It’s been a long wait, but the first fruits of the Government’s new ABC Board appointments process have emerged.
The Government committed before the election to a process of selecting appointees based on the UK “Nolan Rules”, which require an independent selection process that provides candidates for ministerial appointment. While lauded by Friends of the ABC types as a breakthrough in national broadcaster independence, they still give the Minister — and, therefore, the Prime Minister — final say. All major appointments across the Government are still approved by Cabinet. The process has taken well over a year to establish, during which the ABC Board has, in the words of the Minister, “run a little light”.
Even so, Conroy’s first appointments necessarily represent a step up from the last years of the Howard Government. While Steven Skala and Chairman Maurice Newman (who had had a previous term as Deputy under Donald McDonald) were worthwhile appointments, hotels and gambling executive Peter Hurley had no background of any kind for the job, and Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle looked more like a final throw of the dice in John Howard’s lengthy and failed attempts to reshape the ABC. SBS got off more lightly, the previous Government preferring simply to roll over appointments, including Christopher Pearson, who got reappointed in one of the final acts of the Government he so faithfully served.
SBS also had some people with actual media experience on its board. Gerald Stone and Bob Cronin both had storied media careers — Cronin, in what must be close to a conflict of interest, is now back at the helm of WA Newspapers — and Carla Zampatti has been chair forever, ensuring plenty of corporate memory. This was not the case at the ABC. The Howard Government, in its attempts to reshape the broadcaster, unwittingly handed more power to ABC executives by sending in board members who might have had the right ideological credentials or commercial background but knew next to nothing about radio, TV or online — meaning there was no one to challenge and pressure management.
The slow rectification of this has begun with Julianne Schultz. Schultz is the ABC Board candidate from central casting — all the right academic and cultural industry connections and a Rudd favourite, having co-chaired the 2020 summit creative industries group, but she was also Corporate Strategy Manager at the ABC under Brian Johns, during a crucial period when the ABC was planning for its move into digital broadcasting and ramping up its online activities.
However, the other new ABC director, Michael Lynch — married to former SBS executive Chris Sharp — is a veteran arts administrator, so won’t offer much on the broadcasting front — he’s also been living in London for most of this decade, although it’s a bit of an ABC tradition to bring executive expats back from the Old Dart. There’s an air of predictability about both Lynch and Schultz, although that might be more a reflection of Australia’s shallow cultural industry gene pool than on them.
Elleni Bereded-Samuel, who will join the SBS Board, is a return to an earlier tradition — maintained half-heartedly by the Howard — of appointing directors with solid multicultural roots. Ms Bereded-Samuel is already head of SBS’s Community Advisory Committee, and possibly represents a subtle signal to Shaun Brown that the days of steady drift toward mainstream programming on SBS Television are coming to an end.
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The other SBS appointee, venture capital veteran Joseph Skrzynski, is about the heaviest corporate hitter ever to be appointed to either board, even more so than Michael Kroger’s ABC stint (which Kroger lamented to be a failure). The SBS budget, where there’s frequently no ‘000s at the top of the column, will look decidedly small beer to the MD from CHAMP.
In a troubled portfolio, Conroy has managed to keep media policy in the background, primarily by not doing a great deal. But he’s delivered on the Government’s commitment to more independent and better Board appointments. However, the ABC Board will take a long time to turn around — the first of the current appointees to finish won’t do so until late next year. With the Government reviewing public broadcasting, a tight triennial funding budget coming up and the ABC on the cusp of commencing digital radio, it’s a critical time.
Then again, as veterans will tell you, it’s always a critical time for the ABC.