Planet Janet’s greatest hits: the woman who’ll help pick the next ABC head
Janet Albrechtsen hasn't been quiet about her views on what's wrong with the ABC. Here are some of her most strident views on the national broadcaster -- and if you want a seat on the board, you'd better pay attention.
The useful thing about high-profile columnists getting appointed to government positions is they leave a trove of material that can be gleaned for insights into what they’ll be like in the role. And the ABC has been one of Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen’s favourite topics for over a decade. So if you’re wondering what kind of people she’ll be nominating to the ABC board, here are the columns you must read — Planet Janet’s greatest hits.
1. The time she said Mark Scott should resign. Albrechtsen was one of the fiercer critics of the ABC’s decision to publish, in conjunction with The Guardian, stories based on whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks. These revealed Australia had spied on Indonesian dignitaries and led to several icy months between the Australian and Indonesian governments. Albrechtsen wrote:
“When Scott applied for, and was given, the job as MD, he was touted as an effective editor-in-chief, something the national broadcaster had lacked under earlier managing directors. There are now serious questions about Scott’s prudence as an editor-in-chief — whether or not it was his decision to publish. If the decision were his, he got it badly wrong. By deciding to team up with the left-leaning Guardian Australia, the ABC effectively aided and abetted an online newspaper with minimal reach so the spying allegations would receive maximum reach using the resources of the taxpayer-funded giant.”
The next managing director (Scott’s term expires in 2016) can expect to answer questions on whether national interest trumps transparency and freedom of the press, if they want Albrechtsen’s vote.
2. The time she said the appointment of a staff-elected director to the ABC board was a remnant of the “Soviet-style workers’ collective”. In 2004, when Albrechtsen’s column was still fairly new, she wrote one of her most enduring sentences. She thought it inappropriate that then staff-elected ABC board member Ramona Koval was sending staff emails about what was said at board meetings. In fact, she wrote, the whole position was:
“… a remnant of the Soviet-style workers’ collective. And recently re-elected unopposed as staff director, Koval is obviously keeping the collective happy through her regular reports from the boardroom.”
It’s “their ABC”, presumably meaning the staff’s, not “our” ABC, Albrechtsen proclaimed, referring to the taxpayer — and she wanted the role gone. The position was abolished by Howard in 2006, but reinstated by Rudd in 2009, despite Coalition objections. The position stands — for the present.
3. The time she said the ABC should stop being so damn smug. Workers’ democracy isn’t the only thing Albrechtsen hates — she’s no fan of the “smugness” within the national broadcaster. In February wrote that the ABC should stop ignoring or mocking its critics:
“Sadly, the ABC has a long and undistinguished history of playing a disingenuous game of ignoring and ridiculing every effort to make the broadcaster a more balanced and less predictable organisation. When criticised by Labor and Liberal politicians, the ABC says that must mean the broadcaster is fair and balanced, sitting somewhere in the political centre. In fact, it means that the ABC too often skews to the left of Labor. The ABC’s bigger problem is that journalists are rarely held to account for errors they make. I saw this problem first hand as a director and it continues apace.”
It’s a common theme for Albrechtsen. In 2010, she quipped that “the ABC does not stand for ‘Aunty Beyond Criticism'”.
4. The time she slammed Insiders’ invitation to be the token conservative. When Albrechtsen first started writing for the Oz, she was invited onto the ABC’s Sunday morning political commentary program Insiders — but turned it down. It took 10 years for her to get another invitation. But she took no pleasure in being a minority conservative voice on a broadcaster that, she claims, stacks panels with left-wingers:
“Alas, the invitation from Insiders, while genuinely appreciated as an olive branch, misses the point. The issue is not whether Janet Albrechtsen or Niki Savva sits in the chair reserved for the show’s sole conservative. The point is that our taxpayer-funded broadcaster thinks it appropriate, week in and week out, for the program to have a three-to-one ratio in favour of progressives. It’s the same over at Q&A on Monday nights, where conservatives routinely are outnumbered three-to-two by those who lean left. Or four-to-two if you count host Tony Jones. I have suggested to the producers they surprise their audience so that, just occasionally, the panel leans the other way. Why not shake it up, fellas? After all, it may better reflect views outside Ultimo and Southbank.”
5. The time she said the ABC should be more like Sky. When Rudd was rolled in 2010, Sky News’ breaking coverage ran circles around the ABC’s scheduled programming (as Media Watch pointed out). Albrechtsen reckons it said much about the ABC:
“To be fair, not every network did what Sky News did. But why couldn’t the ABC? The answer is all about culture. Wednesday evening was a study in contrasts between a network that gets the importance of delivering news as it happens and a complacent national broadcaster that doesn’t get it. Worse, in the days that followed, a self-congratulatory national broadcaster tried to pretend it had not let down those Australians, like me, who look first to it for the best coverage of news and current affairs.”
Sky News, meanwhile, was an agile commercial operator who operated on a shoe-string budget — showing how news should be done.
6. The time she said ABC directors have a legal duty to ensure the ABC is impartial. At the heart of Albrechtsen’s criticisms is a belief that ABC directors should be more interventionist to make sure the broadcaster doesn’t fall into the lefty-inner-city group-think she believes its journalists are partial to.
In 2010, then-chair Maurice Newman said the ABC was in the grip of “group think” about climate change. The comments were roundly renounced by Aunty’s journalists. Albrechtsen responded:
“Those who quickly denounced Newman for editorial interference, people such as Holmes, Greens senator Christine Milne and the erroneously named Friends of the ABC, have presumably not read section 8 of the ABC Act, which imposes a personal legal duty on directors to ‘ensure that the gathering and presentation by the corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial’.”
So, with that, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that plenty of groups and individuals (Crikey included) are raising a stink about Albrechtsen’s appointment. The government has appointed two conservatives (former deputy Liberal Party leader Neil Brown will sit alongside Albrechtsen) to a four-person panel which gives the Communications Minister a three-person shortlist whenever a vacancy arises on the ABC board (the board, in turn, picks the managing director). The remaining two panel members are due to leave next year. Yesterday’s appointments raise a disturbing precedent for those who believe the ABC’s journalists should be left to do their jobs free from ideological interference. In Albrechtsen’s view, that assumption is the entire problem with the ABC.