ABC managing director

The ABC and SBS Board Appointments Nomination Panel may never recover its credibility after an extraordinary attack by former member Janet Albrechtsen on the newly appointed acting chair of the ABC board, Kirstin Ferguson.

Albrechtsen’s column-length spray at Ferguson seems equal parts ideological fury, a pre-emptive warning, and schoolyard gang jealousy that Kirstin didn’t want to be her friend anymore. But beyond that, Albrechtsen’s column may deeply concern potential board nominees about how they may be publicly portrayed later.

Traditionally, the process for appointing people to the ABC and SBS board went something like this: the government picked someone (like the Howard government picked Albrechtsen) to go on the board and told the bureaucrats in the Department of Communications to make it happen. The bureaucrats would contact the appointee, get the paperwork in order, make sure they didn’t have any conflicts of interest, work out a media release, and get the appointment documents ready. In the course of that process, they’d often have quite a bit of contact with the appointee and find out all sorts of things about them. All of which, of course, remained totally confidential. That’s how public servants work.

But a process involving external people, however eminent (the panel used to be headed by David Gonski, now it’s former Treasury head and bank chairman Ted Evans) introduces players who may have an agenda, not merely in whom they recommend for appointment — Albrechtsen says she urged the appointment of Ferguson purely on merit and now regrets doing so — but in what they do with anything they have learnt in that process.

Albrechtsen tells us she talked Ferguson out of withdrawing; that Ferguson carefully cultivated both herself and Gonski (the latter, it is suggested, because of his reputation for mentoring female board directors); that Ferguson had a “weird, cloying manner”; that Albrechtsen explained the duties of the board to her and secured Ferguson’s apparent agreement; and that she then snubbed Albrechtsen at an airport lounge sometime later. (Sniping about Ferguson’s “nauseating ‘girl-power’ gush” and her support for women then follows, because as we know, men have never engaged in that sort of sexist supporting of their own gender).

Albrechtsen may be justified in finding Ferguson’s alleged behaviour disingenuous, or there may be quite a different side to the story from Ferguson; but either way, sharing such information outside the nomination process may deter others from participating.

Albrechtsen is no longer on the nomination panel. Members Evans, Sally Pitkin or Anne Fulwood, or even former panel member and Liberal frontbencher Neil Brown, may have no interest in revealing their interactions with potential nominees. But that’s not really the point: Albrechtsen has demonstrated that having such a process located outside the public service — in a place where it is supposed to be more arm’s-length from government — introduces other risks.

Who would apply for an ABC or SBS board spot now if you are worried that, in the future, everything you say or do in the process could appear in the media, to your detriment — that your “cloying manner” could be portrayed in hostile terms?

And for what? As Brown himself has now complained, the panel process was a “charade”, “misleading” and a “figleaf”. With one former member deriding the process and another making comments about how nominees behaved, the whole thing is a dead letter. Problem is, it’s cemented in by legislation, so it will shamble on, zombie-like, until legislative change finishes it off.

Bernard Keane was manager, National Broadcasting, in the Department of Communications from 2000-05.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey