Justin Milne and Michelle Guthrie.

The entirely appropriate focus on the ABC board, and the process for appointing it, risks confusing multiple governance issues.

Currently there is, notionally, an arm’s-length process for deciding ABC board appointments, first established by Labor under Kevin Rudd, with a government-appointed panel that vets applicants for board positions, presents a list of potential appointees to the government, which then selects one. The selection criteria for board positions are made by regulation. 

Except, the process isn’t really arm’s-length: the government still appoints the appointers, as it were. The Abbott government made a mockery of the process by appointing one of the Howard government’s most nakedly political appointees, Janet Albrechtsen, to the selection panel. And being apolitical isn’t the only, or even the most important, criterion for an ABC board director; they need to have a grasp of not merely the media but public broadcasting. Too few board directors in recent decades have had actual media experience.

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This included the Howard government’s right-wing ideologues like Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle, who were appointed to pursue an ideological agenda but who knew too little about broadcasting to make a serious difference, giving management a free hand. But there’s a real question mark over whether the current crop of notionally apolitical directors have any understanding that the ABC isn’t just another corporate board but a public broadcaster both with directorial duties specified in legislation in addition to standard board duties, and community expectations around the ABC’s role.

So there are three issues to grapple with:

  1. ensuring directors are apolitical;
  2. ensuring they are competent to fulfil their board duties; and
  3. ensuring they understand the nature of public broadcasting.

There’s no point making ever more convoluted appointment structures to remove political interference from the ABC board appointment process. Politicians will always end up appointing the directors of what is a publicly funded body. But partisan politics can be significantly minimised by requiring bipartisan support for each appointment. Legislating this is fairly straightforward, whether it involves requiring the endorsement of the leader of the opposition, a unanimous parliamentary vote or the endorsement of the Senate’s communications committee without dissent. 

Improving the media expertise of potential directors is an issue for the appointments panel, but demonstrating substantial experience in journalism should be added to the four current key areas of expertise and the requirement for board appointees to possess ” an understanding of the media environment, in particular the ABC, its Charter and its place within the Australian community” should be significantly strengthened to requiring a comprehensive understanding of the role of public broadcasting, the functions of the ABC, its independence and integrity and its place in the community. The panel should also be required to consider potential appointees in light of the existing mix of skills and experience on the board, so that there is always someone with a media and journalistic background on the board.

The other governance issue raised this week is Milne’s perception that funding was dependent on ensuring the government was happy with the ABC’s coverage of politics and economics. While this may not be true, it is hard to avoid the sense that the current government has repeatedly slashed ABC funding for ideological reasons. Ring-fencing ABC funding from political interference is far more difficult than doing the same for board appointments. No legislated framework is future-proof — an incoming government can always change a law guaranteeing a certain level of funding for the national broadcasters. The BBC avoids this problem by relying on an independently administered licence fee, but there has never been any interest in a similar mechanism here. 

The closest we could probably get is a requirement for ABC and SBS triennial funding to be legislatively locked in rather than addressed through the budget process, meaning a government would have to pass legislation through the Senate to reduce funding. However, that wouldn’t stop cuts every three years if a government were so minded. In a democracy, a government should have the power to increase or cut funding anywhere it pleases. And voters should care enough about public broadcasting to pass judgement on that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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