SYDNEY 1988 – After my first go at the ABC in 1966-69, I spent the best part of four years in the organisation the second time around between 1985 and 1988.
They were years full of incident, drama, stress, occasional misadventure and gritty management. I rarely had so much joy in a job and never so much fear.
Those years also provided a bounty of experience and learning of the brutal kind procured only through conflict, controversy, debacle and tribal warfare.
And life inside the ABC was tribal. The Radio tribe, the Television tribe, the Journalist tribe and of course the Union tribe or tribes, depending on how they were disposed from time to time.
I’d been 15 years in management when I got there, but those ABC years toughened me as in the extreme heat of a crucible. And they taught me that the way you deal with crises is by cool.
And eventually, in 1987, trivial to most but meaningful to me, I was finally rid of the imperious BBC ‘controller’ appellation, which I hated, to be rebadged as ‘general manager’.
In July 1987 there was a federal cabinet reshuffle and Senator Gareth Evans took over from Michael Duffy as communications minister. Peter Duncan MP was appointed Evans’ deputy and Dr Peter Wilenski departmental head.
It was a wholesale change of great importance to the ABC and I arranged for the three of them to visit Sydney to be briefed by our executives.
It was said of Evans when he was first elected that he brought two suitcases with him to Canberra, one for his clothes and the other for his ego.
David Hill, by now the ABC’s managing director for nine months, had a self-regard no less robust. The two men had never met and I looked forward to what promised to be a testing but significant, day.
For two hours that afternoon, our directors briefed Evans and his colleagues, who listened impassively to a series of presentations on the state of the ABC.
When they had finished, Evans delivered a little homily with characteristic bombast.
“I wouldn’t want you to underestimate the extent to which there are new winds abroad,” he stated.
“The sacrosanctity of the ABC is no more. The unthinkable can happen. I’m here to do battle for you, but I must be sure the fight is a worthy one.”
I glanced across at David who was sitting opposite Evans. He was ostentatiously reading the Pink Guide – the media supplement from that day’s Sydney Morning Herald.
In Hillspeak it was a declaration of war.
That evening I’d arranged a small dinner at the Imperial Peking restaurant at The Rocks for Evans and his team as well as ABC chairman Bob Somervaille, David and I, and two other ABC directors.
Not long after I got to the restaurant, David phoned.
“Maaate,” he said, and my stomach churned, it was a Labor Party wheedling ‘mate’. The one that resonates with floral tributes and headstones.
“Where are you David?”
“At Gore Hill mate, recording Back Chat with Bowden.”
“You said you’d put that off, David.”
“Aw, mate,” now it was his you’re-beginning-to-piss-me-off voice. “Look, I’ll be there. I’ll just be a bit late.”
David was at our television centre on the other side of the harbour, probably in the green room swapping pieces of gossip over a drink. Evans had just arrived at The Rocks.
He was expecting David to greet him and stared witheringly at me as I attempted a series of pathetic excuses.
We began proceedings anyway and, as the banquet progressed and Hill didn’t appear, Evans’ mood transformed from annoyance to something approaching wrath.
Finally, as another course appeared - it may have been raw prawns - and the conversation was in desperate need of a snow plough to make it move along, Evans turned to me and said icily, “Well, I’m not waiting around for a royal entrance.”
At which, with his courtiers hastily finishing off glasses of good wine and pulling napkins from shirts, he stalked off in a mist of indignation leaving them trailing in his wake.
I thought to myself, ‘I hope bloody David has stayed at Gore Hill for another drink’. He hadn’t.
Evans making his exit met David making his entrance.
When David, closely followed by minder Tony Ferguson, got to the top of the stairs, he said to me indignantly, “And who the hell does he think he is!”
So our attempt to build a relationship between the ABC and its new minister was a disaster.
It caused a rift that, augmented by the accelerant of our ‘8 Cents a Day’ campaign in early 1988, lasted for many years.
Like two massive bundles of ego, each striving to control the other, neither Evans nor Hill would give an inch, although, yes, David was the provocateur.
Gareth Evans walked into the ABC ostensibly to learn but determined to lecture. David invited him ostensibly to build a relationship but determined to show who was boss.
It’s often thought that it is conservative politicians that try to exercise some form of control over the ABC, but in fact governments from both camps have the same inclination.
In recent times, the escalating funding cuts to the ABC by Coalition governments, reinforced by the self-serving onslaught of a News Corp empire seeking to rid itself of a formidable digital competitor, has spurred perhaps the most serious threat to what Australians affectionately call Auntie.
Pursuing their ideological bent, or in News Corp's case with just plain avarice, they claim this venerable organisation, now in its 88th year, is biased, badly managed, uncontrollable, in the grip of the left or guilty of some other imaginary offence against their sensibilities.
More than 30 years ago it was my assigned project as an ABC executive to manage the celebrated (or infamous to some people) Eight Cents A Day campaign, during which the corporation swayed the Hawke government to guarantee long-promised triennial indexed funding.
This had been a dishonoured commitment dating back to the late 1940s, and the ABC lusted after it to provide the certainty of a three-year budget regime that would escape the unpredictability of single-year budgeting, totally inadequate for long term program projects or major capital expenditure.
The Eight Cents a Day campaign - as effective in its execution as it was bloody-minded in its conception - was successful not because the Hawke government was a great friend of the ABC.
In my role as general manager for corporate relations, I’d seen chairmen Ken Myer and Bob Somervaille experience prime ministerial touch-ups, I’d appeared before parliamentary committees (especially Senate Estimates Committees) which seemed to take a sadistic delight in taking us down a peg or two and I’d had to organise responses to parliamentary inquiries which had no business poking into programming matters.
Throughout its history, the ABC has faced many such challenges as current CEO David Anderson, his board and staff are experiencing now. But the present attacks are giving off a more sinister aura.
Whereas the ABC in the past emerged with its charter intact from recurring ‘efficiency audits’, ‘reviews’ and ‘enquiries’, whereas there always seemed to be an underlying respect for the organisation, now the folks who brought us “it’s our enemy talking to our friends” seem to be a different.
But they still have the people of Australia to contend with.
The ABC’s ability to persuade the government that it deserved a better deal would be up to its millions of listeners.
If we initiated a funding fight to which the community response was ‘ho-hum’, our goose would be well and truly plucked and roasted to a bitter crisp.
But if community reaction was widespread, immediate and forcefully supportive, the ABC would prevail.
And so, after some weeks of preparation, the campaign was launched with gusto in early February 1988.
It was pretty willing while it lasted but was over in less than a month. When the public spoke, they did so loudly and strongly in favour of their broadcasting organisation.
There was a huge outcry, a haranguing of politicians, forests of newsprint bore our case, town hall meetings throughout Australia roared in our favour, no pressure group was voiceless and no slanging went unmatched.
And under this great outpouring of public support, I had never seen the ABC so united and I had never seen it so vibrant.
Eventually the Hawke government begged off the fight and, on his way overseas, communications minister Gareth Evans met with David Hill at Sydney Airport and signed an agreement on the back of an envelope that the ABC would receive the triennial indexed funding that had been first promised just after World War II.
The people had spoken and the politicians had been forced to listen, which, of course, is the way it is supposed to happen.
That wasn’t the end of the story of course. As we see in the present day, the ABC’s challenges continue. As long as it exists, they will.
After 22 years in broadcasting I was to spend 22 years in public relations, most of that time in a company I started myself in a spare room when I figured that building a business was something I might be good at.
But that is another story, and perhaps for another time.