brunton on the omission — and it isn’t spotted.

As one of the public servants concerned, I can confirm that, certainly in my case, standards had indeed declined from the days of Cole (not that I know anything about him, but I’m sure he was a much better bureaucrat than I ever was). But that had nothing to do with failing to notice missing sentences. We were too busy checking that the report actually complied with the legal requirements imposed by the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act — something that, especially in the case of SBS, was not always a given.

But Brunton’s biggest problem was one he never discusses. He was all the easier to snow given he had no background in broadcasting to speak of, and nor did nearly all of his fellow directors.

One is loathe to agree with the FABC, but the latter repeatedly made the point, as the board appointments got more and more outrageous, that no one except the staff-elected director — which the previous Government finally and thankfully removed in 2007 — knew how broadcasting worked. A board full of ex-broadcasters would not have been desirable, but at least one or two appointees who understood things like transmission and program production would’ve given the Board a greater capacity to interrogate management.

The lack of broadcasting expertise on the ABC and SBS boards meant that management had minimal direct oversight on anything faintly technical. The lack of program and production experience meant that significant gaps in the ABC’s internal management framework — like its inability to determine what individual programs cost — were not addressed. And to this day, the ABC still inexplicably maintains a standing army of production personnel that do nothing for much of the time they are at work.

In appointing ideologues whose primary focus was on balance and adjusting the ABC’s role in the culture wars, the Howard Government in effect empowered ABC management. The latter did not need to snow the Board — directors lacked the background to properly oversee what they were doing. And the more extreme the Government’s appointments were, the worse the problem became.

Tomorrow: why the roles of the ABC and SBS need to be fundamentally reassessed — and why the Howard Government failed to do it.

Peter Fray

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