Nine hundred years ago, your correspondent was working for the ABC at the old Gore Hill studios in Sydney — a sprawling campus of buildings, brick, wood, and iron sheds built when the ABC needed actual studios and to be close to transmitter towers — when a call came around: the MD (managing director) was to speak! The MD was Jonathan Shier, appointed at the height of the Howard years by a board headed by Donald McDonald*, PM John Howard’s arty friend. Shier was a minor UK TV exec, mainly in advertising placement, who had leapt ahead of the pack for new MD by being willing to enact the purge that the Coalition so greatly desired at Aunty.

Once in power, he was hopelessly out of his depth, poor man, unable to comprehend the vast enterprise he had been put in charge of, and particularly at a loss to challenge the News and Current Affairs division, and their deep determination to do news and challenge power and propaganda. Shier hummed and haahed, then convened a nationwide organisation meeting in which he announced, bug-eyed, zombified, shambling across stage, that the seven or so divisions, based on rational categorisation, would be changed into 20 or so arbitrary units (“Drama'”was one, but so was “Demographics and History”, and, god knows “Cheese and Lacrosse” — it was that mad). “Will this work?” I said to a commercial producer sitting next to me, who had read one book in his life, The Thoughts of Nanushka. “Nahhh I’ll just go directly to the head of TV. This guy’s got eight months left.”

So it proved. Incapable of providing real leadership, resisted at every turn by people intent on preserving the broadcaster’s viability, Shier proceeded with filigree work: demanding that Fawlty Towers be played on a Friday night (the tapes were so old that flecks of blue appeared during the transmission, where the surface had worn down to the chemical base), importing the BBC’s Top of the Pops, even though its chart countdown bore no relation to Australian music … and renaming Radio National “Radio One”.

Sound familiar? Yes, when new ABC people have hit a wall, are out of ideas, they always hit on renaming the radio stations. With the rise and rise of Michelle Guthrie as new MD, we have entered one of those periods again. However, this time the danger is greater. Shier was a deranged incompetent, ultimately resigned when the board lost faith in him, to their credit**. Guthrie is an experienced CEO. The period in which a place like Gore Hill was still a going concern is long gone. The culture that assumed the indispensability of the ABC is over. Public broadcasting has to defend and reinvent itself at the same time.

The word from inside the ABC — which is like a message being tapped in Morse code from inside the hull of an upturned ship — is that Guthrie has been blindsided by the challenge of the job, is trying to make her mark by small and high-profile actions, from the axing of The Drum comment site to the killing of the transcription service. The Drum is no terrible loss (though more opinion is better than less opinion), though its removal will please News Corp, which sees the ABC as its main barrier to a one-outlet media landscape. The abolition of the transcription service is, by contrast, a piece of nihilistic vandalism, borne of a lack of any understanding or appreciation of the ABC’s public role.

Who is Guthrie? Who knows? A News Corp and Google executive, she seems less someone with the attack-dog News Corp commitment to some absurd ideology than a lifelong management type lost in the wilds of that profession, which has nihilism as an operating principle. That she is reputedly a devote of the bullshit “Six Sigma” management style is telling — it is of course the favoured management style of Jack Donaghy (as played by Alec Baldwin) in 30 Rock, and leads him to such triumphs as the pocket microwave, “Seinfeld vision” in which the latter’s image is CGI’ed into all shows while he’s on holiday, tanking the studio to lower the share price with a cop show named “God”, in which the deity solves crimes (GOD: What if Esposito’s lying to us? OFFSIDER: Don’t you know???? GOD: Let us pray! OFFSIDER: To who?!?! ) and the eventual sale of the entire network to the Sheinhardt Wig Company.

[Guthrie’s Lean machine: ABC executives to get black belts]

Shier had a shadow of the ideological battle he was part of. There’s a strong sense that Guthrie’s only commitment is to the cult of management. Perhaps she has been misreported in The Guardian, which draw on multiple background sources to say she had asked why the Four Corners crew reporting on Nauru hadn’t featured more “happy children”; there weren’t any, a show-maker had allegedly replied, after a silence. If not, it’s telling.

The danger is that the ABC has got to a point where support for it is so attenuated and casual that those who have an ideological beef with it have much more energy than those who want to nobble it. In the teeth of it, the usual Stalinist process has started — people exceeding the quota of oppression to please the generalissimo. The purge at ABC Radio National appears to be an example of that — good broadcasters being turfed out, and the panicked process by which a good general broadcaster like Jonathan Green has been forced out of a Sunday morning show, in favour of Tom Switzer, rightish ideologuish type and professional grey man. Green has a light and pluralist touch, a sense of the absurd, suited to a Sunday morning show; Switzer is an intelligent commentator who is as light as an anvil dropped off a yacht. His Sunday morning slot will be either an attempt by him to play light, Brezhnev-as-DJ, or a grim ploughing through. Either way, a mistake for him, a panicked move by management.

We are watching all this happen in real time, piece by piece, yet there is, as yet, very little protest. Why is this? In part I suspect it’s because the process is so confused. The IPA may wish to demolish the whole enterprise; almost everyone else has some conception that they’re dealing with an institution built up over a century — yes, in a decade, the ABC will be a hundred years old — and which is entwined with the life of the nation. Howard’s culture war against was half-hearted, but in retrospect it looks adamantine compared to the hopeless, mass tanties of the current right. There is a weariness at this endless assault, and defenders always lack the energy of the attack dogs. The IPA et al have a simple charge: abolish it! Demolish it. To defend the given institution in these beaten-down times is a little more difficult.

[Radio National staff pass no-confidence motion in ABC management]

The trouble is, in part, that the ABC hasn’t reshaped itself. For decades it was a conservative, nationalist organisation. In the 1960s it was reshaped by a rising group of broadcasters and producers, into a critical and cutting-edge organisation. In the ’90s and 2000s, as the world and class relations changed, that group became more isolated. Despite entreaties from many to make sections of the ABC more pluralist — not simply politically, but in its style and approach — they have been reluctant to do so. Radio National, to take one example, is both excellent and still sounds like student radio in 1976. Unlike BBC Radio Four, its closest comparison, it has failed to build a wide social base with comedy, drama and more wide-ranging programs. Thus, when the axe came, as it did recently, there was an insufficient public base to kick up a real storm. Control of sections of its TV and radio divisions went from ageing hippies to ageing hipsters whose conception of content was based around the cutting-edge, transgressive, challenging — and neglecting more grounded, broad-based, unchanging fare.

A deeper reshaping would have avoided the quick fixes that have been applied over the years — the direct interference in News and Current Affairs, and the installation of some genuine gimlet-eyed nutters in senior positions therein. That’s been the way that ABC types always respond to political challenge, which is exactly the opposite of what should be done: the criticism of the narrowness of much of the ABC culture should be accepted and remedied, News and Current Affairs defended with a ring of fire.

There is a wider problem too: defending public broadcasting in an age of a borderless digital content cannot be done without rethinking the whole idea of what the state is doing being involved with broadcasting. It was initially based on scale — no one else could marshal the capital and infrastructure to provide broadcasting at all to vast sections of the country. It was superseded by the idea that a public broadcaster would provide what commercial broadcasters wouldn’t — especially in terms of high culture. But the authority of high culture is dead now, and anyone who wants it can get it as a download. At some point, “high” culture became “transgressive” culture — and the audience became class-sectional.

To protect its crucial critical News and Current Affairs function, and its remnant high culture function, the ABC has to be more things to more people. It has to establish and use metrics different to the commercial ratings, which simply record (semi-fictional) viewer tallies. Unless you think that more people should be watching more TV more of the time, that doesn’t measure a social good. The ABC needs to measure what its overall saturation effect — does it reach 100% of the population over a year? Has it increased the number of people who watch the ABC multiple times over a year? Most importantly, it needs qualitative measures. How many people found an ABC series/show/radio station inspiring, essential, moving, unique, illuminating, etc — in other words, how many got from the ABC something they wouldn’t get anywhere else? Year on year it would then measure not weekly ratings, but the increased satisfaction of these qualitative goals, and uptake by an ever-wider population group, trending to 100%.

That would not only be a better measure of whether the corporation is achieving the aims set out in its charter, it would also serve to build a broader social base that can defend the broadcaster.

Really, this need a few people to get out of the Twitter/online zone and get organised. The right have the relentless motion of capital on the side; the left used to counter that with on-the-ground organisation and collective face-to-face association. But while capital remains, persuading the progressive class to actually get together in meetings and organisations — even for the things they value — has become difficult.

Well, to quote the news theme, ya-da-da-dah-dah-tatat-DAH! The trumpet soundeth, and the call must be answered, if the organisation is valued. If you’re in the MEAA, petition them to go in harder on the current arrangements. If you’re not, get involved with ABC Friends/Friends of the ABC. The organisation has been kept going by dedicated people for decades. They want and need new blood (and possibly, a less daggy name). Ten new people willing to put a shoulder to it would transform this social and cultural struggle. The few hours a week you would expend on such a cause would only be spent binge-watching The Walking Dead and tweeting archly. The IPA don’t binge-watch — they are the walking dead, the chinos-and-pearls crowd shambling towards everything you value. It takes a century to create something like the ABC, and three years with the zombies in charge to kill it. The building, the studios, the towers that made the ABC an imposing presence are long gone. Somehow it remains, and it must do so. The most radical act at the moment is to conserve.

*not Donald MacDonald, a jobbing actor/writer, who was, by coincidence occasionally employed on the show I was working on at the time. He wrote what I reckon is one of the funniest Oz plays ever written, a simple farce called Caravan. Might need a re-polish, but someone should really restage that, it was a corker.

**by a coincidence I was at ABC Southbank the day the board met there to decide Shier’s fate (ABC news crews were convened at the front entrance to get doorstops of the people who worked on the same floor as them). After the meeting, Donald McDonald, having made the right move under difficult circumstances, walked past. Strode past. I have rarely seen a man more haunted in the eyes, or suddenly aged. He was as grey as one of Derek Gilroy’s cardigans.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey