SYDNEY 1987 – Australia’s centre of government and ‘bush capital’, Canberra, looms large in the life of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, both because 90% of the its money comes from there and because the government of the day appoints the ABC chairman and board.
Furthermore, federal politicians tend to have a proprietary view of the ABC. And, to give this an edge, right wing politicians have a belief, neatly expressed by my onetime business associate and Liberal Party heavyweight Grahame Morris, that the ABC is a manifestation of “my enemy talking to my friends”.
David Hill made the transition from ABC chairman to managing director in October 1986 and by early in 1987 his honeymoon with the Board he had previously chaired was well and truly over.
Much to the surprise of most of my executive colleagues, I had survived the leadership change. Many of my colleagues hadn’t.
David had brought with him from State Rail his own minder, veteran journalist and Labor Party apparatchik, Tony Ferguson, who had been known to refer to me in the role of head of corporate relations as “a pissant”.
But David saw the value of keeping Tony as his personal guardian and me as a kind of corporate watchdog and the three of us developed a robust but close relationship.
The one fiery quarrel David and I had, the only one in two years of working together, Tony hosed down.
It occurred on the telephone one Sunday night and concerned whether we should issue a press release castigating John Pilger, who had written a newspaper piece criticising David.
My view was that public comment would lead to a distracting and demeaning verbal war that the media would lap up and not do us any good. David’s view was that I should write it and disseminate it this very night as he had told me.
“It’s too late to catch tomorrow’s papers, there’s no point,” I said sidestepping.
“Mate, you don’t seem to get the idea. I’m directing you to do it….”
“I do get it. It’s a stupid idea. Do it yourself,” I retorted.
David exploded. “Well if that’s your attitude you needn’t bother coming in tomorrow.”
To which I replied, “That’s fine, I don’t know why I bother working for you anyway.” And slammed down the phone.
Ingrid rushed from the lounge room asking, “Keith what have you done?”
“He’ll get over it,” I said, without a lot of confidence.
Then the phone rang again. It was Tony Ferguson saying, “Would you two boofheads mind calming down”.
And that was the end of the matter, and the end of our quarrelling days. Not the end of our disagreements, but they were always more or less respectful.
One afternoon he called me testily with a “get up here mate”.
The mate got up there at speed to be met with a baleful stare. “Why is Bob going to Canberra?”
Now Bob was the ABC chairman Bob Somervaille and Canberra is where the prime minister works. I told David that this was part of our long-standing program to maintain our by now good relationship with the national parliament.
“But you’ve got him meeting the press,” David said in an accusatory tone. Yes, I explained, we’re having dinner at The Lobby with three of our own gallery reporters, Paul Lyneham, Kerry O’Brien and Pru Goward.
David stared at me as though I’d plunged a dagger into him. “You’re joking! Lyneham’ll whinge all night. Goward’ll white-ant me. And as for O’Brien…. Then Bob’ll come back to Sydney, retail all the tittle-tattle to the rest of the Board and make my life a bloody misery.”
He got over this small displeasure, and Bob and I made it to Canberra to find Bob Hawke in fine fettle. We knew he was pleased to see us because he was grimacing and seemed to be venting steam.
Although, he and Bob were well known to each other and got on well, there was no cosy sitting on sofas and no offer of cups of tea, we were sat at a large clean desk with the prime minister aggressively eye-browing us from the other side.
Referring to “that nest of vipers”, he expressed repugnance that “the bloody ABC should use public funds to undermine the fabric of society!”
Bob Somervaille and I glanced at each other. Four Corners, our revered current affairs program. The prime minister’s pet obsession.
Hawke continued: “It’s a small group using the ABC for its own purposes. I’m appalled that a publicly funded organisation is being used to pursue personal predilections, biases and vendettas.”
It was vintage Hawke. And tellingly it came a week before a revealing Four Corners program on the government’s business mates, including his close friend Sir Peter Abeles.
Bob Somervaille remain placid, he was always placid, and waited for the tirade to burn itself out.
“Thanks for expressing your views, Bob,” he said, deliberately using his first name. “But I know you’d be the last person who’d want me to interfere in the ABC on political grounds.” It was a note perfect response.
Two years before, I had been on one of my regular visits to Canberra when communications minister Michael Duffy asked about a series of meetings we were planning between then ABC chairman Ken Myer and the prime minister and other members of cabinet.
I said we’d just about lined up all of them and Duffy gave me a long, cool look and said with equanimity, “Most of the ministers think he’s half mad, y’know”. And he added, “Just stop him rabbiting on about technology. The only one interested in technology is Barry Jones.”
In his apartment at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney, Ken was enthusiastic about his trip to Canberra. He should have been. In two days he was to meet with Hawke, Keating, Dawkins, Kerin, Button, Willis, Walsh and seven other ministers.
“I’ve already got my agenda worked out,” he told me. “The future of technology for starters.” I said he’d have to be careful with this, the ministers would want to hear his views on matters relevant to their portfolios. “But Barry Jones will be a demon for technology,” I added.
At the end of our discussion, our planning for Canberra wrapped, “Ken looked at me carefully and remarked, “You’re taking a big risk letting me loose in Canberra.”
We flew to Canberra together, Ken deliberately boarding last as he liked to do and ostentatiously greeting the first class passengers on his way to economy. He was wealthy enough to have chartered the aircraft for himself if he wished but, as he saw it, liked to set a good example of financial prudence.
I’d tried to arrange the ministerial meetings so the less critical ones for the ABC took place early in the agenda. I wanted Ken to warm into his work and also give myself time to iron out any presentation problems.
The first meeting was with primary industry minister John Kerin, the ‘Bob Hawke of the Bush’ they call him. Ken talked with him about the equalisation of broadcasting services, to provide rural television viewers with the same choices as urban viewers. Not a bad start but he hadn’t asked Kerin what his concerns were.
Next came sport and tourism minister John Brown. Ken talked about future technology. Then Clyde Holding, Aboriginal affairs. Ken talked about technology transfer. I decided Ken and I had to talk for a few minutes.
I escorted him to one of the small parliamentary gardens and we sat on a bench and I reminded him that the plan was that he should first determine the ministers’ concerns before launching his own agenda.
Ken was annoyed. “You shouldn’t have taken the risk with me. I can’t change my style. Intervene when I go off the rails.” I told him I couldn’t do that in these meetings. He retorted, “You’re never slow to do it at Board meetings.”
The rest of the day went smoothly and by its end we were able to agree that things were going well.
First up next morning was employment minister Ralph Willis, from Melbourne, charming and a lover of the arts – three big pluses as far as Ken was concerned and they got on famously.
Then came trade minister John Dawkins, who began by announcing with his characteristic aggression that he was in favour of advertising on the ABC. Ken rose like a trout to the fly and the half-hour verbal scrap that followed was entertaining to watch but did nothing for the ABC.
After this meeting, Ken was fully fired up – and the realisation was creeping up on me that he was out of control. The plan was in tatters and the next meeting was with Hawke.
As we entered his spacious office, the prime minister motioned us to sit on a sofa at a huge coffee table. But Ken instead reached into his bag and extracted a portable compact disc player, stuck two plugs in Hawke’s ears and exclaimed, “Bach!”
I was horrified, we hadn’t talked about this, but Hawke, although surprised, took it in good part. What had Duffy told me about Ken? “They think he’s half mad.”
Hawke eventually restored order and asked Ken how he was going at the ABC. Ken responded that the government’s financial policies were slowly strangling the organisation.
Hawke asked what options there were; did the chairman have any suggestions. Well yes, said Ken, you can sell the ABC!
I fought hard to retain my composure. What! Sell the ABC! The Board hasn’t discussed this! Hawke was equally taken aback but managed to stammer out how this might be done.
Ken then moved into second phase play, talking about joint ventures, public floats, a diverse public share register and such things and I thought, ‘I don’t believe this is happening’.
Hawke at last interrupted, and said no, no, Ken, the ABC can’t be sold. It was an important cultural institution. It had to remain so. The government had to find some other way of providing the funds it required.
Ken smiled, and I looked on admiringly. He had made his point riskily but had managed to focus the discussion on the value of the national broadcaster, with Hawke arguing the case. (We did pretty well in our budget in succeeding years.)
That afternoon, all our meetings over, we bumped into communications minister Michael Duffy in one of the lobbies.
He greeted us warmly, mentioning he’d already been briefed by Hawke about our meeting, saying drily, “By the way, Ken, next time you want to sell the bloody ABC, would you mind telling me first.”