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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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