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Radio Days: The ascent of David Hill

Radio Days - David good portrait
David Hill - an exhilarating and exhausting man to be around. He left the ABC, where he was Chairman then CEO from 1986-95, much better than when he found it


SYDNEY 1986 – In mid-August 1986, I had just got back to my desk after what I considered a well-earned week’s break in Bali when I was called into managing director Geoffrey Whitehead’s office, on the twelfth floor of Broadcast House overlooking Hyde Park.

Geoffrey had just returned from Canberra with new ABC chairman David Hill, in his first week in the job, and Geoffrey was looking worried.

Telling me to keep what he was about to say to myself, he said he and Hill had just been at an urgent meeting with communications minister Michael Duffy.

Duffy had advised them that in the next night’s budget the government would announce its intention to amalgamate the ABC and the Special Broadcasting Service.

Geoffrey feared for his job. “They’re going to dismantle the ABC,” he told me, the anxiety palpable. “I want you to think about how we’ll manage this.”

Then, unannounced, Hill, who I had never met, barged into Whitehead’s office, closely pursued by a photographer from the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Smile Geoffrey,” David said, plonking himself on Geoffrey’s file-laden desk, “look as though you’re enjoying the job.”

Photos were taken but David’s mood turned dark when Geoffrey told him the chairman’s office was a lonely outpost at the top of the building where his only company was the boardroom.

David motioned me to follow and we took the lift to his new premises. Here we found the ladies orchestra support committee using the board room for a meeting.

Amidst oohs and aahs and “you’re David Hill – you only look 18”, the 40-year old ABC chairman disappeared into a mist of blue rinse, talcum powder and Chanel No 5.

I’d known him barely 10 minutes and I’d already witnessed the bravado and the charisma. It was clear the ABC was about to experience a whirlwind.

It was inconceivable at the time, but just two months after that day, in a breathtaking grab for control of the organisation, David Hill took over from Geoffrey Whitehead as managing director.

Geoffrey had never been comfortable running the ABC, which played its politics capital B Brutal. And although a formidably credentialled journalist, he was not a strong performer “on the other side of the mike,” as we said.

He was also prone to inadvertent public comment – complaining, blurting, rattled by tough questions.

Furthermore, the Briton turned New Zealander would say openly he didn’t much like Australia. And, like all high profile figures, he got quoted even when speaking in private.

Radio Days - Whitehead farewells ABC
Geoffrey Whitehead farewells the ABC in October 1986. "I asked [Jackson] what he wanted for a final picture. 'Something cheerful,' he replied" [Inside the ABC by Geoffrey Whitehead, Penguin Books, 1988]

At the time of his departure in October 1986, Geoffrey had been a lame duck chief executive for several months.

Undermined at every turn, he seemed relieved when – at the urging of David Hill – he resigned after the tabling in parliament of a highly critical Auditor-General’s report on the ABC’s finances.

Not his fault, but the buck stopped with him.

On Geoffrey’s last official day at the ABC – a Friday – we held the weekly executive meeting as usual. It happened it was also his birthday and a large cake appeared from somewhere.

A plump ABC tea lady burst into the room, her buttercup yellow uniform straining at every seam, apologising for her tardiness and holding aloft a large knife.

The symbolism was profound and the directors fell silent. “It’s a big knife,” said Geoffrey, looking around the room. “And only slightly used.”

It was a darkly humorous but also a prescient remark. Four of the senior executives would soon be on the move to new pastures.

But back to that August 1986 budget and the government’s decision to merge the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service.

Geoffrey’s concern about the decision had been well-placed. He knew his stocks were low in Canberra and that he might easily be a casualty of a merger.

When I returned to his office after my brief escapade with David Hill and the ladies orchestra committee, Geoffrey was alone and still concerned. We discussed how he might address the merger issue with the senior executives.

I cautioned against expressing negative sentiments, many of the directors were touchy at David Hill’s appointment as chairman. When we met them, Geoffrey avoided using the words “dismantle the ABC” but his demeanour conveyed an impression of impending doom.

Some directors took fright and, against my protests, there was concurrence that I draft a press release defending the independence of the ABC.

