“The NBC in the first decade of its existence was a model developing world broadcaster. It was one of the first PNG bodies to be totally localised and it had an outstanding record of performance in a remarkable number of communications fields” - Editorial, The National, 2 November 2004
PORT MORESBY 1975-76 – Even for us who were in Papua New Guinea at the time, it’s easy to forget that – while we knew independence was on the way – the precise date was announced just three months before the momentous day.
For many expatriate public servants, including the seconded ABC managers in the National Broadcasting Commission, the date was irrelevant. They had already received letters thanking them for their services and a one-way ticket home.
A popular subject of discussion amongst expats was how much their “golden handshake” was worth. Previously designated “permanent officers” were compensated for their interrupted PNG service before they sought new careers elsewhere.
In my case, I’d lost ‘permanency’ when I’d joined the ABC in 1967 to embark on a succession of contracts. In 1975, just as others were leaving, I was offered – and accepted – a three year extension to 1978.
That was my immediate future secured, or so I thought.
On the home front, Sue was teaching at Korobosea – a well-regarded suburban primary school in Port Moresby – and both Simon and Sally had settled into regular schooling after a peripatetic first few years.
We didn’t know it, of course, but our peripatetic wasn’t finished just yet.
My work as director of the NBC’s secretariat was full-on but I found time to finish my university degree, which I had switched from economics to a political science major.
I would graduate in August and then proceed to an honours year along with notables like Rabbie Namaliu, Bart Philemon, Utula Samana, Pedi Anis and Ben Sabumei, all of whom, unlike me, went on to substantial careers in politics - Rabbie particularly distinguishing himself by becoming PNG’s fourth prime minister.
But it was the interests of the NBC that most kept me absorbed. I was beginning to realise that the amalgamation of the two organisations and their vastly differing cultures was a difficult task and one that was distracting senior managers – or at least those who understood what needed to be done - from re-orientating the NBC to its role as a major instrument in national development.
The NBC had taken over a cumbersome and relatively high-cost structure at a time when money was not readily available. Its technology was inadequate and the reservoir of skills and expertise fell well short of what was required of a professional media organisation.
The nature of the PNG radio audience also remained substantially a mystery and much of our programming was inappropriate for Papua New Guineans.
In brief, the NBC was having great difficulty in transforming what had been a minor outpost of Australian broadcasting into the vanguard of Papua New Guinean broadcasting. We had to begin a new story, not just a new chapter.
The five-year plan I was developing in close cahoots with director of engineering Tom Pearson, who Sam had recruited from the Administration’s Posts and Telecommunications Department, was coming together nicely. Tom and I had a mutually argumentative but productive relationship and we worked closely together on the development of three separate broadcasting services for PNG – Kalang (commercial), Kumul (education) and Karai (district).
The plan steadily took shape but where the money would come from to fund the big technology push we required was a quandary.
So, in mid-1975, the Secretariat upped the pace on a project we’d been working on for some time - to introduce advertising on the former ABC English-language service.
Sam Piniau ran the idea past chief minister Michael Somare who, in a letter dated 12 September, just four days before independence, advised that “the proposal for the NBC going into commercial advertising has my support and the sooner this activity commences, the quicker the NBC will start to earn additional revenue”.
Six months later, in March 1976, we had finalised our planning, undertaken a thorough community consultation and presented a detailed proposal for cabinet.
Strictly speaking this was not required, as the NBC Board was empowered under its own legislation to introduce advertising if it chose to do so without further reference to the government.
Age might have wearied me since those days, but my mind has not forgotten how influential the Central Planning Office was in the period around independence, nor how inclined it was to left wing thought bubbles.
The NBC’s proposal to introduce advertising generated an explosive retaliation from a small cabal of expatriate academics in the CPO. That Somare had earlier urged the NBC to get on with commercial broadcasting mattered naught. To these men, that they were ideologically opposed to advertising mattered all.
Commercial broadcasting was to be smothered in the crib and the measures taken to achieve this would adopt the full ferocity and duplicity of white men wanting to get their own way. It was communicated to me from the CPO that the NBC should back off its proposal. There was much anger and coercion and I was its target.
One of Somare’s expatriate minders called to tell me that the NBC’s annual grant would be reduced if we did not “defuse” the issue. Then, one evening, after I’d been enjoying a few drinks at the Boroko Aussie Rules football club, a senior CPO officer sidled up to me as I was getting into my car to say that my job was in jeopardy and that “it would be in our mutual interest to cooperate.”
All of this was unpleasant but it was the monumental backflip by Somare that really took the wind out of my sails when, in a letter to Sam in April 1976, he instructed the NBC not to further proceed.
He wrote: “My prime concern centres on the possible deleterious effects which commercial broadcasting may have on the social and economic environment of our [his emphasis] country.”
The letter further referred to me and Phil Charley, who was running this project for the Secretariat, as “over-zealous, arrogant and disregarding of authority.”
That was enough for me. I resigned on the spot, giving myself enough leeway to find a job in Australia. There were further discussions and negotiations but, as I told Sam, “the commercial broadcasting row was a fight between white men.
“The cause of creating a better broadcasting organisation is being thwarted by textbook socialists who offer nothing but impractical ideas, alternatively threatening and cajoling, slopping around meaninglessly like water in the bottom of a boat.”
I felt my time in PNG was up and, in any event, my mother was very ill in the final stages of cancer. Joan Jackson died a couple of months after I returned to Australia. She was just 56 and I was at her side.
So by July 1976, after nearly 13 years in Papua New Guinea, I found myself in Armidale, northern NSW, settling into my desk as manager of recently licenced community radio station 2ARM-FM. I had been given three months to get it on air.
In the meantime, the Somare government had introduced a bill into the House of Assembly to amend the NBC Act and so remove the clause enabling commercial advertising.
As an exultant Phil Charley reported to me over the phone from Moresby, to everyone's surprise, and especially the government’s, the amendment was defeated on the floor of parliament.
The NBC commenced advertising later in 1976.
At about the same time, I introduced sponsorship on 2ARM-FM, the first public radio station in Australia to do so and thereby initiated a revenue stream that kept a large part of the money-starved Australian public broadcasting movement afloat.
But that’s another story.
In case you missed them.....
Earlier episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues: