The new generation of mid-ranking ABC executives who think it’s smart to flirt with commercial partners might do well to consider the fate that befell some of their predecessors. It is not so long ago that department heads, and even the director of television himself, paid with their jobs for flying too close to the seductive sun of backdoor sponsorship.

In its early days, the TV service of the national public broadcaster adopted from its radio parents a purist, almost prissy, approach to guarding editorial independence. Avoiding even the suspicion of commercial influence could reach bizarre heights. In the famous breakfast scene of The One Day of The Year, the box of cornflakes hiding a bottle of beer had to be turned from the camera so that no viewer might read “Kellog’s”.

Later, a legitimate early ABC current affairs story on the Number 96 phenomenon was attacked in a blistering memo from the deputy general manager, who argued that the ABC had given a commercial enterprise valuable publicity in contravention of the ABC Act. The fact that Number 96 was then out-rating the ABC by a four-to-one margin in that time slot was beside the point: independence had to be defended as a matter of principle.

It has, of course, never been possible for Aunty to keep brand names and commercial references entirely off its airwaves. But as long as those mentions were “incidental or accidental”, then the commissioners could be confident that the ABC’s editorial purity remained intact.

Curiously, that dam was breached in the most unlikely programming area: the arts. “Simulcasting” was all the rage in the 1980s (vision on TV, sound on FM radio), and the ABC was keen to jump on that broadcasting bandwagon. Enter stage left: Esso Night at The Opera.

For the ABC to acknowledge US-owned oil corporation Esso by name in narration and graphically in the opening titles of the telecast was extraordinary. The justification for this apparent contravention of the ABC’s own rules set a precedent that has been invoked many times since, and still is.

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Esso, technically, was a third party. It sponsored the Australian Opera company, not the ABC telecast. But everyone involved in producing the series understood they were slithering through a loophole. Securing the on-air naming rights to a prestige, two-hour prime-time telecast was worth much more to Esso than the sponsorship cash they’d given to the opera company.

Internal staff discomfort at this circumvention of the ABC’s clear obligation to avoid brand names eventually scuttled the series, but ambitious executive producers and department heads were quick to realise the potential of this “third party” trick.

For decades, the ABC TV sport producers and directors had struggled to keep prominent signage out of their “live” event coverage. Advertising on fences and grandstands was beyond their control (“incidental and accidental”), but they became adept at minimising its visual impact. Yet one of the most notorious incursions of blatant commercialism into a program occurred in a setting where the ABC’s own staff designed, scripted and cast the whole broadcast.

The ABC Sports Awards show had been a traditional annual celebration since the late 1950s. But in 1993, after a stinging expose on Media Watch, the corporation’s managing director, David Hill, described the telecast as “the most flagrant contravention of the ABC Act and ABC editorial policies I have witnessed”.

The show was riddled with graphic and verbal plugs for brands and corporations, even in some of the recorded segments. Once again, the responsible executive, the head of TV sport, Rory Sutton, relied on the “third party” defence. The event, he claimed, was staged as a co-production with the Australian Confederation of Sport, and the confederation had commercial sponsors that required recognition. It didn’t wash. Sutton was relieved of his command and left the ABC.

The early 1990s — the “Hill era” — became a dark, sleazy period in the history of independence at the national public broadcaster. As the rocks were slowly lifted by campaigners such as John Millard and Quentin Dempster, program after program was shown to be tainted by backdoor commercial influence. An extensive independent investigation commissioned by the ABC board and conducted by George Palmer QC established that Holiday, Home Show, Everybody, Export Australia and even The Investigators had all been corrupted to some extent.

Export Australia was the most astonishing breach of the ABC’s own rules. Companies had directly paid a co-producer to secure extensive and laudatory exposure on the program. Worse, there was evidence of those deals in writing. Paddy Conroy, the powerful director of ABC television, and widely mentioned as the likely successor to David Hill, resigned.

When a Senate select committee conducted its own inquiry into these scandals of undisclosed sponsorship its final report didn’t spare Conroy, saying he had “failed to ensure that, in some cases, the arrangements with co-producers and independent producers did not in any way compromise the editorial integrity and independence of the ABC.”

Two decades have now passed since Conroy’s dramatic demise, and for the most part Aunty has been able to keep the commercial wolf from its door. But the complexity of today’s multimedia and cross-media platforms offers new opportunities for urgers and touts to squeeze their messages through the digital cracks in the ABC’s armour. “Partnership” is the new euphemism.

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So why does our national broadcaster keep falling for these enticements? The ABC true believers tell us that budget cuts have made its program-makers so desperate for cash that they are prepared to risk compromising their own editorial independence.

This is patent nonsense. If it’s true that content producers are not being allocated enough of the ABC’s $1 billion-plus annual appropriation, then their response should be to argue convincingly for a fairer share, not take their begging bowl to outsiders who will inevitably want to influence the tune they’ve paid for.

To my mind, the problem stems from two sources. The first is the ABC’s insistence on maintaining sections that ape the corporate world. We have “ABC Events” and “ABC Commercial”, the current offspring of the previous “ABC Enterprises” department. But the ABC is a broadcaster, not a business, and the very existence of these quasi-corporate arms has the effect of legitimising commercial deals that would otherwise seem unacceptable.

The second source is simple, naive silliness. Too many ABC staff think it’s ultra cool to negotiate these flashy sounding deals with external agencies and corporations. Alongside the broadcaster’s total budget the amounts involved are petty cash, yet this quest for partnerships puts the ABC’s enviable reputation at immense risk.

Genuine editorial independence is a precious — but fragile — flower.

*David Salter is an independent journalist and producer who has worked at the ABC, on and off, since 1967.