NOOSA – When John Pilger wrote his book, A Secret Country, he referred to me as a “mate” of Bob Hawke.
Like much of what Pilger writes, that was wrong. I never knew Hawke well, but we had some brief encounters over the years, especially when I worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the second time around, between 1985 and 1988.
In March 1986, in my role as the ABC’s Controller of Corporate Relations, I accompanied Chairman Ken Myer on a visit to Canberra for a series of meetings with senior government politicians including prime minister Hawke.
The purpose of the visit was twofold: for Ken to explain how the ABC was addressing some challenging problems, but primarily for him to respond to political concerns about how the organisation was performing under his stewardship. This is an edited extract of my diary from that time….
Tuesday 4 March, 1986 – Canberra
Bob Hawke, perfectly clothed and coiffed, seems rather distant at first, as if the early conversational niceties are an imposition. Then, without warning, Ken pulls out a compact disc player. Sitting beside him on the lounge, I’m stunned. This was something we hadn’t discussed.
Hawke could not have been more surprised had Ken drawn a revolver from his satchel.
“Compact disk player, Prime Minister, the day will come when everyone will own one. Look how petite it is.”
He’s excited now, and stands and wedges plugs into the Prime Ministerial ears. I’m mortified. But Hawke’s getting interested.
This turns out to be The Swingle Singers’ version of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Hawke stares intently at the coffee table, listening. “Triffic,” he says, passing the ear plugs to adviser, Peter Barron. Ken launches his presentation, The CD player hasn’t been the disaster I feared but I’m relieved it’s out of the way.
Ken succinctly discusses the 1986/87 budget and moves quickly to describe a longer term scenario.
“The government doesn’t have many options," he tells Hawke, “The annual budget appropriation method is slowly strangling the ABC.
"You should either introduce reception fees or sell the corporation – and sell it now, because in five years’ time it will be a hugely diminished asset.”
Hawke reacts with shock to this. But, for the second time in the meeting, I’m horrified. Where has this come from? The Board has not addressed this. It isn’t a matter we’ve discussed. Sell the ABC?
The two men talk about how the organisation might be sold. Ken says he’d break it into bits. My horror turns to fascination.
Eventually Hawke responds. No, he won’t sell the ABC; nor are licence fees politically practicable. Well, Ken says, ensure the organisation gets the capital it needs to become an effective broadcaster.
“Invest now, save later,” murmurs Hawke.
I admire Ken’s nerve and creativity in presenting the case this way. It certainly startles Hawke. But Ken has made his point. If a great public asset is allowed to decline to a point where it is not valued, you might as well get rid of it.
Ken goes on to talk about restructuring and the efficiencies that have been introduced. Programs get a bit of a look in. But it’s not a coherent presentation, veering from grand vision to triviality (the formation of a NSW branch is neither here nor there beyond William Street). But it suffices. to show that the organisation is, well, doing something.
“That’s all very well,” says Hawke, rolling his eyes, “but, Ken, there are some black spots.”
He accuses the ABC of “bias, partiality and propaganda”, citing a Four Corners program on uranium mining. He complains about radicals dictating a left wing, anti-government agenda for the ABC. The implication is that management is in the thrall of the Staff Union.
“The union is a problem,” Ken agrees. “It has friends on the Board and last year conducted a campaign of destabilisation to try to oust Whitehead and me.”
Hawke listens intently.
“They have failed,” says Ken. “Management is curtailing the union’s power.
Peter Barron intervenes. “I disagree. The left may not be gaining ground, but it isn’t in retreat. And, anyway, where are all the new programs?”
“On the screen,” I say.
“How many people are in this radical group,” asks Hawke, returning to the point.
“Only a few,” says Ken, “but they wield disproportionate power.”
“How can this be so?” barks Hawke.
“Look,” I say, “The ABC’s been poorly managed for 20 years. Staff have long since ceased to regard managers with respect. It’s a long hard process to establish management’s credibility when it’s been shot to ribbons. It helps if you know the government is backing you.”
Ken points out that the proper financing of the ABC is an integral part of the process of creating an accountable and resilient management. He says a strong and effective organisation is an interlacing of different elements. Management has to assert itself. It has to show it’s in touch.
It requires political support. It must have adequate resources. With these elements under control, it will gain the credibility it requires to win through. Then, for good measure, he offers the opinion the government has made a mistake in not amalgamating the ABC and SBS under a new Board.
“I made Duffy an offer to step down as Chairman if the government decided to reorganise the two bodies into one,” he adds.
Hawke lets that go and asks what of a practical nature can be done to bolster ABC management.
“The ABC is tied down by an elaborate network of restraints imposed by the Act,” says Ken. “These impede the flexible use and redeployment of staff.”
“Has the ABC previously drawn this to the government’s attention,” asks Hawke.
Ken says no. Hawke says please do.
Ken emerges from the meeting shell-shocked.
“It was a debacle,” he says, “I feel very depressed.”
I say he performed well and the meeting was productive. “Hawke and Barron were tough but not hostile, or anything like it. And you stayed in the game.”
Later in the afternoon we run into Communications Minister Michael Duffy in the corridor outside the Labor Party caucus room.
Duffy sidles up to us and says in his slow drawl, “Ken, next time you want to sell the fucking ABC, would you mind letting me know first?”