I wrote this last year and, feeling it both unfinished and too personal, decided not to publish. It’s still unfinished … but life is too short, and long ago I learned not to waste content
NOOSA – The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, desperate for respect, in 2022 marked its 90th year of broadcasting.
There is nothing really special about 90 except it’s a big number. For we humans, as distinct from many of the organisations we temporarily occupy, 90 is the start of really old age but no telegram from the King. The ABC, however, after being pummelled by conservative governments for a decade, needed a celebration. It needed some better news, even if it had to provide its own.
I was born in the early days of 1945, the year the ABC turned 13. Busy throwing dummies from my cot in Macclesfield, I didn’t grasp there was a war on. During that war, the federal government, Labor of course, gave the ABC legislation that reinforced its independence from government. Thereafter, its news-gathering was strengthened and gained a deserved reputation for independence.
In 1945, the Country Hour was first broadcast, providing weather, stock (not stock exchange) reports and other rustic gems to an eager audience in the cities as well as the bush. My parents along with my sister and me migrated to Australia in 1949 – the year that a long-running serial, The Lawsons (that had been launched in World War II as soft propaganda), became one of the great ABC programs, Blue Hills.
The following year, 1950, when the ABC was 18 and I was five, was the first time I recall listening to the ABC at our temporary home in the old schoolmaster’s house at Beaumont in the Kangaroo Valley. The program that caught my attention and quickly won my loyalty was the Children’s Session, broadcast six days a week at five o’clock, which introduced me to Mac (Atholl Fleming), Jimmy (John Ewart), Jane (Alice Burgess), Mr Melody Man (Lindley Evans) and others. Read about them here The Children’s Session featured the Argonauts club (‘come Argonauts, row, row, row!’). I still had my northern English voice and for some reason, probably the natural shyness for which I’m known, thought I was not eligible to join.
I grew up and my first job was teaching white and mixed race kids at a small government station in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. To fill in time, I teamed up with a bloke who became one of my best mates, the late Murray Bladwell to start a fortnightly newsletter, Kundiawa News, that started on the back of a Patrol report form, quickly grew to 24 pages and ended up in the National Library of Australia.
When it was 32 and I 19, I wrote to the ABC in Port Moresby and said there’s a lot happening in the Highlands, why don’t you appoint me as your freelance correspondent. It gave me a credentials letter that allowed me to send telegrams at its expense and paid me 7/6 if my story was used in the Territory news and another 7/6 if it made the Australian national news. I was in a paroxysm of delight. Both credentialled as a reporter and 15 bob bought a carton of beer flown in from Burns Philp in Goroka. I learned to smoke a Meerschaum pipe because I was told it was the best. I also tried to grow a moustache but it didn’t want to happen, so I waited five years until it was ready.
I wrote my first radio scripts for the ABC when it was 34, and I 21. The ABC sent me a ‘typical script’ as a guide and commissioned a 15 minute program on growing cocoa, which I knew nothing about, so I wrote a light drama using growing coffee (which was beginning to flourish as a cash crop in the Highlands) as a model. It was accepted and I was paid $15 (we now had decimal currency) - a munificent sum for a teacher earning $35 a week. I was told it would be rebroadcast the following year and I would receive a final $15 and the ABC would own it.
Joy! Especially as I was now in the bush teaching tribal kids and no longer an ABC correspondent because the school had no radio contact with the outside world. Communication was via a lucky schoolboy would be deployed as a runner to go to Kerowagi, five kilometres away, to get the mail.
Around August 1966 a LandRover made its way halfway up the school’s thick clay access road before deciding to go no further. A lanky Finn resplendent in crisp whites stepped out gingerly and introduced himself as Frank Hiob, editor of school publications in the Education Department in Port Moresby.
He explained that Ken McKinnon, who I knew was director of education, had determined I should take Hiob’s place as editor in just two months’ time. The Kundiawa News, at one time the bete noir of the district officer and the district education inspector, had delivered a splendid reward. The Kundiawa News it seems was also well known at Konedobu headquarters.
So I packed my few possessions (mainly clothes and books) into a port, flew to Moresby via Goroka, Lae, Wau and Bulolo and took over the writing, editing, printing and distribution of PNG’s School Paper and other publications. An unexpected duty was to establish a new magazine known as My School Broadcasts Paper.
I was assigned a cell with louvres at Ranaguri Hostel, which on the upside provided three solid meals a day, communal ablutions and a laundry service. Here I ran into ‘Flea’ Elliot, who’d been the year ahead of me at Nowra High School, and was invited to join his table for meals. So began my new life.
The ABC’s educational producers, Brian Halesworth and Lester Goodman, continued to commission scripts and in early 1967 invited me to become a freelance actor ($7.50 a gig) and, a couple of months later, a freelance producer ($15 a production) for John Warnock’s weekly current affairs program. The ABC was 35, and I was 22.
And the ABC was still 35, and I 22, when it employed me as a full time producer, and when I married and we had a child.
Three years later, the ABC was 38 and I was 25 when, frustrated by its oppressive bureaucracy (the young are so ungrateful), and also precociously seeking a career in management, I left the ABC to become assistant manager of Radio Rabaul and, later in 1970, manager of Radio Bougainville, both owned by the PNG colonial Administration.
The ABC was 41 and I was 28 when imminent independence brought the ABC in PNG together with the government service to create a new NBC. The struggles between white broadcasters that followed would take too long to relate here, but basically the ex ABC folks mostly departed, which suited me just fine.
Some years went by without any intimate contact between the ABC and me, except for a fleeting moment when it was 43 and I was 30. I had been despatched to Singapore to present a paper to a conference on ‘The Broadcasters’ Role In Limiting Population Growth’. It was a humdrum talkfest going nowhere but it allowed me to spend three fascinating days workshopping, talking and drinking his homemade cumquat liqueur late into the night with Sir Charles Moses, who as Colonel Moses had led the ABC in wartime, successfully striven for the independence of its news and perfected the model of what the ABC still very much is today.
Many years pass. The ABC was 53 and I was about ready to turn 40 when it employed me again - as controller (a title I disliked and later changed to general manager) of corporate relations. After three turbulent but productive years - when the ABC was 56 and I was 43 - I left it and radio for the last time and sailed into public relations. It was 1988, and the ABC and I were both in middle age and I'd had enough of it and it had enough of me.
Again many years pass. The ABC was 75 and I was 62 when it engaged me, through my company, Jackson Wells Morris, to advise on the management of a number of intractable issues related to a forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. From the distance of 2022 I don’t know whether I helped or not. Forget your failures.
And that was it, except – I am proud to add – that my Rabaul-born journalist daughter, after many years on The Australian, was recruited by the ABC in a role not dissimilar to mine 30-odd years previously.
So now here we are in 2022 and the ABC is 90 and old and ill, and I am 77 and likewise. If I was a betting man, I’d wager I won’t be around for the ABC’s 100th birthday. And, unless it smartens up, nor will the ABC.