I knew this would have a broadly disruptive effect. It would antagonise Hill, irritate the minister and in all likelihood initiate union trouble-making which I felt our insecure organisation didn’t need right now.

We were saved by that night’s federal budget and the hastily scribbled release tucked into my coat pocket never saw the light of day.

The budget duly announced the ABC-SBS merger, with the government knocking a million dollars off each organisation as if to prove the amalgamation would save money.

First thing the next day Geoffrey called a few of us into his office to discuss the ABC’s strategy for the merger. He’d had a long early morning talk with Michael Duffy and now felt reassured there was no hidden agenda to dismantle the ABC.

Late afternoon, Geoffrey’s personal assistant called me and said an SBS journalist had been in touch asking if it was true Geoffrey had resigned. Geoffrey wouldn’t talk to him.

I called the journo and said, “Bullshit – it’s the quarterly resignation story you guys keep running. Stop wasting our time.”

But it did have a cause. Geoffrey’s occasional response to bad news was usually to tell anyone who’d listen he wouldn’t stick around. It was a bad habit. It exacerbated his frequent expressions of how he didn’t like Australia.

Radio Days - Geoffrey Whitehead and Richard Thomas
Geoffrey Whitehead and Richard Thomas - the stressed expressions were typical of how we all seemed to look in the ABC in those years

Meanwhile, there was strong lobbying from the senior staff of the television division to stop their director Richard Thomas resuming work after a heart attack.

Richard, architect of an ill-fated attempt to change the structure of ABC TV News through the reviled news and current affairs program, The National, was a man of strong opinion and weak performance, his self-professed reliance on ‘gut’ in decision-making apparently making further consultation unnecessary.

Richard was feeling fit after heart surgery and wanted his job back. He was the only one who saw things that way.

David, Geoffrey and I kicked around the notion of his return, and agreed it was a bad idea.

So it was decided to courier Richard a box containing the following week’s voluminous ABC board papers together with a letter summarising the handsome bounty that would be his if he agreed to step down.

And see the light he did, a letter of resignation was soon forthcoming.

Friday’s executive meeting debated how we should approach the ABC-SBS merger. The veteran journalist Max Walsh, at the time a consultant to the ABC, proposed we go for broke – full absorption of the SBS – and be up front about it.

I argued against. Max and I also used to argue at tennis.

There was likely to be structural integration, I said, but we didn’t want the ABC trying to preempt decisions that were to be taken jointly with SBS and the government.

Any aggressive bid by us would cause a public outcry. The ethnic communities would lead the charge against us and the politicians would not be far behind.

I felt we should offer a form of integration which left SBS as an autonomous division, keeping it pretty much intact.

Radio Days - pilger letter
Looking back I'm amazed at how many letters I wrote to the press during my time at the ABC. Some of them pretty ferocious

David later phoned me. He was largely satisfied with the proposed approach but dismayed by a piece in that morning’s Financial Review in which Geoffrey had alluded to a journalist that he may quit the MD’s job.

David was unhappy. How could I have allowed the interview, he bellowed.

I said the intent, which had gone wrong, was to allow Geoffrey to discuss some of the recent achievements of the ABC. Instead he’d gone on a whinge bender.

The next Sunday afternoon, I set off for Ashfield Town Hall and the annual general meeting of the Ethnic Communities Council.

Angered by the ABC-SBS merger announcement, the council had rescinded its invitation to David.

David, an enthusiastic footballer who played in an ethnic team and had a wide circle of ethnic friends, was irritated, saying, “I’ve kicked a soccer ball around with half that mob.”

The meeting drew a crowd of 600 or so and a bevy of prominent politicians. With the exception of a discomfited Leo McLeay, representing Bob Hawke, all of them– Liberal and Labor - got stuck into the Hawke government about its plan.

That afternoon the merger began to recede into history.

The following week, David chaired his first ABC Board meeting, at which our budget was to be decided.

In a large canteen outside the meeting room, nervous executives sat anxiously eyeing the door each time one of their colleagues returned. It was like watching Christians at the Coliseum.

The meeting verbally maltreated a few directors but approved the budget. At 4pm it was my turn to discuss media tactics and the press statement.

I was anxious that we not repeat the process adopted under former chairman Ken Myer where the whole board attempted to collectively write press releases. I didn’t believe David would allow this. He did.

So I sat beside him while board members and a few of our executives rewrote their favourite bits of the draft release. I was kept busy scribbling amendments.

When deputy chair Wendy McCarthy asked if I had the ‘mistress’ (feminist for ‘master’) copy, I responded, “Yes, but it’s looking more like an old whore now”.

And so it was that the ABC’s budget press statement grew from one lucid page to an almost incoherent bunch of dislocated paragraphs which managed to stretch to four.

Although the board meeting hadn’t finished, David and Geoffrey left to brief the unions who had been waiting and complaining a couple of floors down to keep them away from the media.

Radio Days - David Hill in auto
"Jump in the car mate!" When David Hill was around, each hour was another adventure

We were ditching 350 employees so it was not to be an easy encounter.

Media officer Jack Bennett had told the journalists three times that David was delayed and strongly persuaded me that I should tell them the fourth time. They groaned in exasperation.

Forty journalists with attendant photographers and TV cameras – a good roll up.

David hadn’t believed me when I told him there’d be a sell-out crowd for the ABC budget. It had never happened in his main job, running the railways.

David left the union briefing at 5.15 looking pale.

“It was rough mate,” he said, heading for the toilet and signalling me to follow him.

“Gotta comb? I’ve gotta fluff up my hair”. I borrowed a comb from the director of marketing who had a good head of hair.

“Mate, I’m fucked,” David said. “Do we have to front the press?”

I laughed incredulously and said there were 40 of them and they’d been waiting two hours. “Give me five minutes,” he said. “I’m fucked.”

I sent Jack Bennett in with the press statement and a number of background papers. At least that would be taken as a sign of progress.

“You lead me, you go first,” Hill instructed. We strode down the corridor into the press conference.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the chairman of the ABC.” And David was seated and saying: “Any questions?” He had knocked back my suggestion to make a few opening remarks, an introductory ‘settler’.

But in this case it didn’t really matter. Inevitably tomorrow’s headlines would be, ‘ABC CRISIS: 350 STAFF AXED’, no matter what kind of spin we tried.

On cue the next day, the press was terrible. David rang me at seven and complained. “Well, it was all cut, slash, chop,” I said. “What did you expect?”

“I fucked up the conference,” David said. I replied that there was no good way to lose 350 people. Only in the private sector did you get rose petals gently tossed at you for getting rid of that many jobs.

He then revealed he’d drafted a new release “to get the debate going our way”. When it arrived, it radiated a phony positivism and concluded with an inexplicable paragraph urging staff to “report waste” to the chairman.

I let it loose on the world, hoping the media would ignore it, which they did. But the unions were beside themselves with rage that the chairman had suggested there was “waste” in the ABC.

Radio Days - Tony Ferguson covered the 1968 Tet Offensive in Saigon for the ABC at grave personal risk
Tony Ferguson covered the Vietnam war for the ABC at grave personal risk.  We worked together in David Hill's administration, argued a lot and became firm friends. When Tony was dying of cancer, David took him into his own home and cared for him

Soon after, Geoffrey called a bunch of directors into his office to tell us that David wanted an “executive assistant”, veteran journalist and former Labor political adviser, Tony Ferguson, who had a reputation as a head kicker.

There was a horrified silence and a few glances at me as if my colleagues had heard the creak of a tumbrel rolling along Elizabeth Street with my name on it.

Geoffrey then told us he was flying to Alice Springs on a week’s leave.

I suspected we were witnessing the beginning of a transition. David’s ambitions for the ABC had not been assuaged with his appointment as chairman.

He wanted the top job and was bringing in his own hit man to help.

Geoffrey was fleeing the scene. Executives were in disarray. Unions were riled. The government was hell bent on merging the ABC and SBS.

Less than two months later Geoffrey Whitehead had gone, and David Hill was manoeuvering to become CEO without the need to bother competitive process.

But that’s another story.

Footnote: As an election loomed in 1987, Bob Hawke abandoned his decision to amalgamate the ABC and SBS


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Lindsay F Bond

Gotta thank Martin for his "exuberance of Sydney", for Oz local lingo is loathe to be told turgid.

Martin Hadlow

I worked at Radio New Zealand when Geoffrey arrived from his role with the BBC in the UK to take up the job of managing all RNZ non-commercial news and programming operations.

At the time, the former New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) had been disbanded and replaced by three new entities, two TV and one radio. Thus, RNZ was a brand-new organisation in which Geoffrey and his team (especially the outstanding Beverley Wakem) could effect change.

I must say that he was a good operator in the local context and carried the staff with him. New Zealand was also a far more genteel place than the exuberance of Sydney, especially for someone who had not previously lived at this end of the world and was not attuned to the 'rough and tumble' of Australian politics..

His plan to introduce three current affairs programmes a day 'Morning Report', 'Midday Report' and 'Evening Report', while being unimaginative titles, revolutionised public broadcasting in NZ.

I was a producer on the first teams on 'Morning Report' and one of my most memorable duties was to once phone the then PM, 'Piggy' Muldoon, at 6am to set up an on-air interview for our 8am programme. The guy went ballistic at me as media people were not expected to ever call a Minister, let alone a PM, in the morning and before breakfast. New Zealand was like that.

Until the hard-hitting, all-talk 'Morning Report' took to the airwaves, the NZBC National Programme breakfast session comprised soothing music by Mantovani and his Orchestra, selections from 'The Sound of Music' and a daily 'Bird Call', which featured the chirping of a different native bird each day. As I was once told by a senior manager "New Zealand likes to wake up gently".

Nowadays, 'Morning report' is 'must listen' radio and hugely popular. Thanks for that innovation, Geoffrey.

Later, I was a senior producer at 3LO in Melbourne when Geoffrey was running the ABC. I think the management team in Sydney really lost the game when we heard commentary from that neck of the woods that he "had to get off the island", which was tongue-in-cheek shorthand for going back to NZ for a short break. Staff loyalty took a nose-drive.

Come what may, Geoffrey was a very decent type of fellow who believed that he really could make change within a large bureaucracy. The milieu of the ABC was, however, too much even for his managerial capabilities.

When last I heard, Geoffrey had returned to New Zealand and was living in retirement in Havelock in Marlborough after a later career with the NZ Heritage Council.

Lindsay F Bond

Australia's population is nudging twenty-five and a half million, of whom (to many) is an expectation of what is loosely termed 'mateship'.

The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1987, has that word buried as a minor item which rounds out at "mutually supportive code among men." Thus elsewhere, ‘mateship’ is less a cognition.

This limited application is suggested, as the math of mate is less than half the population and then of which men are only three quarters, so at a stretch, the ‘code’ might encompass less than ten million practitioners.


Mostly too, the ‘code’ is spoken of among folk transported into the broad land of Australia.

The net aspect is that shipping men to Australia might have yielded ‘mates’.

Then came Hill, who embraced circumstance and accomplished and wrote about it, almost as a mate. Hill had realised many folk (of his roughed early awareness) “didn't have anybody to write to”.


Chris Overland

I remember David Hill as a charismatic figure in the ABC but knew nothing of the situation described in Keith's memoir.

Hill obviously came as a shock to the ABC, both as a personality and because he was not a prisoner of the cultural norms and group think that inevitably prevail in a large bureaucratic organisation.

I survived many changes of minister and CEO and even more re-organisations during my 38 years working in public sector organisations.

In some instances these events worked in my favour and in others they did not.

At least once I was sent the "Sin Bin", otherwise called the "Lego Room" or "Departure Lounge", where senior executives deemed surplus to requirements were expected either to quietly expire or find alternative employment.

But, like Deng Xiaoping, twice a victim of Communist Party purges, I was resurrected when it became apparent that my supposed wrong thinking was, embarrassingly for the regime, proved right after all.

So, after 10 months exile and without any explanation, comment or apology I was appointed to a new and higher position in the hierarchy.

I put my survival down to a combination of luck and a stubborn refusal to compromise my principles and a related insistence on doing what I deemed right even in the face of sometimes severe criticism.

Sometimes, even your worst enemies can recognise honesty and personal integrity when they see it.

That said, as Keith's memoir attests, speaking your truth and fearing not often is a difficult path to follow in life, especially when engaged in the competition for status, power and influence.

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