The former chairman of the ABC, Donald McDonald, has told a Senate Committee that laws providing for an independent appointment process to the boards of public broadcasters are “profoundly offensive”, entirely without merit and unnecessary.
But McDonald also indicated that he had no problems with the notion of a staff-elected director on the ABC board — a position that was abolished during the time of the Howard government but would be reinstated if legislation presently before parliament is introduced.
Speaking at a Senate Committee Inquiry into the National Broadcasting Amendment Bill on Monday, McDonald, who was appointed by the Howard government, said that ABC board governance had worked well during his time in the post — with a staff-elected director for most of that time.
He attacked provisions in the bill that would ban political staffers and ex-politicians from serving on the board.
“I think it is an extraordinary provision, frankly, to suggest that somebody, having served the public as a member of parliament, is, as a result of that, contaminated to the extent that they cannot provide useful service to the public by being on the board of the ABC. I think that is not only extraordinary but profoundly offensive in retrospect to former politicians who have been on the ABC board.”
He mentioned former South Australian Premier John Bannon and former federal minister Ian McPhee as politicians who had served well on the ABC board. He said that staff elected directors had worked hard and managed the inherent conflicts of their positions well. “They certainly did not do the corporation any harm.”
But McDonald, who served 10 years in the ABC post, also shed some light on how he was appointed. He got a telephone call from the minister. So far as he knew, there was no consultation with the opposition, and no merit review process.
“I was subsequently astounded with the speed and lack of serious consideration I gave to it. I said yes straight off, and then I found out how little it was paid … I was so bowled over by being asked to do it. The ABC had been such an important part of my life, in my growing up and in my adult professional life, that I was just delighted that anybody wanted me to do it. Then I found out that it was very poorly remunerated, and that was a big adjustment in my life. It would be a big statement to say that I never regretted it, but I never regretted it for all that long.”
Other witnesses before the inquiry, however, had a different view of McDonald’s term and the ways in which governance had worked at the national broadcaster in the past.
ABC Journalist and former staff-elected director Quentin Dempster gave a list of “old wounds” around politicisation, including McDonald’s close friendship with and public endorsement of John Howard.
“As chairman of the ABC, Donald inappropriately introduced John Howard at a Liberal Party fund-raiser during one election campaign. His behaviour was roundly attacked by editorial writers at the time, but at no time did he concede that his duties to the ABC and his then custodianship of its editorial policies were of higher importance than his friendship with John Howard. The hubris was noted,” said Dempster.
Dempster said that previous ABC managing director David Hill had been known as “Wran’s man” at the ABC.
“The politicising of the ABC through these political appointments and the influences that go to those political appointments cause public distrust of the ABC.”
Under pressure from then prime minister Bob Hawke, Hill had wanted to sack the then presenter of The 7.30 Report, Geraldine Doogue, said Dempster.
Finally, the McDonald board’s appointment of managing director Jonathan Shier had led to “intense political contention” and an attempt to sack The 7.30 Report presenter Kerry O’Brien.
Dempster said: “You will not find this in ABC board minutes, of course, but Jonathan Shier confirmed that he had asked Max Uechtritz, the then director of ABC news and current affairs, to act to secure O’Brien’s removal. Max Uechtritz denied that he had ever made such a commitment to Shier but, informed by leaks from within the ABC, Kerry O’Brien had to endure News Corporation headlines which vilified him. One paper published a picture of him under the headline ‘Dead man walking’. There was wide concern about the existence of a Shier hit-list at this time. Again, you will not find this in ABC board minutes.”
Dempster also mentioned the removal of Media Watch from the schedule during Shier’s regime as an example of politicisation, coming as it did after the exposure of the “cash for comment” affair, involving broadcasters Alan Jones and John Laws.
Finally, Dempster cited the decision by the ABC board not to publish Chris Masters’ biography of Alan Jones, and pressure exerted on Masters by then board member and Liberal Party power broker Michael Kroger.
“A director of the ABC [Kroger] felt he could intimidate a Four Corners reporter to protect his friend. Fortunately, Chris Masters and Four Corners resisted this intimidation.”
Dempster supported the legislation now before Parliament, saying “We need a paradigm shift, and the amendment before the parliament facilitates that. We need a new institutional maturity.”